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Balancing Act

More than a year after being named president of Dansko, Jim Fox details the delicate balance needed to succeed in today’s topsy-turvy retail landscape.

Jim Fox, President of Dansko.

Jim Fox had some very big clogs to fill when he was named president of Dansko at the beginning of last year. He was replacing Mandy Cabot, Dansko’s founder, visionary and, for all intents and purposes, den mother of the (primarily) women’s comfort company for the past 27 years. Cabot is Dansko and Dansko is Cabot. The two are intertwined, their DNA strains woven together in a bond unlike most corporate structures. Every detail—down to the artwork hanging on the walls of Dansko’s renowned eco-friendly headquarters in West Grove, PA—reflects Cabot’s influence.

Her motherly instincts and expert business skills have served the company well. It has steadily grown into a cornerstone comfort brand for thousands of retailers. Along the way, Cabot made every business decision, always with the long-term health of the company and its employees in mind. (The recent decision to make Dansko 100 percent employee-owned is just one example.) So when the time came to look for a successor—one who could begin by running the day-to-day operations while Cabot focused on the company’s big picture initiatives—it’s little surprise that she tapped in-house talent. She chose Fox, who had spent the past 11 years as Dansko’s CFO.

“Jim shares our vision and values, understands our history and the factors that have contributed to our success,” Cabot says. “I take great comfort in passing the baton to someone we know so well and trust so implicitly.” On a more symbolic level, Cabot adds, “Dansko has always been about providing opportunities, about making the unavailable available and about sharing something great, starting with our flagship clogs. Promoting people from within, providing growth opportunities for our employees, indeed providing equity for our employees’ commitment and contribution, is at the heart of what we do and who we are.”

When Fox joined Dansko he never thought he might one day become its president. But what he did know right away was that he hoped he could make it a career. Fox felt he had found a home following his six-year stint as CFO of And1, an athletic apparel and footwear brand based nearby. (Fox had had the good fortune of having lived across the hall from Jay Gilbert, one of And1’s founders, during his freshman year at Stanford. Following a stint in the United States Air Force’s intelligence unit during the first Persian Gulf War, he completed business school then the two reconnected and Fox began his footwear industry career.)

Fox says it was the people at Dansko—specifically founders Cabot and her husband Peter Kjellerup along with longtime COO Mimi Curry—who made him feel welcome at Dansko. He also liked Dansko’s corporate culture, which takes business seriously but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Case in point: Pet dogs are allowed in the office. He says the culture prioritizes “caring about its employees and the local community.”

Eight years later, Cabot reached out to Fox about becoming Dansko’s president. “She wasn’t and hasn’t gone anywhere, but she wanted to make sure any such transition wouldn’t be an abrupt change,” he says. Cabot knew Fox was the right man for the job, taking into account what Dansko has become. “While my less structured approach worked when we were a smaller mom-and-pop, Jim is better able to manage—and measure—the details that matter in a larger organization,” she says, adding, “I’m a dreamer; Jim is a doer. While I ask why, Jim asks how.”

The partnership looks to be a balance of right- and left-brain talents. “Mandy and I are very complementary,” Fox says. “She’s always looking forward about what we can do next, whereas I’m trying to execute those ideas.” For example, Fox considers Cabot a great asset to the marketing team because she can ground the members in Dansko’s history but is flexible in thinking about where it should go. “We ask different types of questions of people,” he adds. “She’s more into product, while I defer to the experts and ask questions about SKU management, business strategy and so forth.” Adds Cabot: “Jim brings a high level of discipline to the work of the executive team, riding herd on strategic initiatives, documenting what’s worked, what hasn’t and lessons learned. In that sense, he demands a higher-degree of accountability from the team than I did.”

Take the management of SKUs, for example. Cabot has long been known to love all the new styles and has a hard time trimming the final assortment down each season. Fox, on the other hand, believes less can be better. “We have to be focused without losing anything,” he says. “It’s helpful to retailers from an inventory management perspective and in terms of the choices they have to make.” That said, Fox knows you can’t satisfy everybody by having everything each season, nor can you be too tight. “While I would love to get all our sales out of just black and brown, that doesn’t work either,” he says with a laugh.

So far so good on the executive balancing act. While Fox won’t take credit for the range of products performing well at retail this spring, he cites the hiring of Tiss Dahan as the new vice president of marketing last summer as helping the company to kick start several initiatives regarding ways the brand can understand its consumer better and making sure it clarifies the messages it’s delivering to them. “We’ve made a real effort to make sure we have more photography and digital assets that we can provide to our retailers as well as use ourselves,” he says, adding, “These may seem like small details, but we’ve done a good job overall on focusing on the right areas and getting the right people involved working on our priorities as we go forward.”

As for the immediate future, Fox says Dansko will focus on its core business in the years ahead. He sees enormous potential for growth in the brand’s existing categories, both in women’s and men’s. “Whether it’s in our lifestyle categories, everyday essential footwear for people to wear to work, occupational, expansion in men’s…we have lots of opportunities within those categories,” he says.

It’s an enviable position for Dansko. “It’s helpful to be able to focus on what you know you already do well and to know that there are opportunities for growth in those categories,” Fox says. “It’s definitely a positive for Dansko.”

What are doing differently as president that you weren’t doing before?

My role has changed quite a bit. Setting aside my heavy involvement in finance and budgeting, my job now involves a more holistic view of the business and asking different types of questions. It’s less about the numbers and more about specific issues and problems. That said, the good thing about having been CFO is I have nice visibility into how the entire business is run. Fortunately, the people I work with are tremendous. They know a lot more about their respective work areas than I ever will. As such, my job as president is making sure that they are thinking about the right aspects and working with the right people internally to overcome any hurdles. The other big change, which is one that I really enjoy, is meeting with our customers in their stores and at trade shows.

The transition of you assuming day-to-day responsibilities has been seamless, correct?

Yes. For starters, everything is a lot easier when you have a strong brand, a talented team and great relationships already in place. And all those aspects can be traced back to Mandy. In addition, it’s not like I’m stepping into a completely new role, a new company or a business with a lot of problems. We’ve got a business with all these fantastic things going for it.

How is business for Dansko this year?

Knocking on wood, business has been good. We’re pleased. We can’t track all our sales but for the ones we do get reports on, we are up over last spring. While we’d like to be up a lot more, we’re happy that we have successful shoes across different categories. We have had success in our sneaker category, the Honor and Charlie styles have performed well this spring. Our Demetra peep toe, open back bootie has also sold through well this season, as has our Vera sandal. Overall, we’re not relying on a particular pattern, collection or category, and that makes us optimistic about the future.

Being up at all is no easy feat considering the overall volatility in the market of late.

It’s a very challenging environment. Everybody is affected by changing consumer habits and reduced traffic in stores. Retailers are understandably acting conservatively in terms of orders and managing inventory, and that affects us all. It’s not like we are up 20 percent, but we are at least happy that we are performing well, and I think that’s a testament to the channels that we are in, having the right product and getting our message out there.

Success starts with good product, but might there be other aspects helping Dansko, too?

Nothing else really matters if you don’t have good product. But I believe our customer service is top-notch. We’ve won awards and we always strive to be the best, whether in terms of deliveries, dealing with people on the phone and so forth. I also believe we are fortunate in terms of the strong retailer relationships that we’ve established. They’re very important to us and we do everything we can to make them strong. They are a testament to the people we have here who have developed these relationships over the long term. We don’t have a lot of people changing in and out of positions in terms of who our retailers work with. It’s a huge asset in that our team understands the business and has built a mutual respect with their customers. It’s another tenet of the company that Mandy established, and we will continue to build on. Also, it should be noted that a lot of the turmoil that is going on at retail of late are channels that we don’t necessarily sell. That doesn’t mean we are immune to everything, but we have been fortunate in that aspect.

Dansko started out as the “little clog company that could” that evolved into a big clog company and now a women’s comfort company. Is that an accurate assessment of where the company now stands?

We describe ourselves as a premium quality comfort footwear brand. It isn’t just clogs, it’s a wide variety of footwear. It’s predominantly women’s, but we want to do more in men’s. Internally, we say we strive for people who want to get the most from life. That means shoes that are good for your feet, all day and every day. But also in a range of styles that are right for our customers. It’s not rocket science, but I believe there are a lot of things we have yet to deliver to really maximize the opportunities there.

Like growing your men’s business?

We’ve always had men’s, but it’s been a small component of the business. We launched a new collection last fall and we are moving forward with that. It did fine. It was like retail overall: mixed. In some places, it did well and in other places we’re still working at it. Part of that was due to not being able to make a big splash in terms of marketing, but we got good product into the right places and I believe that approach just takes time to build, just like the Dansko brand in general.

Other brands have tried or are in the process of spending lots of money trying to cross over into men’s. What are Dansko’s potential dual gender brand attributes?

Aspects like comfort, premium quality and styling that you are comfortable wearing all translate into men’s. Now to your point, there are some brands that are so representative in people’s minds as one gender that it’s difficult to crossover. For us, I think it’s more a matter of men getting to know Dansko. It’s not like they know us as something else. It’s similar in how people have gotten to know us as a comfort brand and not just a clog brand. It’s always fun to see consumers say, “I didn’t know Dansko made shoes like that…” That’s a big part of the opportunity for our growth going forward, and that includes men’s.

Being a predominantly “brown shoe” brand, how has the athleisure trend impacted sales?

As consumers wear sneakers more frequently, it does have an impact on the rest of the business, no question. But you don’t want to be a copycat and you don’t want to be too late to the party. You want to are deliver what consumers want. It’s figuring out what the right balance is. We are fortunate that consumers have been happy to accept that sneaker look from us, but we’ve delivered something unique. It has the Dansko DNA and yet it’s n athletically inspired look. It’s one thing to have a soft sneaker, but ours have the built-in arch, premium materials and outsole support. It’s a similar ride that you get from other Dansko footwear that people have come to know and trust. It’s been doing very well at retail. It also means we must up our game in the [non-sneaker] categories. Like everybody else, we have to give people a reason to buy in those categories as well. That goes back to what Mandy has always preached from the beginning: being balanced.

Care to predict how much legs this yoga pants-craze has left?

If I could predict the future, I would be doing something different. That aside I would say the trend toward casual will certainly continue. It’s really a long-term shift. But that doesn’t mean every other category will go away entirely. In general, I think it bodes well for Dansko because we are more of a casual brand. Even our go-to-work items, whether it’s clogs or other styles, are more versatile and casual. Plus, we’ve got that casual history.

Well, I don’t envision consumers shifting back to being uncomfortable.

I don’t think that’s going to happen, either. But at the same time, when I first got here, styles and collections had a longer life span. Now everything is shorter because people want it to be more fashionable. They don’t expect to see the same thing that they saw a year ago. Our product development team is working very hard to figure out the right balance—what makes sense to bring back and when to bring in something new.

Speaking of new, there have been several Dansko-esque clog collections introduced by other brands of late. Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? 

While the imitations confirm that we are doing something right, our job is to stay a step ahead on product innovation as well as focusing on the Dansko brand because, as we talked about earlier, it’s not just the product that differentiates companies. It’s the brand image and all the other business aspects that a company delivers on. What’s more, we can’t worry about what other brands are doing. We have to worry about what we’re doing and just try to get better at it. Occupational clogs, specifically, is an important category for us as a lot of folks depend on that product to wear day-in and day-out. The same goes for any new products that we roll out.

Those are aspects within Dansko’s control. Now what’s your take on the state of retail that seems quite out of control lately?

There’s always change and uncertainty in retail, but there’s been an unusual amount of late. That’s what has everybody so uncomfortable because it’s changing so quickly, but where does it level out? Some people tend to over-react and think it’s all going to go in one direction and everything will be online and/or in a showroom format. Then there are people who just resist change. Personally, I think it’s important to figure out how to adapt, which is really challenging because I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how it’s going to shake out. But it’s certainly changing and it feels like we are at a watershed moment with retail changing by the day. Figuring out how it’s going to look in five years, let alone 10…I don’t think anybody has a clear answer, and if anybody told me that they did, I wouldn’t believe it.

What is Dansko doing differently in response to the changes that you know are taking place?

You have to give everybody, whoever your customers are, a reason to carry you. Some of that is product segmentation, making sure some things are available only in certain areas. It also involves helping drive people into stores, whether that’s with advertising, photography or other assets. We are working closely with our retailers to help them do that, and that can be as simple as Facebook posts to drive customers to events. It’s not easy and we don’t have all the answers, but I think the best thing that we can do is make sure that Dansko is a brand that people want and that they have a reason to go into a store to get.

MAP pricing policies is another way. Everyone claims to have them, but it’s the enforcement that seems to be sketchy.

We are always trying to keep the brand premium. It’s difficult to do as there are a fair number of unauthorized resellers out there and you can’t police that easily. But we do our best to make sure we know the retailers that we are working with. That’s the main thing: work closely with your retailers.

Dansko is sold on Amazon and its Marketplace. How’s that going, noting that the other elephant in the room is Amazon’s growing retail dominance.

The consumer is calling the shots today, and when they go to Amazon they expect to find the product there. The challenge is to do it in a way that makes sense for the brand and for all our retail partners.

How do you do that, exactly?

We are working on that. Some of it is the product that you make available to different channels. And some of it is just making sure you are working with authorized resellers so it doesn’t go to the lowest common denominator. It’s tricky and challenging and I think everybody is trying to figure out the right balance. It keeps coming back to balance. Doing all or nothing doesn’t seem to work very well. We have to figure out what is the right amount to be out there with and who to be out there with.

While it may be an exaggeration to say the industry will consolidate down to Amazon and Walmart, their growing influence can’t be underestimated.

While I don’t think we’re headed to just two retailers, it doesn’t help to complain about the reality. I also think, for some people, it’s an opportunity because I don’t believe we are going all in one direction. There’s always going to be a reason for good brick-and-mortar stores and I don’t think they are all going to end up as showrooms. There are lot of that are still successful, and that’s because their customer base likes it—the human interaction. I also think a lot of people want to go into a curated environment. It’s hard to shop 1,000 different choices. That can be overwhelming. At the same time, retail isn’t going to stay the same nor is it going back to what it was 10 years ago. The trick is to move quickly, adapt, weather the storm and figure out where those opportunities are going forward. That’s goes for both brands and retailers, obviously.

The key word going forward is curation. The friendly retailer that can make shopping both entertaining and efficient.

You can’t beat Amazon or Walmart at their own game. You must give people a reason to come into your store, and we’re now seeing some retailers focus more on the experiences instead of just product or price. Malls turning into restaurant destinations and offering other experiences, for example. Those are places where people will want to buy stuff, too.

What is Dansko’s direct-to-consumer (DTC) policy—the smaller elephant in the room with regards to many retailers?

We sell DTC online, and I believe our retailers understand that consumers call the shots. There are some who come to our site and want to be able to buy right away. We offer that option at full MSRP. But we also direct them to retailers. Everything has to be a balance, which I’ve probably said 100 times in this interview. We value our retail relationships and we are doing everything to support them and, at the same time, we can’t disappoint consumers.

Amid this all this industry uncertainty, why might you be optimistic?

I’m optimistic because we’re a strong brand and I believe in our team. We are also fortunate to have a fanatical consumer base. In times of uncertainty, people often focus on things they are comfortable and familiar with. I think Dansko has a great advantage in that regard going forward. Our customers know what we stand for and they know what they are going to get from us: premium quality and outstanding footwear. That means a lot to people when there’s a ton of uncertainty and change going on, which can be confusing, disruptive and unpleasant. Having said all that, we can’t sit still. We’ve got to adapt and be nimble, and I believe we have the people and the capabilities to do that.

What do you love most about your job?

One: The people I work with. We have fantastic people. Two: I love meeting consumers who treat people from Dansko like they are rock stars. Whether it’s hearing relayed stories from sales reps or meeting people at a restaurant or hospital and seeing their faces light up as they talk about how much they love our shoes, there’s nothing more satisfying than that.

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