My Favorite Years

Approaching Dansko’s 20th anniversary, CEO Amanda Cabot reveals how the former little clog company has evolved into an industry favorite and a model of corporate excellence.

 

Amanda Cabot

Amanda Cabot

It’s been nearly 20 years and all is right with the friendly, formerly little clog company Dansko. Actually, that’s quite an understatement: Dansko is in the midst of one of the best years in its history, recession be damned. Sales are on a record pace, the brand continues to expand into new categories, the company is thriving in its new state-of-the-art eco-friendly headquarters in West Grove, PA, and a growing number of retailers and consumers refer to Dansko as their “favorite”—not only in regards to its shoes and incredible service but also for its commitment to corporate good rather than greed. If that’s not enough wind in Dansko’s sails, the clog looks to be the leading silhouette going into Spring ’11, and one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the brand’s ability to capitalize on that trend. Good times, indeed.

When asked to describe Dansko today, CEO Amanda Cabot uses the adjective “favorite” repeatedly. “[We are] our customers’ favorite shoes; our retailers’ favorite brand; our suppliers’ favorite customer; our employees’ favorite employer; and an industry leader, community supporter, responsible environmentalist, role model, mentor, inspiration and overall good corporate citizen. I think that about covers it,” she says. Biased, perhaps? Not when it is a sentiment often heard in many industry circles. It’s like when parents say to their children, “You should be more like so and so…” Well, when it comes to shoe companies, the model of excellence is more often than not Dansko.

Perhaps it’s because Cabot and her husband Peter Kjellerup fell into the shoe business by accident. The couple was running a successful horse-training business when they stumbled upon these “incredibly comfortable” Danish-made clogs and soon after started selling them as a side gig out of the back of their station wagon at equestrian events. Unfamiliar with ingrained industry practices (both good and bad), they set off on an entirely different course. “We didn’t know the ropes of the shoe industry, but I think that was one of our competitive advantages,” Cabot says. “We were seat-of-the-pants, but our intentions were pure and our values solid.” That core business philosophy, according to Cabot, was simple: “If you’ve got something great to share, you share it. And if in the sharing you can reinvest in more to share, you do that, too. And the gift just keeps on giving.” She likens the approach to a “golden rule, pay-it-forward” type of thinking. “It was never about making a lot of money,” she says regarding their entry into the shoe business. “It was about making something previously unavailable available and about creating possibilities and opportunities and improving the very quality of life, one step at a time.”

This approach, one that Cabot also describes as “doing the right thing,” has grown Dansko from a quirky clog company into an anchoring comfort brand. For many consumers, it’s their everyday shoe because they are addicted to what Cabot describes as a unique, stable construction suitable for all-day wear. It’s no wonder, she says, why healthcare professionals, teachers and service industry workers are Dansko fanatics. And as the line has expanded beyond the clog silhouette, the commitment to comfort has always been the top priority.

In addition to a signature product, what has made Dansko unlike many other shoe companies is its moral compass. No green gimmicks or one-off marketing ploys here—when Dansko sets its mind to a cause, it’s for the long haul. Simply tour the company’s sustainable headquarters, and you’ll see why it’s serving as a model of excellence for companies along the East Coast. While the green initiative could have ended there, Cabot is committed to making further strides. For example, one of her current concerns involves post-production. She cites Paul Hawken’s book “The Ecology of Commerce,” which asserts that manufacturers must take responsibility for not only manufacturing (think social justice, fair trade and reducing one’s carbon footprint) but also disposing of what they make at the end of its useful life. “We don’t have the R&D wherewithal at Dansko to tackle this ourselves, but we’re certainly eager to make use of every new technology that becomes available to make the footprint of our products even greener,” Cabot says. Just last month, the company flipped the switch on its 245-kilowatt solar panel system to supplement its wind-generated power. Utilizing ever more sustainable components in its footwear is another big initiative. “We’ve always used recycled components whenever possible and sourced leathers from tanneries with the highest possible ratings, but we’re working toward something [post-consumer use] that’s truly revolutionary in our shoemaking,” she says.

At a time when green initiatives have taken a backseat to cost concerns and consumer fatigue, it’s refreshing to see Cabot’s drive for what is arguably still the “right thing to do” in the long-term. “The financial meltdown certainly hasn’t helped, but I’d like to think that progress is being made on the sustainability front,” Cabot offers. “Our colleagues in the Eco Working Group of the Outdoor Industry Association, for example, are diligently pursuing higher standards for footwear manufacturing and assembly, packaging, use, and service and lifecycle assessment. We’re also very [excited about] the efforts of several of our footwear component makers—more and more of them are looking upstream as well as downstream.”

Cabot’s ability to continually see the bigger picture and her company’s place in it is why Dansko is much more than a shoe company. It reflects a way of living life—one that is healthy and sustainable as well as profitable. “We’re all interconnected: suppliers, suppliers’ suppliers, employees, retailers, retailers’ employees, neighbors, consumers and so on,” Cabot attests. This is why she is proud that Dansko is a founding member of B Corp, an organization of more than 300 for-profit companies in more than 50 industries (Dansko is the only shoe company to date to qualify) that have passed rigorous social and environmental standards that measure corporate good. “It’s like LEED certification on our new building—third-party validation of our business operations, a pathway for us to connect our brand promises to our practices—and get credit for it,” she explains. “As a B Corp, we expanded our corporate charter to legally recognize the interests of all of our stakeholders, not just our stockholders, so we literally put our money where our mouth is when we say ‘all.’ It’s accountability in the broadest sense.”

In addition to the big-picture initiatives, Cabot remains just as focused on what enables all of that to occur: continuing to make stylish, comfortable shoes that sell through at retail. Along such lines, she is excited about what’s on tap for Spring ’11. “We’re great at making sandals—clogs and otherwise—but were challenged by the need for a true warm-weather clog,” she says. Enter Sanibel, a new vulcanized construction with the anatomical contours and unmistakable silhouette of a Dansko, but lighter weight and offered in linen-printed leathers, tropical floral canvas and cool summer plaids. Based on the response at the recent FFANY show, Cabot believes this collection may be the largest launch in Dansko’s history. And Cabot hints of even bigger things to come. “Stay tuned. We have some great things that are currently under wraps but scheduled to launch before year-end,” she teases.

Twenty years ago, did you ever envision that you would be running an enormously successful shoe company?

I’ll answer your question in three parts: No. 1. “Running?” Absolutely. My husband and I are hard-wired entrepreneurs. Neither of us has had much experience working for anyone but ourselves, so it’s in our blood to “run” things. No. 2. “Enormously successful?” Well, I can’t speak to the “enormous” part, but successful, yes. Whatever it is, we do what we’re pretty good at and work hard every day to be better. No. 3. “Shoe company?” Not in a million years. Before Dansko, shoes were a fairly low priority for me—I considered them gear, mostly. But once we happened upon the makings of the world’s most comfortable shoes, developing them to their fullest potential was inevitable.

When did you first start to notice that this might have the makings of a footwear career?

We knew we were on to something great and unique from the very beginning. Everyone we “shared” our shoes with told us so. But we already had careers as professional horse trainers, so it took us a few years to transition out of that business into this.

When did Dansko cease being that “little clog company”?

Back in the late ’90s, we engineered a non-clog collection called Golden Gate, which replicated the ride of our original clog with a fresh, more contemporary silhouette and construction. I think that was the moment that I really got the concept of brand DNA, of what makes a Dansko a Dansko. Not only did we have the market’s permission to expand beyond clogs (Golden Gate alone sold more than 2 million pairs), but we knew what we needed to do.

What were your biggest challenges back then? In contrast, what are some of them today?

Controlling growth was always one of our biggest challenges. Keeping our promises to retailers, consumers, employees and suppliers was paramount. If we didn’t manage our inventory, production, logistics and distribution properly, we would fail the very folks who counted on us. We face the same issues today. But now we know more than we knew then. The bar is higher and our standards more exacting, because our decisions—right and wrong—affect so many more people. In many ways, I feel more pressure now.

What are some of the biggest changes in the industry compared to when you started?

Internet retailing, Far East sourcing and the rise of the green movement are all game-changers and all are double-edged swords as well. Regarding the Internet, consumers now have far greater access to far more information about the products they buy, so more than ever, they’re exercising their right to make intelligent choices. On the down side, Internet retailing can generate focus on price as the purchase driver rather than service or a more fully developed brand story. Regarding the Far East, one can certainly argue that offshore sourcing has helped to keep prices in check and allowed for the entire industry to grow, but there are definite drawbacks. Buying from any offshore resource not only increases our trade deficit, it contributes to the already increasing carbon footprint of the industry. Even more problematic, in my opinion, is the growing loss of technical expertise here in the States. Lastly, although I have nothing negative to say about the industry’s efforts to produce, assemble, package and deliver more sustainability [something that consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about], it’s become more and more difficult for consumers to tell “green” companies apart from really good “green-washers.”

What aspects have largely stayed the same?

I’m certainly no expert on this subject, but I don’t think I’ve seen any truly revolutionary developments in shoemaking since we started in this business. I’m not sure why this is, but given how much has changed in other industries, it does surprise me. I’d love to be part of something truly revolutionary.

If you could push rewind, is there anything you would have done differently?

There are many things we could have done better, no doubt about it, but I get a little spooked at the thought of “pushing rewind.” Let’s face it, everything we’ve done thus far—mistakes included—has shaped us into who we are today. I’d hate to wake up one day and find myself living someone else’s life!

Did you envision this year as being one of the best—if not the best—year in the company’s history?

We were pretty well positioned coming into the economic crisis of 2008-09, so our focus was on helping retailers ride out the storm—understanding their needs; what would and wouldn’t help their cash flow; investing in what we knew would be fast-moving, core product for at-once order fills; and shortening turnaround time. If we could help our retailers’ businesses stay healthy, we’d be fine. In the background, we were bringing in new talent and strengthening capabilities, especially in the product area. Once the economic dust settled, we were ready to forge ahead.

What has been the most important factor in your current success, and why might Dansko be recession-proof?

It’s got to start with product, of course. We’re not in the occasion shoe business, and fortunately for us, a very large percentage of our consumers work in industries that have not been as severely impacted by the economy—such as health care, food service and education. For a great many of these folks, we’re their everyday shoes and, true to our mission, their favorite shoes.

How have Dansko’s customers’ shopping habits and product needs evolved through the years?

All consumers today, not just ours, have many more shopping options than before, and many more brands are accessible to consumers who might not have had access or information about them before. But precisely because of information overload, there’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned, personalized fitting-stool service—especially with new products. In terms of product needs, consumers have become more thoughtful about the things they spend money on. Shoes are less occasion, impulse or accessory buys than they’ve been in the past, which is, of course, great for Dansko.

What is your target customer’s primary concern when it comes to buying shoes?

At the end of the day, both figuratively and literally, comfort would be the obvious answer. But I think style is what attracts our customer first. Our shoes have to be fashionable, first and foremost, and versatile—especially in this economy, where decisions about spending are more carefully weighed. Comfort is a given.

If comfort is a given, how do you define “wellness” footwear?

Wellness footwear, as marketed these days, seems to be more like “gear;” something you wear in order to accomplish something else, like better muscle tone or posture. Of course, Dansko is all about “feeling well,” but we’ve never positioned our footwear as gear or exercise equipment. In fact, the very premise of [some of this new] product—instability—is counter to what we do. Absolutely, we believe in rocker bottoms—this is one of the core attributes of clogs, after all—but we need to provide stability as well, especially for people whose jobs or lifestyles involve long hours of standing or walking. The last thing we want to do is create instability unnaturally.

Does this wellness movement have long-running macro implications or might this be just another fad diet?

Good question. At the moment, wellness appears to be led more by trend followers than by trendsetters, so I think I’d put my money on the fad diet horse for now. As Dr. Andrew Weil said recently, “Footwear that challenges stability to simulate a workout isn’t a replacement for exercise itself.” I’d have to agree with that.

Where does Dansko fit into the wellness equation?

Dansko has always been about wellness, if you measure wellness by how you feel at the end of the day. Have your shoes made your day easier or harder, your attitude better or worse? Someone once said that life is what happens when you’re not dealing with uncomfortable shoes, or something to that effect. Dansko’s product mandatories are proper foot function and all-day support. In my mind, that’s where wellness begins.

How important is it for a brand to try and make that “bigger picture” connection with consumers today?

I think it’s huge. Not everyone considers where their clothing, cosmetics, food and drinks come from, but I certainly do, and I think that more and more people are starting to as well. At the very least, irresponsible ethics and business practices are a distinct and often irreversible reason not to buy. Or worse, never to buy.

What’s your take on the economic recovery? Any “green shoots,” as they may have been prematurely labeled?

I wouldn’t want to venture a guess as to how the economic crisis will play out, but I’m certain that the landscape will be different. The irresponsible manufacturing, rampant consumption and uncontrolled spending that we’ve seen in the past 30 years are simply unsustainable.

Any advice for retailers trying to weather this ongoing storm?

Partner with reliable vendors. That’s not to say don’t try new product, but know who you’re partnering with.

How can retailers get more into the conversation with consumers?

Make it personal. Most buying decisions are emotional, so the way to win loyalty beyond reason is by connecting with consumers’ hearts on a personal level. Consumers are looking for what they can love. Sharing information is important, but sharing stories is even better. The new consumer wants us to be in her heart, not in her face. Tell her why you care and how you can help her. Be a life-changer.

Any advice for independents trying to maintain a foothold amid retail and Internet behemoths?

Within your local community, define who you want to be in your area and who you want to serve. Make it personal, focus on service and choose your product mix wisely.

Where do you see Dansko in five years?

In addition to our planned brand expansions, we see growth in two major areas: international and green. Not for growth’s sake, mind you, but because these two areas are squarely in line with our original vision. On the personal side, I see myself—finally—growing into my CEO title, retiring as COE, or Chief of Everything, and playing more of a supportive role. If you want to be truly sustainable—meaning around for the long haul—you have to engage the passion and vision of the next generation of leaders. That’ll be my job five years from now.

Looking back on just about 20 years, what do you most take pride in?

Not selling out. We walked away from some immensely flattering offers—which is every entrepreneur’s dream, right? Also, safeguarding and cultivating our company’s culture, and standing by our commitments to our employees, retailers, consumers and our community. Lastly, knowing when to ask for help and finding the people who could provide it.

Here’s your opportunity to give a shout-out to anyone past or present who has played a major part in making Dansko’s success a reality.

The unsung, behind-the-scenes “hero of Dansko” is Mimi Curry, our chief operations officer, who handles every one of the mundane and utterly essential details that make our world go ’round. Mimi has shepherded us along since we were toddlers, and we are where we are today in large part because of her. Mimi is our Rock of Gibraltar.

What do you love most about your job?

Solving problems, making things better, making a difference in people’s lives and working side by side with my other half. —Greg Dutter

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