Dear CB, The biggest piece of advice I can give you right now is to simply, “Go for it.” Looking back on this journey of 27 years (and still counting), all I can say is to jump in with both feet. Don’t be afraid. Don’t look back.
I know you have apprehensions about entering the footwear business right out of Providence College, but you need not worry. It’ll be the best decision you ever make, and it will set the stage for amazing opportunities to follow. You will travel the world where you’ll meet some of the most dynamic, talented and inspiring people along the way. They will mentor you and point you in the right direction. Some will become lifelong friends, to boot. You will see the right way to do business, and you will also see the wrong way to go about it. Both will help you make better personal and professional decisions that guide you down the right path.
I don’t want to give everything away about where your career will take you since it should really be a surprise, but the majority will involve the footwear industry, from sourcing shoes to working on the wholesale side where you will supply many of the largest retailers in the country. You will buy and sell your own company, Velocity Sportswear, and you’ll also work in the public, VC and private equity communities for a stretch where you’ll help build, grow and reshape businesses such as Arccos, AirPacks, Foster Grant and Miller. It’ll be extremely challenging, but also fulfilling. It’s where you’ll learn the importance of consultative selling, and where you’ll learn to build sales channel strategies that improve focus and optimize resources. But you are thrilled to return to the industry where you started and love as chief sales officer for OrthoLite, the world’s leading OEM insole provider. The people, the passion, the product—the footwear business has it all.
Right now, though, you are cleaning golf clubs in the bag room at New Seabury on Cape Cod. It’s summer, and you’re a college student with your life all before you. Enjoy. Every. Moment! How funny is it that several of the members you’ve worked for over those years include Shoe Dogs, including a few legendary ones, like Reebok’s Paul Fireman, Dick Tarlow of FootJoy, Fran Lee of H.H. Brown and Gerry Shulman, a footwear sourcing veteran. And now you work for another iconic Shoe Dog, Glenn Barrett, who has pioneered the insoles category with the introduction of game-changing technologies. Time will fly by and, before you know it, you’ll earn Shoe Dog status as well! Who would’ve thought that would happen? LOL!
The best piece of advice I can give you now is to be one big sponge and absorb everything possible. Look, listen and learn. Along the way, one of your mentors will bestow this nugget of wisdom: “Manage, collaborate and sell with your ears and not your mouth.” When you first hear the advice, you think it’s contrary to what a sales leader should do. But he was absolutely right. You will quickly learn from your start at IGF Footwear as vice president of sales onto Ecco as a general sales manager and in your current position at OrthoLite that when it comes to the shoe business, it’s best to ask questions and to simply listen.
Knowing the needs of your coworkers and your brand partners enables you to find the right solutions. The top-performing sales managers are always the ones who take the necessary time to know the business of their clients inside and out. It requires research, commitment and desire. It also demands that you never be afraid to ask questions—there are no wrong ones when you’re in search of the right answers. That is how successful sales partnerships start and how long-standing relationships are forged. In essence, that is the secret to a successful lifetime of selling.
Good luck, CB! I’ve got a tee time to make!