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Charting a Course

Nancy Richardson, CEO of San Antonio Shoemakers (a.k.a. SAS), on steering the comfort company into the modern era while retaining its timeless values.

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One could say Nancy Richardson has been on a listening tour for seven years. It began the day she took the reins of SAS, the family-owned comfort shoe company based in San Antonio, TX. It’s not that Richardson was completely new to the industry or the company and had to learn everything from scratch. Far from it, in fact. She had not only worked in the shoe biz but at SAS several years prior, managing its finance and accounting department. But upon her return as the first CEO since founders
Terry Armstrong and Lew Hayden launched the company in 1976, Richardson knew she had very big—and beloved—shoes to fill. She had to earn the trust of the many longtime SAS employees and retail partners while at the same time begin to integrate much-needed modernization initiatives, all without rocking the boat too much. Such a balancing act has been made even more challenging by a turbulent industry landscape.

“I had to balance the strong history of SAS with preparing the company for the future,” Richardson says, noting the company was behind in understanding how technology could enhance product and customer service. “SAS had yet to allow its product to be sold online, its internal systems were antiquated, and even the product line needed a fresh makeover,” she says. “There was a lot of change needed, which is difficult for some people. I had to balance what we did well and make it relevant to how the world was moving forward to ensure that SAS will always be relevant in the market.”

Richardson knew what she was getting into and had a plan for what needed to be done, but there would be unforeseen challenges and surprises. “I was emotionally and intellectually ready for the challenges, but it’s like diving into the deep end of the pool,” she says. “You can see the depth from where you’re standing and you think you have a grasp on what it’s like, but you really don’t know until you feel that rush of water as you plunge in.” Ever the financial planner, Richardson methodically plotted a course of action—and has stayed the course. “I simply took the challenges on one at a time until it became almost second nature navigating through,” she says. “I think what really kept me steady throughout those early years especially was sticking to the goal of staying true to what SAS is at the core while also steering it into the future.” Seven years on, Richardson says she’s gained an even deeper appreciation of what the founders built and what SAS means, not only to everyone the company employs, but to all its customers.

What SAS means, according to Richardson, is pride in and respect for the craft of shoemaking. “The shoes we make are designed to purposely serve the needs of our customers,” she says. “Our founders would say, ‘If you take care of your people, they will take care of you.’ I’m amazed at how our entire team gives their all every day to make great shoes and take care of our customers.”

It’s helped that Richardson possessed intimate knowledge of the inner workings of SAS. She knew the employees, the products, the finances, the history, the good, the bad and what needed to be done to make the company even better. There was also a built-in trust factor with Richardson that has made the transition in leadership smoother than it would have been for a complete outsider. “They knew me and I knew them, so aside from my qualifications, I was appointed to the post because the family trusted I would be faithful to the SAS ethos,” she says. “I think understanding what the company and the brand are truly about at their very core enables you to better steer them, whereas those who start as outsiders and come into a company thinking they know it better than all the people who’ve been working there for a long time—and insist on radical change—can create a lot of issues.” Still, Richardson has gone to great lengths listening to team members from every department to get a more in-depth understanding of what is needed. “It’s about learning how to work together and finding the best path forward,” she says. “SAS has always been and always will be like a family.”

The changes that have been incorporated under Richardson’s watch are, of course, ultimately aimed at benefitting SAS’s extended family—its customers. “Our evolution is dictated by our accommodating the needs of our customers and the external changes occurring in the industry,” she says. “We’ve been very purposeful with whatever we do.” Again, it’s about finding a balance, in this case between retaining longtime customers and attracting new generations to the brand. “There’s no doubt that the industry landscape has changed from how people shop to how to engender brand loyalty from the new generation,” Richardson says. “What we try to do is find the middle ground from where SAS stands and those changes.” In this digital age, for example, she says SAS has become better attuned to having a strong online presence even as it’s determined to balance that with providing contact between its customers and the physical reality of what it makes. Translation: Brick-and-mortar stores are just as relevant to SAS’s distribution as ever.

This past year, Richardson reports, SAS has made solid progress in its ongoing efforts to expand, modernize and retain. “Our product selection became stronger than ever as we continue to listen to our customers,” she reports. “We also made great strides in expanding our global presence, strengthening our online presence and navigating the changing retail landscape.” The way Richardson sees it, SAS remains on a course to achieving its ultimate goal: “We’re committed to seeing at least one pair of SAS in everyone’s closet.”

Replacing two beloved founders…that’s not easy for anyone to do.

Being a new leader is never easy, but I had the advantage of already knowing many of the people working here. I wasn’t a total stranger stepping in where people might be apprehensive about what my intentions were. But I still had to earn their trust and respect. In that regard, I continue to listen, learn and grow. It’s when you think you already know everything that you have a problem.

In what ways might SAS be the same company and what’s the biggest change over your time as CEO?

SAS has always maintained its core strengths of handcrafted quality while adapting to every generation it serves, and we’re still doing that now. The most important aspects we remain adhered to are the abiding respect for the brand and the dedication to the craftsmanship of our products, maintaining great customer service as well as an established way of treating our employees like family. Those are core to SAS, and every single person in the company understands and appreciates this. The biggest difference is in how the world has changed and the means with which we are now adapting to those changes to meet our customers’ needs in what they want and how they want to shop.

In what ways is SAS approaching its business differently amid plenty of retail disruption and consolidation?

I must admit the disruption is a challenge throughout many different industries, including ours. I’m not entirely convinced that physical stores will ever completely go away. We all need these physical places of social connection, these communal settings where we gather. For many kinds of industries, it will always be important to both the merchant and the customer that the products are experienced physically. SAS has always relied on our customers to be able to feel the comfort of our shoes—to appreciate and see for themselves the fit and quality. I trust in those truths and know they will prevail. However, it’s the means with which to keep that going that is the challenge, which is why we’ve really tried to ensure that we are accessible to our customers in all the ways they are now shopping. We’re very much dedicated now to having an omni-channel strategy. We have our physical stores and our online presence, and we are creating experiential events, like our recent mobile pop-up in New York this fall in order to maintain our connection to our customers.

How was the mobile pop-up received?

It was really busy. We had a lot of existing SAS customers and lots of people who don’t know anything about us, and that was great. Reaching out to a broader audience was a key goal of the pop-up. We don’t have a lot of coverage in Manhattan, yet our concept of luxury comfort, offered in a broad range of sizes and widths, is ideal for such a walking city. Our luxury is practical and functional, and we have a range of sizes and widths that aren’t very easy to find in stores, so the truck let them step in, get fitted and order online. Customers were incentivized with a 20 percent discount on purchases made in the truck as well as the chance to enter the SAS Step into Luxury giveaway of four pairs (one for each season), a $1,200 value. In addition, social media influencers, Eric Wertz and Natalia Levsina, spent time on the truck interacting with customers and posting coverage on their feeds.

SAS is a dress brand, a comfort brand, a running brand, a Made in USA brand…how would you define SAS?

Yes, SAS is all those but ultimately it’s about the integrity of quality. We never have and never will be in the business of making disposable footwear. Our shoes may serve all those different interests—of looking dressy, being comfortable, being ideal for running, hiking or traveling, proudly made locally. But overall our shoes are made with the utmost care from the materials to the design to the craftsmanship. That’s what we are most proud of.

Just how important is that brand bandwidth in the market today, and are there any risks to it?

Trying to be everything to everyone is tricky business that never ends well. We know our strengths and we play to them. Those areas work for us because, at the core, that’s what we do well. But there is latitude within that allows us to be relevant across those different categories. We don’t really see this as a kind of diversification but more as an expansion of the brand to service our customers’ needs. And we aren’t approaching this as a challenge because we really aren’t trying to be everything to everybody at all.

Which market segment offers the biggest growth potential in the U.S., near and long term? 

In both near and long term, we feel very strongly about the next generation because we understand that soon it will be their world. We are striving to ensure the future of SAS by understanding what their needs are. From there, those needs become more specific in areas such as the growing awareness for health and fitness, the greater ability for people to travel, the convenience of shopping online. We are working on all those aspects from both near- and long-term perspectives. Online specifically already overrides the specificity of the U.S. market because there are no borders. We’re all becoming more global through the internet and that’s a growth potential no one can ignore. SAS has always appealed to different geographies because ours is a universal product not determined by cultural constraints.

Some might describe SAS as an older demographic comfort brand. Just how far has it evolved from that definition?

I believe it’s a matter of perception. We genuinely appreciate our older customers, but they certainly didn’t start out becoming SAS customers at an older age. They’ve only been wearing it longer. We aren’t at all disassociating ourselves from them, but we’re also proactively strengthening the perception of our core qualities as a brand that younger people can trust as well. Quality and comfort are not the needs solely of an older generation. If anything, it’s more relevant now because younger people are far more active and lead more hectic lives than previous generations. Even comfort itself is simply a byproduct of the quality and care that is core to SAS—that’s the perception we are communicating to everyone.

In addition to great products, how are you making the brand stand out amid a crowded marketplace?

Each season we devote time and effort to creating something special for our current customers and to draw interest from new ones. So, we do hold these experiential events such as our recent mobile pop-up in New York, our participation at the annual Beekman Fall Fest, as well as other ways where we engage directly with the public. It’s not just a way to stand out in a crowded marketplace, but really to forge a stronger connection to our customers and to make it easier for them to find us. It’s also beneficial to hear from them firsthand about their concerns, about what they’re looking for in footwear, about what might suit their needs, etc. These promotions are ways of getting people to know about our products and for us to get to know our customers better.

While much coverage concerning the state of retail has focused on the negative, are there any positives coming out of this correction?

The best-case scenario in any correction is the notion that they prevent the proliferation of inferior goods. But really there are so many other factors at play here like skyrocketing rents, the rush to market, the abundance of disposable goods…those negatives can’t be overlooked either. The positive that will likely, or at least hopefully, emerge is brands being more aware of how they make their products and being more attuned to the needs of their customers instead of simply producing ‘things for people to buy.’

What exactly is your take on the state of shoe retailing in the U.S.? Any tiers that might be better positioned for success?

We’re seeing a lot of changes as many brands scramble to find their footing, no pun intended, across platforms—from the shuttering of once reliable brick-and-mortar shops to the challenges of conducting online business. Amid this it seems there are limitations to the popularity of fast fashion as people seem to be turning back to goods made with artisanal care. There are also pricing issues when it comes to those who produce offshore. There are some corrections going on that we all need to weather through. At SAS, I believe we’re in a better position to do so because we produce locally. But we’re also adjusting to the new realities of the market. That said I think there are successes to be found in all price points, but those whose businesses aren’t based predominantly on fleeting trends, those with an already established brand identity and those who can deliver what their customers want, are the ones that will continue to thrive.

What do you think retailers are looking for from brands today?

The core question really is: What are the factors that make a product sell? That’s what retailers want from brands—products that sell. From our perspective, we seek out the answers from the consumers. It’s their needs, lives and tastes that we need to understand and fulfill. It’s often folly to assume you can just create a product and it’s so wonderful that people will just automatically want it.

What are you doing to ensure SAS remains a reliable partner to its retailers?

Much like the end consumer, we make it a priority to understand the specific needs of our retailers whether it’s a regional market, the price points they provide or any other needs that pertain to their stores. For example, we are focused on shortening the response time when it comes to delivering product to market and spreading the rollout of the collection so that there’s always something new and interesting from SAS at those points of purchase. We have become better listeners.

What might the typical shoe store look like in 10 years?

I’m confident that 10, 20 years or even a century from now, people will still want and need exactly what we deliver: quality and comfort. As far as what the typical shoe store might look like, I imagine there will perhaps be more ways to present our products, whether in new technical ways to custom fit shoes or some more advanced ways of offering more customization options from colors to parts of the shoe.

One of the trends coming out of this disruption is an increasing number of wholesalers expanding DTC efforts. What’s SAS’s position on that channel going forward and can it coexist peacefully with your retail partners?

We have DTC through our website, but we value our retailers and realize their stores still fill a very important role for SAS. We never undercut the prices online and there can be differences between what we have online to what the stores carry, depending on their own merchandising objectives. Again, we’re very sensitive to accommodating our retailers as much as we can because they are a part of our chain. We always make a point to prioritize their goals as they are part of our goals.

Where do you envision SAS in five years?

We are very meticulously balancing the needs of our core market while extending ourselves to the next generation who will comprise that core market eventually. It’s a delicate and long process of evolving the brand without altering our DNA. In five years, I expect we’ll still be proud of our craftsmanship and dedication to quality, and in most ways the styles will remain timeless. But I also imagine there will have been new advances in technology and some new and fresh designs to suit the taste of the modern consumer.

What do you love most about your job?

For me, it’s two pronged: Working with the great team that we have built across the company and knowing that SAS contributes to people’s everyday lives. I’m most fulfilled when we hear directly back from our customers who are appreciative of the products we make. That we help make their lives more comfortable. One cannot help but feel enormous pride at being a part of that. •

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