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Perfecting and tweaking the retailer’s brand portfolio to match changing consumer tastes will be key moving forward, he added. “Whether it’s contemporary fashion brands or lifestyle, it’s about how we re-engineer Famous Footwear to be more relevant to the customer today,” Ausick said.
Shortly after establishing an international division in 1984, Brown began divesting its non-footwear businesses and closing its domestic manufacturing plants amid the shift to China-based sourcing.
New executive talent also was added over the years, helping Brown adjust to the changing retail landscape. Notably, Ron Fromm was named CEO in 1999, a position he held for 11 years.
Brown demonstrated its innovative approach to business and willingness to adapt through the acquisition of online e-commerce retailer Shoes.com in 1999.
It began snapping up women’s fashion footwear brands shortly after, commencing with the purchase of Bennett Footwear Group in 2005, which housed the Via Spiga, Franco Sarto, Etienne Aigner and Nickels Soft brands.
Jay Schmidt, division president of Brown’s contemporary fashion segment, said that reaching the 100-year mark attests to the breadth and depth of expertise at the company, especially in light of the significant changes in shoemaking over the past century.
“The milestone reminds me of the rich heritage that Brown has and points to the authenticity and expertise at the company, which are two variables that have kept it going for such a long time,” he said. “Diane — and before her Ron Fromm — cares about all parts of the Brown portfolio, and our biggest win is the evolution of the portfolio over time.”
Brown now operates across three consumer platforms — family, healthy living and contemporary fashion — and provides a family-focused footwear concept through Famous Footwear.
“The businesses fit nicely into Brown in a cohesive way,” Schmidt added.
After expanding into contemporary fashion footwear, Brown began investing in brands such as Sam Edelman and Fergie in the 2000s, cementing the company’s position as a leader in the women’s category.
Sam Edelman, designer and division president, said, “What attracted me to Brown was the stability and the integrity of what appeared to be a wonderful group of people I believed I could balance well with.”
The [Edelman] brand will continue to see major growth this year, according to Sullivan, with new stores in the works, a push into apparel and a larger e-commerce presence on the agenda.
The Next Chapter
Looking ahead, Malpiedi noted one of the biggest opportunities for Brown is the e-commerce explosion.
“What has led Brown’s most recent success is its ability to understand the fast-growing e-commerce channel, both at our retail channels such as Shoes.com and also across all our brands, and know how they work with our e-commerce partners, like Zappos.com,” he said. “Brown has done an excellent job of building infrastructure and driving considerable success in gaining market advantage in the space.”
Zappos’ VP of merchandising, Steve Hill, said, “Brown Shoe was one of our earliest partners and recognized the power of the Internet when others doubted anyone could sell shoes online. We respect, trust and value their partnership and friendship.”
Ausick agreed that capitalizing on the rapidly transforming e-commerce space will be crucial moving forward.
“The biggest question is, how do you make all the products available simultaneously the way customers want and create a memorable experience for them? Fifteen years ago, we were in the infancy stage of the dot-com and now the mix of stores is very different and we have a mobile app,” he said.
Market watchers lauded Sullivan and her management team for steering the firm through choppy market conditions while delivering an innovative product offering across a portfolio of brands.
“Management is extremely focused on driving the operating ability of the company and they have demonstrated their ability to improve performance over the past eight consecutive quarters,” said Danielle McCoy, an analyst at Brean Capital. “The future is very bright for this company, and they have done an amazing job at adapting online so they can reach their consumer in the way the consumer wants to reach them.”
Retailers and business partners agreed.
Scott Meden, EVP and GMM of Nordstrom’s shoe division, said, “We’ve also been in business more than 100 years and feel like we understand and appreciate what it takes to remain in business for that long. The folks at Brown Shoe Co. are incredible partners and they share our passion for seeing the business through the customer’s eyes.”
A strong ability to adapt is what sets Brown apart from its peers, Meden added. “They are continually evolving the individual brands and looking for new ways to serve more customers.”
Vince CEO Jill Granoff noted that Brown’s creativity, flexibility, long-term stability and successful track record drove her firm’s decision in 2011 to tap Brown as its first licensing partner for women’s shoes.
“We wanted a company that would produce our footwear collections in Italy, hire a designer who knew the contemporary landscape and invest in building the brand with our premier retail partners,” Granoff said. “Brown Shoe checked all of these boxes. Diane and her team have been terrific to work with and we are delighted with the performance of our women’s footwear business to date.”
On the future for Brown, Sullivan said, “100 years on the New York Stock Exchange is a humbling milestone. But now, more than ever before, Brown Shoe is right where it should be. Our past proves we have what it takes to succeed over the long term, and today, our company is full of a lot of good people who work hard and do it with great character.”
She added, “I have no doubt that, with the focus on our amazing brands and shoes, we have what it takes to be even more successful in the future. Together we are transforming Brown Shoe from a company that many have never heard of to one they won’t forget.”