Yorkshire business supports thousands of Ukrainian soldiers by providing British made boots

Image of a pair of Altberg boots (left), made by Altberg who are based in Richmond, UK. Altberg was founded in 1989, making hiking boots in their factory in Richmond, North Yorkshire. Photographer: Petty Officer Dave Jenkins - UK MOD © Crown copyright 2022

Thousands of Ukrainian recruits are being aided in their fight against Russian aggression by a small business in North Yorkshire.

Boots made by Richmond-based Altberg form part of a collection of cold weather kit, including waterproofs, sleeping bags and roll mats, which the UK has provided to more than 9,500 Ukrainian recruits who have been trained by UK forces alongside eight partner nations since June.

The combat Defender boots are particularly durable in cold conditions – making them suitable for chilly Ukrainian winters when temperatures can plummet.

Image of Ukrainian personnel, seen here trying on various boots at a training facility within the UK. Photographer: Petty Officer Dave Jenkins – UK MOD © Crown copyright 2022

Altberg is one of many smaller UK companies who supply vital equipment to both UK Armed Forces and Ukrainian allies, and whose work is today being recognised across the country on Small Business Saturday.

Minister for Defence Procurement Alex Chalk said:

“Small Business Saturday is a fantastic opportunity for defence to champion those smaller UK companies who are such a crucial cog in our defence supply chain, and who help ensure our Armed Forces have the best possible equipment to defend our nation.
“I am proud that the UK is the second largest donor of military equipment to Ukraine, and my thanks go to the small businesses who have been pulling together to help get vital supplies and equipment into the hands of our Ukrainian friends to support them in their fight against Russian aggression.”

Altberg, which was started in 1989 by bootmaker Mike Sheehan, grew its business by selling hiking boots to soldiers based at nearby Army base Catterick Garrison. The company used valuable insight provided by soldiers who had been deployed in extreme conditions to develop durable boots for the UK military.

Altberg Managing Director Joe Sheehan, said:

“I have grown up with footwear and Altberg being part of my life – in the factory shop on Saturdays as a teenager fitting boot for soldiers – to being involved in the production on the first Defender boot.  I have always taken pride in supplying boots to the MOD and wider public services, particularly more specialist boots which have been used in all sorts of extreme and remote environments.
“I hope that the use of our boots will help Ukraine in any small way possible, to keep the feet of Ukrainian soldiers healthy and comfortable, so they can continue to fight the good cause. “

Joe’s father, Altberg owner and founder Mike Sheehan said:

“Ukraine’s situation is much worse than anything I could even imagine, but they have resilience – and right now their soldiers are showing this every day when they stand against the Russians. They have my heartfelt support. All of us at Altberg are immensely proud to be able to make boots for them.”

Q&A with Altberg owner & founder Mike Sheehan

How did you start Altberg boots?

I was 42-years-old and my son Joe was two when the old boot and shoe factory in Richmond was forced to close down in 1989 and 320 of us (all local people), lost our jobs. I thought it was the ‘end of the world’ – but it wasn’t and I started Altberg (using redundancy money) making hiking boots. I don’t really know how we did it, most of the time we just concentrated on trying to make really good boots, and we listened to customers when they told us about the conditions they’d experienced, and the type of boots they thought would be better.

A member of staff holds a boot in place while using one of many machines in the Altberg factory, North Yorkshire. Photographer: Corporal Rebecca Brown, RLC – UK MOD © Crown copyright 2022

How did Altberg’s connection with the UK Armed Forces start?

Richmond is very close to Catterick Garrison, and in the factory we had a small shop where we sold the boots we made. When soldiers came to the shop, they would ask me if it would be possible to make a hiking boot with a high leg. I agreed to make them a high leg black boot, based on a hiking boot, lightweight, breathable with good waterproofing. At Altberg I’ve never, (and still don’t), employ a salesperson, and at that time we didn’t advertise (we couldn’t afford to), but word-of-mouth amongst the soldiers soon meant that we had more orders than we could manage. So I started to grow the business – selling directly to the soldiers.

How did you grow the company further?

I didn’t want to change how we worked in Richmond, so I decided to look outside of the factory to increase capacity. With the Defender boot – at the outset – all were made in our factory in Richmond, but when the order quantities increased significantly, we had to look outside of our Richmond factory in order to retain our ‘in-house’ ability to continue offering our specialist boot making service and maintain ‘hands on’ boot design and development. Currently, we still make the specialist requirements for Defender boots in our Richmond factory, but the higher volumes necessary to supply the UK MOD contract are made elsewhere.

What makes Altberg unique?

We are a complete boot making factory with everything ‘in house’. We can make boots from an idea or sketch, right through to the finished boot. This is very unusual nowadays where most factories contract out much of the process to other specialist designers or sewing or cutting units. I didn’t want to change my factory to a high-capacity production line. I believed what we had in Richmond was special – we could make small quantities of specialist boots and develop new styles and boot-making methods. Most people who worked with me joined when they left school and, in many ways, we’d all grown up together. I am now 75-years-old. I still feel exactly the same about my factory in Richmond and the people I work with.

Can you talk about the boots which are being supplied to Ukrainian soldiers?

It’s a good boot for them, because the Ukrainian winters are very cold and the summers can be very hot and the strength of the defender boot is that it remains functional across a wide range of conditions with very strong and protective underfoot support. It is a non-membrane boot, so it has really good breathability – it dries out quickly and it is very lightweight. We’ve been making it for over 20 years, so it’s tried & tested. If I was asked to develop a boot for Ukrainian conditions, then I think I would probably come up with a boot similar to the Defender.


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