One of the classic images of Dr. Martens boots in action is a late 1960s Pete Townshend, guitar player for The Who, executing one of his signature onstage leaps: starkly clad in a white boilersuit and cherry-red DMs, pounding out loud British rock. News that the iconic brand, so closely associated with Great Britain, has been sold to the vaguely named, pan-European private equity firm Permira Funds provides an image that could hardly be more contrasting.
Yesterday, Permira announced (PDF) it had acquired R Griggs Group Limited for $486 million (£300 million). R Griggs Group is Dr. Martens' parent company, and is named for the Griggs family, which has owned the brand since 1959. The buyout gives Permira a 91.5 percent stake in the business. The remaining 8.5 percent will be held onto by management.
The Griggs family bought the rights to the Dr. Martens name from Klaus Märtens and Herbert Funck, two World War II German army doctors who designed the classic boot. As part of that deal, the Griggs family agreed to pay the heirs of Märtens and Funck a license fee to use the Dr. Martens name. This new deal gives full licensing rights in perpetuity to Permira.
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While most widely associated with punks, skinheads and the fashionably minded, Doc Martens gained initial popularity with post-war German housewives, who loved the boot's innovative "air-cushion sole." In Britain, DMs were at first marketed to factory employees and other blue-collar workers who, like housewives, spent a lot of time on their feet.
Märtens and Funck probably never dreamed their über-practical boots would become fashion statements, but that's exactly what happened, and Dr. Martens thrived under the Griggs family ownership through the 1990s. By 2003, however, fashion went fickle on Docs and sales declined to the point where production of the entire DM line was moved from its original home in Northamptonshire, England to China and Thailand.
For Doc Marten fans, the good news is that sales and profits were up considerably in 2011, and with any luck Permira will do right by the brand and its loyal customers. In handing over the DM torch to Permira, Dr. Martens CEO David Suddens expressed a similar hope: “The brand’s authenticity and the millions of customers who have used Docs as a symbol of self-expression for over half a century are what makes Dr. Martens unique. The Permira Funds respect that heritage, and want to support the management team in nurturing it.”
If Permira's fund managers are more clever at their jobs than the firm's insipid name suggests, they will respect the Doc Marten heritage, because no one there wants to have to answer to an army of DM-booted hooligans, unhappy at the direction new ownership has taken their favorite footwear company.