By Howard Rich
"The good Lord looks after the souls of people, and I look after their uppers!" If there were an award for the best business slogan, Peter Cooke's shoeshine business, the Prince Consorts Shoe Shine Service in the QVB*, would be a shoe-in to take the prize. But with a business degree specialising in marketing, one might think shoe shining to be a strange career choice for the 51 year old, bow tie-adorned Englishman, who moved to Sydney in 1985 and now resides in the well-heeled suburb of Artarmon.
"I'd worked in the UK, Belgium and Ireland for a pharmaceutical company, then came to Sydney and tried the food industry. I quit work in 1988 and travelled the world for a year," Peter explains. "On returning to Sydney without any money, I looked around and realised that one of the few businesses that didn't require capital was cleaning shoes."
Setting up business in 1990, Peter soon felt like quitting. "Business was dreadful. People were embarrassed to have their shoes cleaned in those days." He then had a brainwave – visiting people in their offices. "The level of embarrassment wasn't so high and that move helped sustain the business. Today we visit over 100 offices each week on a pre-arranged basis."
Peter has three people working for him full-time and has expanded the business to attend product launches, trade fairs and shopping centres, operating on a 'freebie' basis to the public as his fees are paid for by the commercial concern. Other venues include the Qantas Lounge at Sydney Airport and the SCG for the recent Australia-India cricket Test match.
In 1996, Peter hired a British backpacker, Danielle, to work for him. That union then expanded to a personal relationship and eventually marriage. They are now the proud parents of a son, Alex.
Peter and his team have met some famous people over the years, comedians Billy Connolly and Mikey Robbins to name two. "And whilst I didn't actually meet him, the manager for the singer Gene Pitney sent over his shoes to be cleaned." Politicians and prominent business figures are also regulars. Peter offers four types of shine – Standard, Deluxe, Super Deluxe and Executive – ranging in price from $4.50 to $12.50. A shine can take between 4 and 10 minutes.
"Being able to work my own hours and meet interesting people is what it is all about. Seeing customers with a smile on their face, knowing they have left in a good frame of mind for the rest of the day, is a great feeling for me," says Peter. "Customers feel more confident in themselves after a good shoeshine, in much the same way as they would after a haircut. Presentation is everything to many people and shiny shoes are just a part of that."
* NOTE: Since this article, the prices have changed, Peter has moved from the QVB to The Strand, and he now has TWO sons!