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Milestone: Campbell Uncanned

BBC International founder Bob Campbell opens up about taking his namesake firm to the front of the kids' pack.

Bob Campbell with business partner Donald Wilborn

Bob Campbell knows how to make the most of an opportunity.

A veteran of the women's market who spent two decades moving up the ranks at retailer Kinney Shoe Corp. and its parent, F.W. Woolworth Co., Campbell fell into the kids' business by chance. A year after he founded BBC International in 1975, footwear import quotas were introduced and Campbell's fierce entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. He discovered a way to make children's shoes out of quota, and customers flocked to him. "I didn't know anything about the kids' business, but I became known for certain constructions," he told Footwear News in an exclusive interview earlier this month. "I found a niche, and I guess it worked out pretty well."

To say the least. Under Campbell's leadership, what began then as a modest enterprise has grown into a global powerhouse with a stable of A-list brands, including Polo Ralph Lauren and Guess; an enviable roster of entertainment licenses; and a booming private-label business. The company, which last year shipped more than 50 million pairs of shoes, distributes its products in every retail channel. "We sell to everybody," Campbell said. "It's something I don't think any other kids' company can say."

While he is quick to credit his team — including minority partners Donald Wilborn, Tracey McLeod and Donald Lee — for BBC's success, Campbell is clearly the lifeblood of the company. His passion for the kids' shoe business is boundless, and he's not afraid to take risks, something that has paid off for him over the years.

In 1980, when BBC was still a fledgling business, Campbell heard about a quirky little entertainment brand called The Smurfs, based on a Belgian comic strip. Despite not knowing anything about it, he took a chance and acquired the shoe license for the brand. "I had absolutely no licensing experience; I didn't even have a lawyer with me, but I signed the deal and put a line together," Campbell recalled. "And when I showed it to some retailers, they all said, 'What the heck is this?' But then the TV show hit, and the whole thing just exploded."

He parlayed that success into other licensing ventures, and in 1994, commenced an exclusive partnership with The Walt Disney Co. that is still going strong today and that has helped make BBC a leader in the ultra-competitive licensing game.

BBC moved into the branded business 10 years ago, when its long-standing design and sourcing relationship with Reebok led to an opportunity to take over the Polo Ralph Lauren kids' footwear license from Reebok. Guess was added in 2006 and, more recently, Born and DKNY. "We have a reputation for really respecting the brands we work with, and that's brought us a lot of great opportunities," Campbell said. "We don't just look to get orders; we look to build partnerships."

Today, at 73, Campbell dismisses talk of retirement and shows no signs of slowing down. He maintains a relentless travel schedule, flying overseas to scout new sourcing partners, visiting major retailers around the U.S. and bouncing between BBC's Boston and Boca Raton, Fla., offices. An avid philanthropist, he also gives generously to organizations including the Two Ten Footwear Foundation, American Heart Association and local charities in his hometown of Boca Raton.

Although he is clearly proud of the company he has built, Campbell said he feels BBC's potential is still far from realized. He is constantly looking to the future and his next big deal, and he has a strong vision for where he'd like the company to go. "I believe we're the best there is in the kids' business, but we want to become even better," he said. "We still have a lot of work left to do."

FN: What are BBC's biggest strengths?
BC:
Our people, first and foremost. We have incredible people, from our designers to our salespeople to our customer service [reps]. Also, we are truly unique in terms of what we do and the size of our business. In the children's market, there are not many companies like ours. We also have tremendous sourcing capabilities, and we can make every type of children's footwear there is.

FN: You do both licensed character footwear and higher-end branded shoes, which are two very different businesses. How do you manage to successfully balance the two and keep your many licensing partners happy?
BC:
We physically separate the divisions. Our Boca office does all the character licensing, and our brands are run out of the Boston office. Each division has its own management, designers and factories. We also keep the ideas separate: the Boca office is not allowed to copy designs from the Boston office. It needs to be this way to make it possible for us to be in the mass market, [while at the same time] do a huge branded business [with the higher-end retailers]. It's important that [the two businesses] are kept completely separate because if you push it all together, you're going to lose something.

FN: How is the branded division performing in this tough retail environment?
BC:
We continue to see good growth. DKNY, which is new for us [for spring '11], is looking really strong. It has a great presence in Europe and Asia, in particular. Guess is good, but growing much better in Europe because one thing we've found is that you need a strong clothing line to support it, and Guess has a tremendous apparel business in Europe. Born is doing very well. The Born adult brand has great recognition in the department stores and big chains, so that has been helpful [in building the kids' line]. Polo is our strongest brand by far. It really is a magical name. What's beautiful about it is that it's known everywhere around the world. Right now, we're probably in about 40 countries with the brand.

FN: Are you eyeing any other brands?
BC
: We're looking at two very interesting brands right now — one we're hoping to announce in the next few months. We don't want to take on too many more, though. We want to focus on building the brands we have. And we won't take just any brand. Our goal is to create a very well-rounded offering of collections, and we will never sign a brand that conflicts with one of our others, especially Polo. We are very conscious of that.

FN: Will we ever see shoes under the BBC brand name?
BC:
Someday, yes. It's a real possibility. We've been exploring it. Our biggest hesitation — and the reason we're holding off for now — is that we don't want to take our focus away from our licensing partners. I've found that it's not good to be too overaggressive, or to let your ego get the best of you. You have to be logical.

FN: Many companies — from sneaker brands to fashion players — are getting into character licensing. What's driving the sudden interest?
BC:
Everybody is looking for additional business. We're seeing a lot of co-branding right now, especially with the big athletic brands. But it's a very small business for them; it's a novelty thing. They don't study it and specialize in it like we do. I think the entertainment companies go after them, and they love co-branding because it's a way to elevate their own brands.

FN: There is a staggering amount of entertainment content competing for kids' attention today. How do you find the hits, the licensed properties that will have commercial success and longevity?
BC: [What helps us is having a partnership] with Disney, which is one of the biggest players in the entertainment business. They make sure there is a great new movie coming out every year or so, and whatever they do is gold. Then there are other exciting licenses that come along, like Glee, which you just know will be hot. We go to every licensing show and keep an eye on everything happening in the business. We try to be very selective about the licenses we take on, but sometimes we slip and miss. It's just the nature of the business.

FN: What's your take on the growing number of adult brands setting their sights on the kids' business?
BC:
Almost every single adult company wants to get into the kids' market because they're looking for additional business, and most try to do it themselves. But they just don't put the time and commitment into it, and then the business doesn't grow. They believe they can just knock down a shoe, but kids' is not a take-down business. It's a completely different business, and it's a very complicated one: You've got everything from stitch-and-turn baby shoes to sneakers for 8-year-olds, and that's a huge range. Most adult companies don't understand that. They do a great job with what they do in women's or men's, but that doesn't necessarily translate to the kids' business. The smart ones leave it to the specialists.

 

FN: On the flip side, do you have ambitions of BBC becoming a player in the adult market?
BC:
No, because we want to specialize, we want to be known for something instead of trying to be everything to everybody. In fact, about 12 years ago, we were in everything and we finally realized we weren't qualified to compete with the more-established women's and men's players. So we got out of those businesses. Now we concentrate strictly on kids', [with the exception of] some skate shoes that we do for adults because that is a type of product we do know how to make as good as anyone.

 

FN: With the heightened competition and consolidation among vendors, is it becoming increasingly difficult for smaller, independent kids' brands to compete?
BC:
Unfortunately, yes. I would hate to be a small kids' company today. There just aren't enough customers anymore. The mom-and-pops are disappearing and the department stores are so few. [Considering that] the mass market does about 75 percent of the total pairs in the U.S., you only have about 25 percent of the business left to you. It's still a good business, but the mass retailers take a huge portion of it. It's also difficult [when you're a small firm] to find places to make your product. Chinese factories don't want to do business with these small lines because they don't have the volume.

FN: Department stores seem to be focusing more on the kids' business, particularly as the category has proven more resilient during the recession. Do you see an opportunity there?
BC:
It's being driven more by the dot-com side. Every [department store] has a website and is doing well with it, which is surprising because in children's you're dealing with the fit issue and returns and things like that. [In the actual stores], we do well with our baby shoes, but it's very difficult to run a true children's shoe business within a department store environment.

FN: What are some of the problems you see at retail stores today?
BC:
One of the biggest issues is that retailers are not doing enough with presentation in kids'. When you go into any major department store, you see great displays of women's shoes from this brand and that brand. In the children's area, labels just get mixed together. The challenge for us as vendors [is to] help [retailers] create a strong brand image and help them understand how the labels they're buying relate to their business. It's not just about great-looking shoes; it's about building a brand in your store. It would also help retailers' business so much if they would concentrate on a handful of key lines and buy deeper into those. The stores that try to have a little bit of everything ultimately get nowhere.

FN: You've been very involved in philanthropy throughout your career. In fact, you've even arranged for 20 percent of the ad proceeds from this milestone issue to be donated to Two Ten. Why is giving back so important to you?
BC:
I didn't have much growing up. I never had a father, and my mother worked her butt off to provide for [my siblings and me]. I feel very fortunate that I've grown to where I am today in the shoe industry, and I believe it's incredibly important to give back.

FN: Have you thought about a succession plan?
BC:
I'm not retiring anytime soon, so forget that. But if someone was to succeed me, the likely candidate would be Tracey McLeod. We have no interest in hiring somebody from the outside — our people stay. Tracey has youth and experience, and she's tremendously qualified. She really knows the business. I also think the more female executives we see in this industry, the better.

FN: Would you ever consider selling all or a portion of the company?
BC:
We do have people approach us, and we listen to and evaluate everything. If an opportunity came along that was right for the company — not for me, but for the future growth of the company — then we would entertain it. Still, I will never change the name of the company, and I don't want other people running it. I don't want investors coming in and making changes just because they have money. We like our business the way it is.

FN: When you started the company 35 years ago, did you think it would become this big?
BC:
I never really envisioned where it would be. My big dream when I was younger was to make $100 a week. That was the ultimate. The footwear industry's been good to me; God's been good to me.

FN: Where do you see BBC in five years?
BC:
I believe we're capable of doubling our business in the next five years. We have a couple of new brands and licenses in the works, [which will help us reach that goal]. We have the people, the know-how and the ambition to be the very best children's footwear company in the world. I believe we already are, but we want to continue to grow and become even better.