On the morning of Oct. 7, 2023, David Ben Zikry’s 28-year-old cousin was walking her dogs, just as she did every day in Sderot, Israel. This, however, would be her last peaceful morning routine. Hamas terrorists were on the rampage and shot her. She ran for her life, hiding in nearby bushes, where she bled to death. The family thought she had been kidnapped until her body was found four days later. Hers was one of several funerals that Ben Zikry and his brother, Avi, president and cofounder of
Spring Footwear Corporation (makers of L’Artiste, Patrizia, Spring Step, Azura, and Flexus), have attended in the past few months.
“We know families of people who’ve been killed—neighbors who lost their sons,” Ben Zikry says. “Seeing people lose their lives, young children kidnapped or killed in their bedrooms, families being torn apart…The images are horrifying, and it’s all devastating.”
The Ben Zikry twins had been in Israel for about a month prior to the Oct. 7 attack. They were celebrating the Jewish holidays with their large extended families, as they do every year. (David has five children, ages 15 to 28, and Avi has six, ages 13 to 28.) They were in their homes in Tel Aviv and were awakened around 7 a.m. by air raid sirens. That was nothing out of the ordinary. The families knew the drill. They raced to their bomb shelters and awaited the all-clear. But their smartphones and TVs were soon flooded with news and rumors warning that this was no ordinary attack. This was bigger, more coordinated, more sustained, and much, much more lethal. “We were receiving emails and texts from friends that there were men on motorcycles shooting people at random,” Ben Zikry recalls. “It’s a small country, and almost every day since then we’ve heard about a neighbor who has also lost a family member.”
By the end of that terrible October day, David’s son, who is married with two children, and Avi’s son, who is married and has a young daughter, reported for duty with the Israeli army. So did both of their sons-in-law. As of press time, Avi’s son was serving on the border of Lebanon, and David’s son was in the West Bank. The two sons-in-law were fighting in Gaza. “We try to communicate by text on a daily basis, although they cannot always respond right away,” Ben Zikry says. “It’s just not possible every day. It’s tough.”
Amid all this fear, disruption, stress, death, sadness, and uncertainty, the Ben Zikry brothers have somehow managed to keep working. In fact, in the first few weeks following the attack, they often sent work emails from the family bomb shelters as Hamas rockets regularly streaked toward
Tel Aviv. While it hasn’t been business as usual by any means, the brothers have pressed forward. They returned to the company’s Florida headquarters in November and attended FFANY market week later that month in New York, then held their annual sales meeting before returning to Israel. “We remain very immersed in our business on a daily basis, continuing to do what we have to do,” Ben Zikry says. “Work is a way to escape into our routines and to continue our lives, despite all these added challenges.”
The fact is that Israel is always either under attack or facing imminent threat of attack, according to Ben Zikry. “It’s been that way our whole lives,” he says, noting that he and his brother served in the Israeli army from 1989 to 1990 and experienced combat. “It’s our history. It’s something we’re used to, even though you never get ‘used’ to it.” The other sad fact, Ben Zikry adds, is they can’t escape this war entirely. Israel is their home. “It’s where we were born and raised, and it’s where our wives, kids, parents, brothers, and sisters live,” he says. Uprooting their entire families isn’t a realistic option. Plus, the United States doesn’t necessarily offer a safe alternative: When Ben Zikry left the company’s Manhattan showroom during the recent FFANY show, he came across a horde of pro-Palestine protestors. “Seeing people cheering support of people who murdered my cousin as well as more than 1,200 other innocent people was just devastating and scary,” he says. “That was in New York, so this war is everywhere. We can’t escape it. There’s no safe place, really. It’s a global problem.”
But, as Ben Zikry sees it, life must go on. Fleeing, trying to hide, cashing out, retiring—these are not desirable options, even if they’re feasible. The brothers love their work, their employees, and the company they’ve built together far too much to check out. “Work is a very important part of our lives,” Ben Zikry says. “We’re going to continue doing what we love to do.”
Since launching Spring Footwear 33 years ago, the company has registered upwards of 20 percent growth nearly every year. It has become a cornerstone comfort conglomerate. Even this past year, when much of the industry struggled, Spring Footwear reported growth. “It was nothing major, but we maintained our business in what has definitely been a tough retail environment,” Ben Zikry says. He attributes the company’s success to its strong portfolio of brands, featuring a diversification of product that caters to all retail tiers. In addition, he believes Spring Footwear’s unique business model—which includes carrying 500,000-plus pairs of inventory each season—separates it from the pack. In fact, Ben Zikry is bullish on 2024 and is expecting the company to resume its normal annual growth rate. “FFANY was a good success for us,” he reports. “All our key customers were positive despite challenges they’re facing. We’re outperforming in the space, and they’re allocating more of their dollars to us.”
Spring Footwear’s relentless drive to introduce fresh designs every season also helps them best the competition. “Consumers aren’t looking for basic stuff; they’re looking for something unique, something that inspires them,” Ben Zikry says. “We bring a lot of innovation. We’re showing consumers and retailers something they haven’t seen before, and they’re attracted to it.”
Such success isn’t easily attained, of course. The Ben Zikrys are tireless perfectionists. Few are willing or able to match their 18-hour, six-day-a-week schedule. It’s a pace that hasn’t slowed—except during the aforementioned year of military service—since they arrived in the U.S. in 1984 and began manufacturing shoes in a house they rented in Queens, NY. From local flea markets to area independents to national chains to a global presence, they keep finding ways to innovate and expand their business.
“Our ability to continually grow is based on innovation and newness, season after season,”
Ben Zikry says, noting that only a small percentage of the collections are repeated from one season to the next. “We’re constantly reinventing ourselves and moving forward on design to maintain excitement in our shoes.”
How are you coping with all that’s going on?
Navigating the past few months has indeed been an unprecedented challenge for myself and Avi personally and professionally. Balancing our business with our family lives amid the ongoing tragic events in Israel has added a layer of complexity. The experience of being directly affected by the conflict has been profound and devastating. Yet we’re fortunate to be able to work remotely, ensuring our safety while managing the responsibilities of an international business. Plus, we have an amazing team of tremendously talented and extremely dedicated employees helping us. Many of them have been with us for over 20 years. We couldn’t do it without them.
Running from missile fire, family members serving on the front lines, a cousin murdered…that’s way more than an added layer of complexity.
It is. But we can’t just choose an easy life. It’s a challenging situation, and we cannot just escape the problem. It’s a complex world. I hope there will be a solution and the war will end soon, but unfortunately it looks like it’s going to be a long process.
Yet you both are still able to focus on your jobs under such stress.
Since we’re both shoe addicted and workaholics, our natural choice is to stay focused on our day-to-day responsibilities during these challenging times. We immerse ourselves in a busy schedule as an escape, really. Work is the place where we feel comfortable and the safest. It provides a sense of normalcy and redirects our attention from the depressing news. Watching the news all day and not being able to do anything would be too upsetting. So managing emails while hiding in a bomb shelter…that reflects our determination to maintain our business as well as our daily lives.
From a business perspective, has this been more challenging than the pandemic?
Each presents distinct challenges. The pandemic impacted our business on a broader scale, but we learned valuable lessons and implemented effective strategies over that time. This situation hits closer to home with family members actively involved in defending Israel. It’s a whole new set of challenges that are more personal and localized, which emphasizes the resilience we need to navigate these unprecedented times. And while it’s certainly not a life-and-death situation, the shoe business is a lot like operating in a war zone. We have major conflicts, we’re constantly building new products and developing new strategies, we’re working with customers and vendors, we’re responding to pricing challenges, addressing logistical issues, etc., etc. There are a lot of moving parts around the world that take place at the same time. We need to be as close as possible to product, inventory, planning, and production to make sure it’s all running smoothly as possible, because it’s easy to lose ground in this business. We can’t afford to be distracted. At the same time, it’s a nice distraction from the real war.
How’s business since the war began?
Fortunately, the majority of our business is done in the U.S. Therefore, it hasn’t affected us that much in terms of overall sales. But we do conduct business in Israel, and obviously that’s taking on a drastic change because of the war. That said, facing challenges is not new to us. The entrepreneurial journey often feels like navigating a battlefield, and we’ve become accustomed to overcoming obstacles. Thankfully, the strategic advantage of our worldwide partnerships has positioned us well in this market. Our diverse presence, from specialty stores to national accounts and online partners, allows us to navigate disruptions with resilience. Additionally, our segmented approach and global sourcing capabilities contribute to agility and the ability to bring value to the market at a faster pace. By not relying on a single channel, we’ve avoided putting all our eggs in one basket, providing an adaptable framework for addressing challenges and ensuring sustained success.
And it’s back to double digit growth this year. What is fueling that?
Our future orders for spring are up by that amount, and fall is looking to be the same. We had a great response at FFANY. So we’re confident we’ll hit those numbers. Beyond that, the U.S. is a big country, and a lot of people in our target customer age range of 35 and up need and want shoes. It’s an overall growing segment that wants something comfortable but looks beautiful. That’s right in our wheelhouse. So we believe we can continue to grow within that segment moving forward.
Easier said than done, correct?
It’s a very complex business that I don’t think is for everyone. There are several companies within our space that have been struggling of late. Rockport, for example, collapsed, and there are a few other major brands that have had issues. So people have been increasingly looking to us an alternate sourcing partner to help grow their business because we continue deliver. They’ve been doing well with our brands. Like anyone, retailers are analyzing their businesses and putting more toward what’s working and less into what isn’t. While the business overall looks to remain flat for the immediate future, there are companies that can grab a bigger share of the pie. Fortunately, we’re one of them.
Is it a particular brand or distribution tier that’s performing well?
L’Artiste is definitely growing within specialty accounts, and we’re also doing well with Spring Step and Patrizia, which is mostly in key accounts. Overall, our diversification of product is a big key to our success. We segment products for each brand, which basically requires making three different lines within each brand. That’s why we make so many styles, because we don’t want to sell everybody the same shoes, especially our large customers that demand a lot of exclusivity. Diversification is what makes our company unique. It requires a lot of investment and innovation.
Again, easier said than done.
Ours is a very complex business model. Basically, we rebuild our entire company each season. We rip it down and start all over again. We have to rewrite the playbook, and ours is really big. It’s not easy, but if it were, anyone could do it. It helps having a twin brother as a business partner who is equally dedicated. With Avi focused on product development, design, factories, and vendors, I can concentrate on operations, finances, and HR. We make a great team, and we have a great team supporting us. We’re all very passionate about what we do, and we have the necessary ingredients in place to make it work.
Like the ability and willingness to carry 500,000 pairs in inventory
Yes. Specialty stores, in particular, rely on our in-stock inventory to respond to weekly fill-ins. That’s the beauty of our business model—they don’t have to buy everything up front. About 50 percent of that channel’s business for us is fill-ins. We believe that if you’re going to be in this business, you must invest in inventory. You can’t sell from an empty basket. You have to have styles available when customers need them. That requires having faith in your shoes. We don’t believe it’s a high-risk formula, because we believe in our products. We bring to the table amazing shoes, great value, a good fit, and the ability to fill-in. Plus, it’s all open stock; we don’t sell anything in case packs. Everything is visible online and our retailers can receive shipment within three days.
What is the biggest challenge Spring Footwear is facing right now?
There are always many, but the biggest one now is finding enough people to make our shoes, which in particular require a lot of individuals with the right skill set. Our collections feature a lot of handmade details. But shoemaking, in general, is a very labor-intensive job, and a lot of younger generations don’t want to work that hard. Factories in China are even having difficulties finding enough employees, and the same could be said for where we make shoes in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. That challenge aside, we are seeing less issues in the supply chain. Things are much better than they were during the pandemic. We aren’t experiencing as much disruption, and prices have leveled off and even are down in some cases.
It seems one of the biggest challenges facing specialty retailers is the Dear John letters many have received from some brands. What is Spring Footwear’s stand on that issue?
That won’t be the case with us. We cherish our relationships with those accounts. Like many specialty retailers, we’re a family-owned business, and we also recognize the integral role they play in our overall success. A lot of their customers, for example, are elderly and need more assistance in finding the right shoes and proper fit. Where else can they receive that expert service? So we’re committed to continuing our partnerships with them as well as all our retail partners. As long as they pay their bills and don’t give us problems, there’s no reason to close any. It helps that we have separate teams dedicated to each channel. Each has their own customer service team and warehouse serving those respective accounts.
Where do you envision Spring Footwear in three years?
While it’s nice to now be considered a leader in the category—we deserve it as our team works very hard—we’re driven to keep moving forward to be the best at what we do. We see where we can still get to. So it’s to continue on our trajectory of growth and improvement while consistently pushing the boundaries of innovation. We also aim to foster partnerships with increasingly important and dominant players in the industry, solidifying our position as a key player in the market. The key is to keep moving forward. It’s similar to running a sprint—our attention is always on the path in front of us. We don’t dwell on what’s in the rearview mirror.
Do you ever take a breather?
We keep Shabbat, so Friday night through Saturday is our family time. Synagogue is where we take a break and connect with our souls. It’s important that we do. Faith has always been an important way for Avi and me to bounce back. To understand that we can do the maximum of what we can and the rest we leave to God. It’s up to Him ultimately on what the outcome will be. That’s basically our motto in life: Do what we can, do our best, and the rest is outside of our control.
Despite 18-hour days and currently working in a war zone, it remains a labor of love?
When you love what you do, it’s really not work. Of course, there are moments, but the majority of the time I really enjoy what I do. Loving shoes, loving the challenges to constantly create and find solutions to problems…Avi and I love all of that. This year marks our 40th anniversary working in this industry. We still love being involved in every aspect. We love striving to make the best possible product, offering the best service, paying attention to every detail, meeting our customers’ needs, and just living and breathing shoes. We also love the industry’s constant evolution and dynamic nature. It’s a fast-paced environment that necessitates continuous growth, pushing us to explore alternatives, embrace new trends, form new partnerships, build diverse teams, and continually refine our operations. And what we cherish most is instilling excitement in our customers about our shoes. That never gets old. •