Women’s Wear Daily
04.20.2014
business
business

Editor's Note: Good Leads

The best thing about the industry isn't great product or brand stories — it's the depth of leadership.

business/news
Michael Atmore

There is a lot on the line. Amid the show week madness in Las Vegas there will be winners and losers, players and dealers. And above it all, the bosses.

While the subject of leadership gets a lot of attention in corporate America, we often gloss over the conversation on a macro level within the footwear industry.

This is a disservice considering the incredible talents leading and defining the business today. In fact, one could argue the talent pool is at its deepest and most effective level in decades. That rich and eclectic leadership is the secret behind footwear’s spectacular growth.

But that proclamation is not without some necessary disclaimers. The elephant in the room: Despite an array of great leaders, there is still a stunning lack of female CEOs and ethnic diversity in the executive ranks, a musty byproduct of days gone by.

One hopes that as the industry evolves, both situations will rectify themselves. I’m confident today’s power brokers are more than capable of finally addressing these issues using all the skill and strategy they have tapped to navigate one of the most difficult and challenging industries. It is my hope that the current crop of CEOs, able to marry the need for a defined culture, strong commerce and great vision, will set the wheels in motion for an even better and more diversified future.

That confidence stems from a look at those wielding the influence at this moment. Never before has there been such a fascinating group of established, iconic players and smart emerging leaders willing to take a firm hand in reshaping the business. That “blend” makes for a heady mix of old-school success and new-school strategy. I can’t think of an industry that has such a potent merging of the two worlds, made all the more interesting considering the volatile nature of the business and the incredible challenges associated with sourcing and selling on the global stage.

This is a year that finds the “icons,” such as Robert Greenberg, Vince Camuto and Steve Madden, all at the peak of their power, moving their companies to even greater heights. These founders continue to set the pace and define the terms of the game. At the same time, the industry is infused with a group of executives I have dubbed the transformers: C-suite talents including Diane Sullivan, Blake Krueger, Jim Issler, Bob Goldman, Bobby Campbell, Angel Martinez and Blake Mycoskie, who are determined to broaden the shoe landscape with new deals, new concepts and new directions. Like the icons, these movers and shakers know how to build a culture and recruit the kind of talent that changes the game.

Whether one focuses on athletic or high fashion, the A list dominates. The combined forces of Herbert Hainer, Eric Wiseman and Phil Knight’s Nike juggernaut have defined the athletic and outdoor space. And a small but highly influential class of legendary designers, like Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and Stuart Weitzman, exert an enormous power as creative entities who can reach far beyond their respective brands.

Of course, there are many other talents. Though their rule may be smaller, their companies’ influence is not. A few strong examples include Mandy Cabot and Joe Ouaknine, both set to be honored by Two Ten Footwear Foundation this fall. They have created businesses that have stood the test of time.

On the retail side, the leadership is just as deep and inspiring. Ken Hicks, Tony Hsieh, Debbie Ferrée and Glenn Lyon join a long list of major department store executives who are all reshaping the shoe story with serious moves of late. And while the independent store remains a challenged class, the best are still showing the rest how it’s done. FN’s upcoming celebration of 40 years of the Boston-based Tannery proves that great leadership is a skill that isn’t limited to the biggest.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the industry’s collective power is the ability to unite at crucial times. Footwear’s disparate group of highly competitive talents is able to come together to support Shoes on Sale, Two Ten, Soles4Souls and a host of other causes, proving the true measure of success and influence goes far beyond the balance sheet.

The great advantage of sitting in this seat is access to this incredible group. Despite the cutthroat competition, many of the top executives have forged deep bonds with each other. That camaraderie is telling and helps foster a sense of industry unity.

This is a club filled with leaders who battle each other for business but still show respect, admiration and the ability to learn from their peers.

A love fest? That may be a stretch. But a mutual admiration that inspires the rest of us? Most definitely.

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