The Return of Blake Mycoskie

The Toms founder talks about being back in the front seat.

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Blake Mycoskie

Photo By Scott Witter

The reason, Mycoskie explained, is that even though the men’s business is healthy, it could be much bigger. He said men often tell him their wives and children have multiple pairs of Toms, but when pressed about their own shoes, the men admit the simple-sole canvas styles aren’t for them.

That answer, said the founder, proves the company isn’t effectively communicating the scope of its products.

“We don’t have to get guys to believe in our brand and our ideology, because that already exists,” he said. “We have to let them know they can participate in Toms by wearing the brogues. It’s not all alpargatas.”

Sitting in his office, Mycoskie was eager to talk about the company’s next chapter, while around him were personal reminders of the places he’s visited and all that he’s accomplished in a short span. Pictures with presidents and foreign leaders line the shelves. A framed copy of The New York Times’ best-seller list, featuring his book “Start Something That Matters,” sits in one corner, with a photo of the first five Toms employees in another. Scattered throughout are throw pillows, blankets and other knick-knacks picked up along his global jaunts.

But on the front wall is a map showing the countries Toms plans to expand into or enter for the first time. According to Mycoskie, the company this year will focus heavily on China, Dubai, Germany, Greece and Turkey.

While Toms is sold in 27 countries and hands out product in more than 60, Mycoskie said he aims to improve the quality of its giveaways and measure the effects of foreign aid.

To that end, two years ago he hired Sebastian Fries, a former Pfizer executive, to lead a small research team within Toms. Fries regularly meets with non-governmental organizations to determine the best partnerships, as well as to gain ideas that will enhance how Toms gives to the needy.

“I am most proud of Blake’s decision to go into local manufacturing,” said Fries, chief giving officer. “We didn’t have to do that. That is a game changer.”

In recent years, the company has set up factories in countries where it donates — Argentina, Kenya and Ethiopia among them — but the operations were on a small scale. That changed last October.

Speaking on stage in New York to a group of powerful leaders at the Clinton Global Initiative, Mycoskie announced that Toms will establish a 10,000-sq.-ft. factory in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that is slated to open in April. Even better, the company intends to hire locals and train them to make shoes. “This commitment is not just jobs,” Mycoskie said from the podium. “Our vision is to provide these workers with true career paths by investing in their well-being and their families. We believe these Haitian workers will become the leaders of a growing footwear industry in Haiti. What brought us to Haiti was philanthropy, but what will keep us in Haiti is business.”

The audience, which included Haiti Prime Minister Laurent Lamoth and activist-actor Sean Penn, applauded. Some even gave a standing ovation.

Soon after, President Clinton stepped on stage and directly addressed Mycoskie: “I’m very grateful to you for putting this plant there. It will help a lot and will help induce others to move facilities there.”

Closer to home, Mycoskie has partnered with other do-gooders to jointly launch an e-commerce marketplace devoted to businesses striving for change. And the brand works to give back to its local community through its flagship store in Venice, Calif., which serves as a community hangout. The space is its only retail location so far, though plans are in the works to bow another in Austin in March and a third in New York later this year to further the Toms mission.

“I’ve never felt better about what we are doing,” Mycoskie said. “When I left, we had a difficult time with me being gone. But now we have our clarity. We have our strategy, and it just feels good. Sometimes it takes going through what we went through to get to that place.”

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