Lifetime Achievement: Vince Camuto

With his unmatched instincts and drive, Camuto is the ultimate people person.

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Vince Camuto

Photo By Yoshi Michaeli

Vince Camuto at right, in Brazil in the 1970s.

Photo By Courtesy of Vince Camuto

The West 34th Street store in Manhattan.

Photo By Courtesy of Vince Camuto

“If you look at the successes of the best companies in America, it was the culture that was built and remained long after the principals weren’t there,” said Vince Camuto. “It’s never about one person. It’s the teams you put in place. Without the right people, you’re nowhere.”

Camuto, 77, the industry impresario who ushered in new ways of doing business and masterminded two wildly successful companies, has always focused on the power of people. In fact, it’s been the cornerstone of his career — and one that’s served as an inspiration to the next generation.

For instance, in 2007, son John Camuto, then a summer intern at the Greenwich, Conn.-based Camuto Group, traveled to Brazil with his father. The two could have checked in to any luxury hotel. Instead, they stayed for several days at the home of a local factory owner. For the son, who along with his four siblings grew up around the footwear business, the trip made an impression. It encapsulated what the name Vince Camuto means around the world.

“All these factory owners had such great respect for my father and such loyalty to him. They would do anything for him, and he for them. It was unbelievable,” said John Camuto, now 24 and a retail and product manager at the privately held family firm. “It was a great example of what he’d taught me my whole life: How you treat people is the way other people will treat you.”

That philosophy has served the elder Camuto well over the years. The co-founder of Nine West famously grew that business, sold it to Jones Apparel Group in 1999, took a brief break and did it all again in late 2001, launching Camuto Group.

“He’s the best product guy in the business. I don’t think there’s a better person,” said designer and good friend Tommy Hilfiger. “He knows how to build a product women love and to offer it at the best possible price. There are style price equations, and Vince nails it every single time.”

For decades Camuto has mixed his passion for people with the right amount of merchandising moxie. It’s a one-two punch that’s worked since he entered the footwear business fielding customer complaints at I. Miller on New York’s Fifth Avenue in the late 1950s.

Camuto, who grew up fatherless on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, quickly learned about the inner workings — or what didn’t work, for that matter — of a shoe by listening to women gripe about heel heights, toe fit and painful arches.

A natural with the customers, Camuto soon was tapped for the sales floor, where his smooth showmanship had wealthy women and famous faces buying mostly from him.

Then, in the early 1960s, one of Camuto’s mentors, Ted Poland, urged him to interview for a fashion director position with John Irving in Miami. Well-suited for the job, Camuto moved his young family south. At 24, he was forecasting next season’s hot trends not just for the local store on Lincoln Road but for the chain’s other doors as well. What’s more, the experience exposed Camuto to the moderate-priced market and gave him the chance to manage personnel, cash flow and inventory. His skills were noticed early on, and company bosses eventually transferred him to the headquarters in Boston.

A few years later, Camuto’s mentor came calling again. This time, Poland, a self-made entrepreneur who Camuto aspired to emulate, had an opening perfect for a hungry go-getter. Poland needed someone to turn around one of his money-losing Sudbury Shoe Co. factories in Farmington, Maine.

Camuto took a shot and began commuting from Boston to Maine regularly, absorbing everything about manufacturing and wholesaling. But his ambitions were bigger.

He had the factory color up blank skins to create soft, visually striking pumps. Those styles, he said, helped the factory earn a profit.

Armed with wholesale and retail knowledge, Camuto had an idea to strike out on his own, though it didn’t happen right away. Over the next few years, he held a variety of jobs. Then an opportunity in 1970 with Sumitomo Corp. enabled him to develop an export business in Brazil.

“The minute I walked into those factories in Brazil my eyes opened as wide as could be,” said Camuto. “I couldn’t believe the size of these factories and that they were empty. With some infrastructure and money, I knew there was so much potential.”

But good fortune comes in more ways than one. The Japanese firm also used another contractor named Jack Fisher. The two executives clicked quickly and in 1977 formed Fisher Camuto, the precursor to Nine West.

With strong leadership and a bold vision to offer trendy footwear at affordable prices, the company barreled ahead. Nine West, named after the executives’ office location at 9 W. 57th St., immediately gained market share — and another business partner, Wayne Weaver.

The trio opened dozens of stores, jazzed up the logos and improved the quality of existing product lines that included brands Nine West and Enzo Angiolini, among others.

“Vince is a super-talented individual who over the years has translated fashion at popular price points for a larger audience to enjoy and be a part of,” said Nordstrom Inc. President Blake Nordstrom, who first met Camuto in 1983 as a shoe buyer in the family department store. “His body of work speaks for itself. In my career, only a handful of people have been able to achieve what Vince has.”

In 1993 the Nine West triumvirate took the company public and two years later doubled its size by buying the shoe division of competitor U.S. Shoe Corp. By the time Jones came calling, the conglomerate had to fork over $1.4 billion.

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