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FN CEO Summit: Hot Talk on Hot Issues

The shoe industry's top players shared their winning strategies.

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FN CEO Summit 2013 Tony Hsieh

Tony Hsieh

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Charlotte Olympia Dellal

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Stefani Greenfield

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The FN CEO Summit in Miami brought together the industry’s top vendors, retailers and designers last week to talk about how they are dramatically reshaping the business. And they definitely delivered.

From building innovative brands and making huge acquisitions to changing company cultures and bowing new retail concepts, the executives opened their playbooks and shared insight into their winning strategies.

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Here are some top highlights from the event:

Story Tellers
How do you bring a brand to life? Make sure it has a story behind it, speakers said.

“It’s the small, but very important details that matter to me, such as the title of the collection and the style names of the shoes,” said designer Charlotte Olympia Dellal, who is also CEO of her eponymous firm. “It’s not just about the shoe but the story behind it.”

“Every brand is defined by a story,” said Stefani Greenfield, global creative consultant at The Jones Group Inc. “Jones happens to have talented authors who are writing new chapters every day.”

Building a brand powerhouse doesn’t happen overnight — a firm must make smart, gradual moves.
And Jones is doing just that with its newest names: Stuart Weitzman, Brian Atwood, Rachel Roy and retailer Kurt Geiger, Greenfield said.

But perhaps the most poignant example is Nine West, a $1 billion brand story that continues to evolve.

Greenfield noted that Nine West has a strong connection to culture, thanks to movies and television shows such as “Cinderella” and “Sex & the City.” But for the label to connect with consumers even more, it “needs to be a ‘me’ brand, not a ‘me-too’ brand,” she said.

Part of bringing a hot label to life for the long term means looking to the past, said panelists of “How to Create — and Maintain — Killer Brands.”

“We’ve made [heritage] a huge strength,” said Jim Salzano, president of Clarks Americas. “The Desert Boot and Wallabee, we play them up quite a bit. Outside [Clarks] Originals, we think [heritage] is a major advantage to build the brand and we feed off it.”

But while heritage is an important story, especially today, Steven Tiller, co-founder and CEO of SeaVees, said it doesn’t always lure the consumer.

“SeaVees is the coolest brand you’ve never heard of,” he said. “It was around in the 1960s and even advertised in Playboy, but it was never a household name. Instead, it’s about what it could be.”

Labels also are using innovative collaborations as a way to create buzz.

At Charlotte Olympia, “we often develop projects with a specific target in mind,” said the company’s president, Bonnie Takhar.

The line’s past collaborations have been with Agent Provocateur and Olympia Le Tan, and it introduced a capsule collection with Neiman Marcus tied to last year’s Art Basel festival.

And this week, Charlotte Olympia will debut a punk-themed capsule collection with jewelry designer Tom Binns to coincide with the Met Ball. (The collection will be sold on Modaoperandi.com, which is offering red-carpet looks from the gala and sponsoring the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.)

Collaborations also have been been key for The Webster Miami, said founding partner and CEO Laure Heriard Dubreuil, who noted the shoes on her feet were from her current exclusive partnership with Pierre Hardy (suede peep-toe heels with ankle straps).

Dubreuil also discussed her recent collaboration with Target — The Webster at Target — which launched last year and included more than 270 pieces for men, women and girls. “It was the American dream for me,” she said. “It was my dream wardrobe.”

For the project, Dubreuil made colorful prints inspired by the vintage wallpaper in her store. The result? The collection sold out in three weeks. “The designer Valentino and actress Anne Hathaway even bought pieces from the collection,” said Dubreuil.

Culture Club
For many leaders, creating a unique company culture has been a major priority.

Engaging and empowering employees has been a huge focus for Brown Shoe Co. President and CEO Diane Sullivan since she took the top job two years ago, and her strategy is clearly paying off.

Sullivan told attendees that her leadership mantra is simple: Make it personal. Whether she is rallying her team or connecting with customers, Sullivan takes an intimate approach to every aspect of her job.  
                        
“People don’t work for companies, people work with people,” the executive said. “People will live the vision when leaders make it personal.”

At Reebok, President Uli Becker has transformed the culture by making fitness an internal priority.

While looking to make the brand a leader in the athletic category once again, Becker spoke about how weaving CrossFit into Reebok’s corporate culture transformed the firm’s outlook from the inside out.

“Driving fitness within our headquarters adds purpose to what we’re trying to accomplish as a company,” he said. “Culture is of utmost importance because once everyone participates in the strategy, the company is more likely to succeed.”

The executive noted there are other added benefits to having a CrossFit gym in Reebok’s Canton, Mass., corporate headquarters. “Our employees use fewer sick days and our medical expenses are lower, which drives efficiency in the end,” Becker said.

World View
What is the key to being a global success? Make sure you have the right strategy in place, according to speakers.

Executives from Aldo Group discussed the Canadian firm’s impressive global growth through a franchise model. Norman Jaskolka, president of Aldo Group International, said the company is now in 80 countries around the world, accounting for 800 stores.

Diane Sullivan

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Uli Becker

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Laure Heriard Dubreuil

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Elizabeth Kanfer

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Aldo, which garnered about $1.8 billion in sales for 2012, anticipates a 20 percent rate of expansion for its next five years. “We are very proud of our growth,” Jaskolka added.

As for Wolverine World Wide Inc., its deal for Collective Brands Inc.’s Performance & Lifestyle portfolio immediately raised its global profile.

“It was the perfect fit for our international plug-and-play model,” Wolverine Chairman and CEO Blake Krueger told attendees.

He also revealed that the firm’s efforts to expand began internally long before the purchase came to fruition.

In 2011, the company reviewed its entire business — from its brand portfolio to its place in the industry — and then anticipated what “a winner would look like in 2020,” said Krueger. “The focus wasn’t immediate, like what we could be in the next one, two or three years.”

The company first looked at where it was strongest — it had successfully completed eight acquisitions in the last 15 years — and where there was room for more opportunity. On the growth side, Krueger said, the firm’s women’s product represented only 30 percent of its total revenue. Additionally, its kids’ business was small and Wolverine had limited exposure to the athletic category.

At Arezzo & Co., CEO Alexandre Birman, who also is creative director of his eponymous label, is working to take Arezzo far beyond its home base in Brazil.

For example, the firm’s contemporary brand Schutz is targeting the U.S. market with its first shop in the U.S., on Madison Avenue. “The new store is driving a lot of attention for the company and it’s acting as a laboratory for us,” Birman said. “We are turning over the inventory each week and we really like the results.”

One reason the company, which also owns the Arezzo and Anacapri labels, has been able to expand so quickly is its ability to innovate on the production side of the business.

Arezzo churns out 11,500 new SKUs and nine deliveries per year, with speed-to-market adding a major competitive advantage. “We have made a serious investment in product development, with a sample manufacturing facility housed in our headquarters that makes more than 60,000 pairs of samples per year. The timeline from sample production to retail delivery is 40 days. Speed is the most important asset we have today,” said Birman.

Geographically, Asia is an area of focus for many designers.

Rupert Sanderson, for example, just opened his second store in Hong Kong. “[Elements Mall has] really invested in me and my brand,” Sanderson said. “We are in [great company] with other brands there.”

And Takhar explained that while North America has been a growth priority for Charlotte Olympia over the last two years, the brand plans to turn its attention to Asia later this year. “We are laying the foundations for opportunities in Japan, South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Jakarta,” she said.

Market Movers
Many speakers were excited about the growth of hot categories, whether that was men’s, handbags or high contemporary.

Nicholas Kirkwood, who is debuting men’s at retail this fall, said the market has changed drastically, creating big opportunity.

“You used to only be able to get very basic styles. Now, there are so many more options,” the designer said, adding that the excitement surrounding sneakers has helped fuel the men’s explosion.

To support the men’s growth, Kirkwood is making several moves within his own business. For example, he plans to expand his London flagship to enable him to add more styles to the mix.

Birman, whose company has roots in the men’s market, might revisit the category in the next two years. “It will be hard to achieve our goal of 20 percent annual growth without adding important categories,” he said, although he noted that the men’s market is still much smaller than women’s.

Meanwhile, a panel discussion led by Elizabeth Kanfer, Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior fashion director of accessories, focused on the high-fashion contemporary boom. “The boundaries of price points are fading away with changing consumer behavior and online shopping,” she said.

Designer Charline De Luca told attendees there continues to be more focus on the space.

“Before, there was a gap in the market around the $400 to $600 mark for a very high-quality product with a high design approach,” she said. “You have to make a statement to carve out a place in the market, and the trick is great quality for a good price.”

“If you have a point of view and brand yourself the right way as a designer, people will only look at the price after they’ve fallen in love with it,” asserted fellow designer Isa Tapia, who worked for Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs in New York before launching her eponymous label. “I look on the positive side that I’m getting both customers: the one who buys fast fashion and the one who buys luxury. So it’s a win-win.”

Get the Message
Not surprising, the social media revolution was dominant in the summit conversation.

Sanderson discussed the power of Twitter, citing a recent example of Victoria Beckham tweeting a photo of herself in his pumps to more than 5 million followers. “Our whole network just lit up,” Sanderson said. “The shoes sold out overnight.”

Tiller noted that SeaVees’ website has become quite successful since the men’s and women’s label relaunched.

One popular feature is the blog, which Tiller calls a journal, with inspirational images and stories. “There is an appetite for original content,” he said. “You can’t release a shoe every day, but you can change your content.”

Richard Johnson

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For her part, Libby Edelman, SVP of Sam Edelman (and an avid Instagram user), said that reaching out by email and interacting with the consumer via social media is vital. “They want to get emails every day,” said Edelman. “I do. I love it. It inspires me to shop.”

Foot Locker EVP and COO Richard Johnson shared that the athletic retailer has used social media to improve its customer service efforts.

“It’s made customer service immediate,” he said. “It also keeps us all on our toes to make sure we have great engagement with our customers.”

Connecting with consumers is also a priority when it comes to traditional advertising.

Sullivan said Famous Footwear’s feel-good “Victory Is Yours” commercials — part of her overall strategy to get more personal with consumers — have resonated very strongly.

She previewed a new iteration of the campaign that celebrates motherhood in an upcoming commercial. “Winning customers’ hearts and minds takes a personal approach,” Sullivan said.

Channel Changers
Whether targeting hot markets with brick-and-mortar stores or tapping into omnichannel, retailers are finding fresh opportunities in a competitive climate.

Dubreuil discovered a lot of potential in Miami, which was lacking a major fashion luxury destination. That’s why she decided to open The Webster there three years ago. “Miami is close to New York, and it’s the gateway to South America and Latin America,” said Dubreuil. “Plus, there was no competition — no multibrand [designer] stores.”

Johnson said his firm is testing out reworked concepts of its Foot Locker, Champs Sports, Footaction and Kids and Lady Foot Locker banners, to reach more diversified consumers.

“We know our customers are multichannel-oriented,” Johnson said of the new store formats, which will represent a $60 million spend for the firm this year. “Our increased investment is to make sure we keep moving forward.”

Creating a cross-channel environment is top of mind at Aldo Group. The company, which already has transformed into a global firm in just the last decade, now views that strategy as a big opportunity. “The prospect of a brave new world is tremendous,” said Douglas Bensadoun, creative director and VP of marketing at Aldo Group. “Today, our customer is shopping differently. That’s our next transformation.”


Key sponsors of the FN CEO Summit included Two Ten Footwear Foundation, the Dallas Shoe Market, Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America, FFANY and Zappos.com. Attendance and networking sponsors included American Apparel & Footwear Association, Neptune Advisors, Hilco, TSG Consumer Partners, FN Platform, Micro-Pak USA, Sterne Agee, Prism Skylabs, Martens & Heads, Messe Dusseldorf, JC Edward, Rival Shoe Design, Soles4Souls, RetailPro, Banks Group and Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP.

As an FN subscriber, you can save 20 percent on video coverage of the FN CEO Summit when you visit FNCEO2013.fora.tv and use code 2013FNCEO.  For more video from past Fairchild Summits, visit Wwd.com/summitsondemand.