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A Refreshing Approach

Bob Infantino—president of Drydock Footwear, makers of Cobb Hill, Aravon and Dunham—on why the partnership with New Balance is off to an impressive start.

Visitors to the home page of the Drydock Footwear website are greeted with a brief, breezy greeting. There’s no corporate bravado, no boasting about proprietary designs or breakthrough comfort systems, no number-laden claims of sales might and no garish logos. Instead, a subtle, concise introduction gets right to the heart of what makes Drydock Footwear unique in a crowded and homogenized comfort-casual landscape: a blend of newness and experience that spans Drydock’s portfolio, products, people and corporate philosophy. The homepage is an invitation wrapped in a greeting. It cleverly concludes with the question “Refreshing, huh?” and prompts readers to reach a similar conclusion: that something has been missing in the marketplace—and Drydock can fill the void.

Retailers don’t need another comfort-casual shoe brand. They want something that is truly different. Something that presents new growth potential, rather than cannibalizing sales of existing brands. Something that addresses the specific needs of consumers when it comes to sizing, fit, comfort and style, but that also addresses behind-the-scenes needs such as customer service, marketing support and in-stock programs.

Three years ago, Bob Infantino set out to launch something entirely fresh. He had recently stepped down from The Clarks Companies N.A., where, under his 18 years at the helm, sales topped out at $780 million annually. He didn’t see the value in duplication. Moreover, this was Infantino’s opportunity to launch a business from scratch on his terms. It was a chance to draw upon his 40-plus years of experience and his extensive industry contacts to field an all-star team of executives in sales, marketing and design.

Infantino’s first pick was John Daher—his good friend and co-worker at Clarks for 12 years—as senior vice president of product development. “John and I see things similarly,” he says. They describe each other as line builders first and foremost. “He has a great eye for color and materials, and he can adapt to trends quickly.” Infantino’s second pick to join his new company was a big one: New Balance CEO Jim Davis and his company became the back engine that has enabled Drydock to hit the ground running faster than any traditional start-up could ever imagine.

Infantino describes Drydock’s start to date as “spectacular”, particularly for the new Cobb Hill brand. “Cobb Hill has grown rapidly,” he confirms. “We’ve opened up almost every key independent in the country—all the excellent stores that I have come to know over the years. They gave us a chance, and our shoes have performed very well. Many have done 50 to 75 percent more business with us the following season, and some have even doubled their business with us.” The client list also includes an array of leading department stores. Among them are Nordstrom, Belk, Von Maur, Hudson’s Bay Company and the just opened Lord & Taylor, as well as key e-commerce players like Zappos, ShoeBuy and OnlineShoes. “It’s really come together,” Infantino says. “Zappos, for example, carries about 475 brands. When we started, we were probably number 475. Now Cobb Hill ranks in its Top 50 brands. That’s fast growth.”

Infantino fully expected a strong response to his Drydock concept. It’s not arrogance, but conviction that he could succeed, particularly if he began by putting the right people in place. “This is an inspired group of people,” he says, noting that other Clarks alums to join the team include Sue Dooley, marketing director; Gene DeCristofaro, territory manager; Margie Glazer, communication and events manager; and, most recently, Joe Salzano, senior adviser. “When you have this kind of talent and know-how, plus this fantastic company in New Balance that is supporting everything we do—and would have required tons of money, people and expertise to do on our own—and also treats customers and employees the way we like to and makes great products at a great value… I think it was almost destined to succeed.” Infantino deems it the ideal blend of new and experienced. “We have the best of both worlds. The heritage of New Balance combined with offering something fresh and interesting for the market.”

Nevertheless, Infantino is still humbled by the immediate and widespread acceptance Drydock has received. “It’s really gratifying to have so many people open their arms to us and give us a try based on a say-so,” he says. While the industry knew of Infantino, consumers didn’t. And no one had ever heard of Cobb Hill. The ace up Infantino’s sleeve was New Balance. Putting “Cobb Hill by New Balance” on all its product and packaging created a “huge” gateway into the marketplace, he says. “It’s the one thing that nobody else can say in the casual shoe business,” he says. “New Balance has a great reputation. They are known for selling sizes and widths, and they make products that consumers really like. It gave our product instant credibility.” Look at it this way, Infantino suggests, “If you were shopping for headphones and came across the Bob Infantino Headphone Company as opposed to the Bob Infantino Headphone Company by Bose, which ones would you be more apt to buy?”

Beyond the New Balance seal of approval, Infantino attributes a big portion of his success to the product itself. “It has so many wonderful details. It’s always on-trend. It has great value and features terrific materials—all those aspects that you really have to know how to do,” he explains. Couple that with the comfort systems that he and Daher are well-versed in incorporating into casual shoe designs plus access to the “candy store” that is New Balance’s array of comfort technologies—like RevLite and Fresh Foam—and you get a powerful blend of style and comfort. Reinforcing this is the fact that Drydock’s marketing capabilities, in-store and out, are much more extensive than a normal company its size, Infantino notes.

The last piece of the puzzle is Drydock’s commitment to partnering with its retailers. Of course, every company claims to be a genuine partner, but that’s often more fluff than substance. “I know it can sound hackneyed, but when you really believe in your heart that you do partner and make people feel like they are a part of your company, the results speak for themselves,” Infantino says. Establishing that level of connection has required a formidable travel schedule for Infantino. His itinerary sounds like a refrain from the Johnny Cash song, I’ve Been Everywhere. Recent stops have included Kalamazoo, MI; Shenandoah, IA; and Bakersfield, CA. In addition to getting a priceless sense of the retail landscape, Infantino is having a blast. “In my last years at Clarks, it got so big that I didn’t get as much of a chance to visit our customers, especially the independent retailers,” he says. “Now it’s my No. 1 priority. That’s the real shoe business, by the way. That’s where you find out what’s really going on.” Infantino believes that because he lived it, getting his start working on the floor at Altier Shoes in his hometown of Rochester, NY. He finds these in-store visits anything but a chore. “I do it because I love it,” he says. “The visits have been truly inspiring.”

That sums up Infantino’s approach to Drydock Footwear and to the industry as whole: It’s a labor of love. And that’s a refreshing story.

Drydock is doing well, you are working with a handpicked team of friends and you are spending time visiting great stores around the country. What’s not to love?
Oh my God, I love it all, especially visiting these small stores. And the smaller the town, the better. I feel like Charles Kuralt (CBS’s “On The Road” correspondent). I recently visited Reyers (in Sharon, PA) and (owner) Mark Jubelirer took me by the elbow and walked me through his hall of fame and backroom operations. I was drinking it all in. I love hearing about that stuff. I also love learning about what makes people tick, and there’s nothing like letting these store owners talk about their businesses and telling you what they love about them.

Seeing it firsthand trumps any spreadsheet report.
Definitely. When I visited Reyers, earlier that day I had been at Lucky Shoes (in Akron, OH), which is another great independent retailer. In between those two locations there’s pretty much nothing, but then there’s this massive shoe store. (At 36,000 square feet, Reyers bills itself as “the world’s largest shoe store.”) It does millions of dollars a year in sales. And the Jubelirer family absolutely loves the shoe business. I also met one of their salespeople who has worked there for years and makes pickled peppers. Well, she sent me a jar and they were delicious. It made my trip extra special.

After visiting Takken’s in San Luis Obispo, CA, I drove three hours to Bakersfield to meet with Rosco Rolnick of Guarantee Shoe Center and, along the way, I saw hundreds of miles of almond and pistachio trees and learned that the region also supplies 70 percent of the world’s carrots. I’ve known Rosco for years but had never made it to his store. He’s a third-generation retailer and his daughter is now working with him. Rosco’s a terrific guy and does a lot of work in philanthropy. And he’s got a big store that does a great business. It was a great visit, and all it took was a relatively short drive. I learned what products of mine might work best for his clientele. I was also the first brand to present in his just-refinished basement showroom. He was so proud to show it to me.

What’s more fun than doing all this? I’m not doing this anymore because I need a “job.” I love the idea of being in these places, spending time with storeowners and talking to their customers. Then I come back to our offices in Boston and strategize with John and the rest of our team on how we can try and meet all of their respective needs. That’s a big reason we’ve been successful, because everyone in our company is thinking this way.

What’s your response to those who say the independent retailer is a dying breed?
There will always be good independents. And there are still a lot of very good ones left and some new guys coming along. Some of my favorites include the Astobiza brothers at Sole Desire. They are opening stores (currently 13 locations in California) as fast as they can, and they are selling a ton of shoes. They are on the floor and working closely with their brands all the time. They have a feel for the business and I believe they are going to be incredibly successful. They are not going to get killed by the Internet. They create theater in their stores. I believe they love the business the same way I did. I get so inspired standing alongside these young kids who are just killing it. I’d love to be around another 50 years and see where they take this business.

About how many stores have you visited in the past year and have you hit all 50 states?
I’ve visited more than 100 and will probably visit another 100 stores this year. But I haven’t been to some of the giant square states [laughs]. Most recently, I’ve been to Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, New York, Michigan, California, Iowa and Maine. There are some terrific stores out there, ones whose overall capacity amazed me. Karavel Shoes in Austin, TX, for example, has a tremendous shoe repair component as well as a great assortment of European brands. And I had no idea how big Houser Shoes’ stores really are (in South Carolina primarily). And Tops for Shoes in Asheville, NC, is another big, beautiful store I recently visited. I just love getting out there and learning about these businesses. I also love being in the selling mode because I really believe in what we are doing. It doesn’t even feel like I’m selling. It’s just showing who we are and how we can help their businesses.

Sounds to me like the makings of a reality TV show: “Shoe Store Travels with Bob.”
Maybe you’re onto something. I most recently went to Los Angeles and stopped into J. Stephens, the shops along Abbot Kinney Boulevard and Nordstrom’s new store in The Grove, which is fabulous. The next day I went to San Francisco and shopped Hayes Street, where Gimme Shoes has a store. That area always has trends you would never find if you didn’t snoop around. John and I never stop looking. Recently, we were in Quebec City and Montreal and went through all these great shops, which is like shopping in Europe. We also travel to Europe often, where we usually shop Cologne, Munich, Paris, Barcelona—a great shoe city—and, depending on the season, Amsterdam or Rome. Occasionally, we’ll put Brussels on our itinerary.

There’s something about actually walking into these stores that you can’t see online or in a report, right?
Absolutely. Speaking with merchants about what’s working and why, looking at details, touching the leathers—you can’t do that online. And we always find something new. If you shop the Hong Kong market, you’ll see things you never knew existed. It’s constantly changing. It’s changed during the span of this phone conversation. Unless you are physically out there looking, you just won’t see or understand or accumulate the knowledge you need to comprehend what’s really going on in the market. It’s a constant journey.

Based on your extensive travels, how would you assess the general mindset of consumers right now?
It’s decent, definitely stronger than it was a few years ago. Back then, they weren’t concerned about what shoes they were going to buy, they were worried about their 401Ks, the price of their house and whether they would keep their jobs. A lot of those fears have been allayed. People are breathing a little easier. While they are not buying with wild abandon, they are feeling better about their investments. I also think that they are looking to be inspired. If they find something they like, they are making the purchases.

Along those lines, who is the Cobb Hill consumer?
The customer is anywhere from age 25 and up. It’s really not about targeting a specific age. My mother, for example, has a few pairs, but she is not the same 93-year-old as someone who was that age 20 years ago. And there are a lot of 50- and 60-year-old women dressing exactly the same as they did in their 30s and 40s. We design for someone who is looking for something special. So there are little touches, be they ornamentations or stitch details, to make the shoes interesting. But the shapes and the way they fit and feel are pretty universal. Cobb Hill also comes in three widths. Aravon, by contrast, offers more orthopedic applications, like removable footbeds, and is available in five widths. Between those two, we cover consumers every which way. As one of our employees succinctly said, “The Cobb Hill customer wants comfort. The Aravon customer needs it.”

How is Dunham doing?
It’s good, steady growth. It’s our men’s brand, basically, and we’ve added a lot of new product lines. I think it can become a strong brand. We are trying lots of new concepts and finding our way into that market. We have a lot of shoes that are constant re-orders. It’s a nice steady business, and we keep adding to it. For example, we’ve incorporated the RevLite technology into some styles and it has done nicely. Offering the feel of a running shoe disguised as a casual is working well. We are also offering a lot of waterproof boots—the kinds of styles you’d expect a good men’s brand to offer. But it takes longer to grow a men’s business than a women’s casual business.

Are men still embracing their inner fashionista, be it by wearing bright colors or edgier styles?
Maybe not all the really bright colors, but I think the male consumer has changed in America. It’s been happening in Europe for a long time, but the male consumer here is wearing a lot of things he would have never tried before. You see a lot of guys wearing color-soled wingtips and jodhpur boots. In general, there’s more acceptance of fashion now in the men’s world. They are feeling a little bit of freedom from having to wear the same things all the time. It’s refreshing and offers an opportunity for a brand like Dunham to take some market share. Helping us in this regard is the fact that Dunham is a heritage brand with strong roots in America. It also has huge offerings in sizes and widths. Some styles go up to size 20 and 6E. We can break into retailers with these unique sizes and, once they start selling, they often back-fill into our normal size ranges.

You mentioned the word “refreshing.” That stood out to me as the key adjective in describing the whole Drydock concept on the home page of your website. What exactly makes the company refreshing?
It starts with the extraordinary group of people here. I have had the opportunity to pick an all-star team. Fortunately, very good people wanted to work here. We have all this talent and passion, and we’ve been able to avoid getting egos involved. People like the company and each other. So that’s a really refreshing point of view from inside our company. If people actually believe in our ideals and believe in one another, then everything that comes out of the business—whether it’s marketing, product, sales or how we treat customers and retailers—turns out to be refreshing.

It sounds similar to the culture you created at Clarks.
Yes. The one thing I’m trying to do here that I did there is create a culture in which anyone in the shoe business would love to work. John and I want people to feel good about being here. If we can do that and grow the brands to around $300 to $400 million, that’ll be a nice-sized company. We are creating the culture along the way. For example, every Friday we cook breakfast for all employees in our kitchen, which overlooks Boston Harbor. We do that to create a sense of family. If I can have that be what my life is about in the last part of my career, then that’ll be enough for me.

Easier said than done, correct?
Yes. Your motivation has to be pure. I’ve always believed that if you pay employees what they’re worth, then the rest of what makes them happy comes basically for free—listening, making sure they’re involved and giving meaningful recognition for their performance. When you make them feel like they truly matter in your company, their sense of loyalty and their work ethic go through the roof. Really, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. But it has to be inherent, in your soul, bone deep. Selfishly, I also like to be around happy people. If I’m going to hang around here all day, I might as well enjoy my time by working alongside people who are happy to be here.

How much harder might it have been getting Drydock off to such a fast start without the New Balance seal of approval, especially in what has been a difficult economy?
It definitely would have been tougher to get immediate acceptance with some of the big retailers. But I honestly think a good idea will always be accepted. I don’t think the good ideas are necessarily weeded out in a weak economy. Obviously, in a robust economy a mediocre idea might be able to make it. But a good idea should make it in any economy.

In addition to delivering on the basics, might there be anything else going on in the market that is making retailers receptive to Drydock’s portfolio?
Part of our acceptance has to do with retailers having a really engaged partner that understands the American market specifically. To that end, there’s a lot of market share open for a brand offering a new, good idea. We have been taking a lot of market share because retailers are looking for alternatives and freshness. Last year, in particular, was a phenomenal year for Cobb Hill. We experienced great growth and received great feedback. Almost every single retailer we approached gave us a test and, as soon as it worked, they jumped in with both feet because they saw it as something fresh. Now plenty of other brands claim they offer freshness, but what’s the rest of their story? Are their shoes of high value? Do they carry sizes and widths? Do they offer an in-stock program? Do they have marketing assets? Do they have a big company behind them that will actually deliver on time? Will their shoes fit? Will there be an implicit partnership where, if there’s an issue, the company will do everything it can to ensure the retailer will not lose money? Do they know and trust the people who run the business? Is their distribution clean or will they have to compete with every ad in the newspaper at some ridiculous price? Do they have a bunch of their own retail stores that retailers have to compete against? When all of this is available in one package, who would you buy from?

Claiming to offer the basics still represents a strong sales pitch. At least, to me, it does.
That’s because not everyone really does or can. A company our size has so much market share to potentially grab right now. It’s like hunting wildebeest, as big companies can become vulnerable due to their own success. Small companies, like ours, who are watching every trend and connecting with retailers and consumers, can turn on a dime. That kind of flexibility is priceless.

Is there a point where Drydock might reach a size where its ability to be agile no longer applies?
Whenever a business has started to become too big, I’ve always broken it into segments that are able to think like smaller companies. Make each team of designers, merchandisers and marketers experts at their respective target audiences. It works if you focus on the consumer first. You can continue to drive innovation and design by treating your overall company like a bunch of small companies. It’s really a mindset. And it helps to be an independent business, in this regard. You are not driven so much by numbers like public companies are. Sometimes their numbers can be pretty good, but if the expectations were even higher, that still hurts them. We’re able to create our own expectations and keep the growth manageable and sustainable. We can also take greater risks.

Where do you see Drydock in five years?
Rather than talk about it in numerical terms, our plan is to build the brands in a way that consumers keep asking for our products. And rather than having to discover them, they are going to know where the brands are. The initial plan was to look like established brands with great POP immediately and to work closely with retailers. To a large degree, we’ve accomplished that. Over the next three to five years, it will be about building around them by making our products on trend and holding up their value. If we can keep doing that and preserve our culture as a company, I think we will become one of the bigger comfort businesses in the country.

So, no visions of retiring any time soon?
I have a lot of time left to work at this. Besides, I’ve got two little kids at home. I’m not leaving to sit on a beach somewhere. I’ve got to hang around here and take them to music lessons and stuff.

The March 2024 Issue

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