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Fit to Print

Over the past two years Brad Gebhard, CEO of Propét, has set a blistering pace for improvement that spans all facets of the organization. The goal: becoming a much fitter company.

Most mornings, after Brad Gebhard finishes bike riding to work and then checking his email and calendar, he visits each department to get a lay of the land at Propét’s offices just outside of Seattle. One stop is the returns area. That’s because the veteran exec is a perfectionist, particularly when it comes to product, and what better place to look for any possible chinks in the product line?

“We sit on top of our warehouse, and I’m looking at what’s going out as much as what might be coming back,” Gebhard says. “The latter is an acutely important area, because I’m looking for any possible patterns of what might be wrong so we can address them quickly.”

In fact, Gebhard’s team did a recent deep analysis on returns, which is part of its company-wide Get Fit initiative that focuses on three foundational pillars: Customer first, Operational Excellence, and Product Excellence. He introduced Get Fit shortly after joining as CEO in the summer of 2022. With respect to returns, it can be as simple as a customer buying two pairs of the same style because they don’t know what color or size they prefer. That’s standard in the online channel, and can amount to more than 50 percent of all returns. Still, Gebhard’s team dug deeper to root out any product issues. They pulled all the return data from its biggest customers, which took months to cross reference and tabulate. Any style that stood out was then put on a table for Propét’s wear-tester No. 1: Gebhard, conveniently a sample size 9. “We tried to identify what the problem might be,” he says, adding that any poorly fitting shoe was put on the chopping block as part of a broader drive to cull the overall line for increased efficiency, profitability, and, above all, offering the best products.

A leaner product line is one of Gebhard’s pet peeves. “Hoka, right now, basically has five styles that are generating multiple billions in sales, while Nike’s Air Force 1 and Adidas’ Samba styles are currently driving huge portions of their total sales,” he offers. “And while it’s super-dangerous to be beholden to a few styles, customers want quality over quantity.”

Propét, as one of the few remaining brands that offers an extensive range of sizes and widths, has a large line by design. It’s what makes the brand unique. “We care a lot about fit and people’s feet, so we have to offer multiple widths and sizes to make that happen,” Gebhard says. Yet there can be overlap, and not all are winners. So through SKU rationalization, the team spends a lot of time determining good, better, best. “We look visual, fit, and sales,” he explains, adding, “We’re always trying to find ways to improve and streamline our product assortment.”

The Get Fit approach to product and inventory management has extended to developing new lasts, installing a new computer system, and switching to several new factory partners. It’s been a soup-to-nuts undertaking that requires stamina, patience, and investment. Gebhard believes the upgrades will take Propét, which will mark its 40th anniversary next year, to another level. Such an effort, though, amid Covid fallout, high inflation, and world instability, has made it a rough go at times. For example, it hasn’t been easy to implement a new computer system, especially when the entire industry supply chain had been turned on its end by the pandemic. Even in the best of times, such a digital transformation can be fraught with speedbumps and potholes. “There were stretches where we couldn’t fully ship, bill, or collect, and we pissed off some customers, which is the worst thing possible,” Gebhard says. “But we’ve worked our way through that process. We’re fully functioning and getting the good utilization out of these new tools, which are allowing our customers to experience a much higher service level. They’re able to manage a lot of that information on their own and our customer service people are more effective when working with them.”

A bike racer at heart, Gebhard is constantly seeking ways for Propét to get fitter. It’s just how he rolls, pun intended. And nothing gets his competitive juices flowing as making product as best as possible. That has entailed finding better suppliers and factories. The advancements, done in a short period of time from a development cycle perspective, is what he’s most proud of to date. Like, for example, the DuroCloud 392 walking shoe that debuted this spring. The design brief was to create a light shoe incorporating innovative support and comfort features. The mesh upper is light and breathable with over-molded TPU structure to create stability. The tongue and interior is constructed to ensure smooth linings and finished to avoid rubbing and chafing. The midsole has an embedded carbon fiber shank that allows for independent movement of the heel and forefoot. “It all equates to increased stability, which is one of the most important requirements for our target demographic,” Gebhard says. And while it may look like a running shoe, he says it’s more stable and therefore more versatile. Above all, it shows Propét is a worldclass walking company. “We’re going to continue to push the envelope on innovation because there’s a certain level of risk that we need to take as a brand to test the waters,” Gebhard says.

The Propét 1 Evolution, in the pipeline for Spring ’25, is another noteworthy step up. It’s lightweight, features a breathable mesh upper with subliminated color, and an EVA midsole with a highly supportive and comfortable platform. The upper design marks the first time Propét has featured sublimation, which incorporates pops of color into the mesh. “The look is more trend relevant as the sublimation radiates from the heel forward,” Gebhard says. “It’s not super-blingy, but it’s a nice pop. It’s a step forward, but it’s not so far out from where we’ve been.”

New kicks on the block: DuroCloud 392 (top) and Propét 1 Evolution offer optimal fit, stability, and comfort.

Much of Propét’s necessary heavy lifting is done. Now the company can enjoy the fruits of that investment through better customer service and topnotch shoes. It’s like Propét is now at the crest of a big hill, the miles of hard climbing already completed. By no means, though, is it a time to coast. Like any bike racers worth their salt, it’s time for the team to pick up the pace to separate further from the peloton. Gebhard relishes his pacesetting role. “At the end of the day, we’re a product company, and I’m passionate about product,” he says. “I’m also super-hands-on, which is another aspect that I love about this job: I’m involved in everything. I love and appreciate that opportunity.”

Does it feel like two years already?

It doesn’t, but everything goes by fast when you’re trying to get a lot done. There’s never enough time to do everything, so we prioritize while remaining agile. We’ve made tremendous operational progress on many fronts. I’m extremely proud of our team and their commitment to our customers as we worked through a challenging post-Covid period.

How would you assess your progress overall so far?

We’ve made a lot of progress despite the wicked post-Covid dynamic, not only for the shoe industry but industries across the board. To run a business, period, hasn’t been easy. That’s why I’m proud of our accomplishments, considering that some of these challenges we cannot directly control. Our Get Fit initiative has addressed a scope of challenges that we’ve been facing. A lot of it initially revolved around the level of inventory that we were sitting on, like many others in the industry. To get fit, we had to get ourselves in a better position, which we’ve done. It’s not a fun process to go through. But we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress on that front, as well as in many other aspects of the company. It’s what our organization strives for: continuous improvement.

Well, it sounds like an overhaul of the company in just two years. It’s a lot.

There has been a lot of change, and it’s rewarding to see the positive effects of how we operate and the way our team has worked together as we implement changes while also fighting random fires that pop up. In the spirit of continuous improvement, we were very ambitious with our Get Fit initiative, and we continue to be. At the same time, about halfway through, I realized there was no way we’d achieve all we needed to do in the time frame I envisioned. We culled back a bit to prioritize taking care of our customers first and then work through operational and product priorities.

How much has the product line changed overall since your arrival?

From the evolutionary side, it’s only been two years in the product development cycle, and we’ve made a lot of progress. I’d say my greatest influence has been on fit, which we dove into to make sure we’re homing in on our best-fitting shoes and developing standards and building the foundation to make great shoes. Secondly, we’ve focused on athletic and casual silhouettes to mirror what’s been going on in the market. We have a very tight product team; it’s important to have a diversity of thought and experiences via designers, developers, others in our organization, and feedback from customers. We pull in multiple inputs to make the best product decisions. That’s how a relatively small, scrappy company like Propét competes against athletic giants. And while Nike isn’t necessarily a competitor to Propét, Hoka is. We’re going after, in many cases, the same demographic.

A lot of these potential customers are currently wearing running shoes.

Right, because they’re looking for comfort. But that running last isn’t ideal for their daily needs. Whereas our Propét 1 Evolution and DuroCloud 392 walking shoes are. I’m very proud of both styles, which are the result of a lot of research and development. I’d put those shoes toe-to-toe with Hoka, New Balance, Nike…anyone in terms of construction, fit, materials, and performance. We’ve benchmarked those brands, but we try to come in $10 to $15 less. And we offer sizes and widths. So, if someone needs a high level of comfort and even greater stability, and they have hard-to-fit feet and/or they’re seeking an A5500 approved footwear as recommended by their doctors, then the DuroCloud 392 and Propét 1 Evolution fit the bill. We’re going to be 40 years old next year, and we started out as a walking shoe company. Much of our product line has walking in the name of the product, and we make the ultimate walking shoes. These two styles reflect our highest degree of innovation and evolution of the brand.

How has the reaction at retail been to the DuroCloud 392 to date?

It’s currently our top-selling style on our DTC site where we tell the full story about its features and the innovative design. We’ve also sold quite a few pairs into our specialty retail partners who sell Hoka. This is a comparable shoe with the bonus of sizes and widths up to size 16 with a 5E width. We’re putting all our horses behind it right now. In this business it often takes a couple of seasons to introduce something new and get meaningful traction. It’s also important for us to showcase our shoemaking capabilities, not to mention important for us to offer a product that a diabetic, for example, can wear with confidence.

It all starts with fit.

Yes. That’s why we’re hyper-focused on creating great fit across our lines. Our recent deep analysis on fit led to us developing new lasts with Heeluxe, which is based in Goleta, CA. They have a deep sizing database as well as tools that create precise dimensions. We then built out our shoes from there. It starts with focusing on the interiors, which a lot of brands don’t care much about or consider. Whereas our design team tries to make the fit as seamless and comfortable as possible from the inside out and with high degrees of breathability or insulation based on the type of product. While the first buying decision is based on how a shoe looks, that’s immediately followed by the initial step-in comfort. The latter is a huge part of the purchasing decision. Also, a good chunk of our business is in the medical space. So, for example, if you’re diabetic, it’s imperative that shoes fit properly. A blister caused by rubbing can lead to an amputation. That’s another reason we’re super-focused about the interiors of our shoes. We established testing standards and processes, and all new shoes go through extensive fit testing to ensure they meet our standards before going into production.

The are numerous headwinds inside and outside the industry. How is that impacting your efforts to make progress?

The current headwinds are creating ample challenges for our industry. Consumers are trying to manage their household budgets and deciding if they can afford a new pair of shoes. Many are delaying those purchases, and that’s been tough for our industry. But the shoe business is never easy. We just have to keep pedaling forward and improving product and operations so that when a consumer is ready to buy, we’re the option. On that note, Propét has a long history of blending comfort, quality, and value into its shoes. As a result , we’ve developed a large and loyal following who come back to us because we make shoes based on their need for comfort in sizes and widths, which they can’t get from most other brands. When you have been in business for nearly 40 years, you know how to take care of your your customers and earn their trust, and that helps in good times and bad.

What do you think is the greatest headwind right now?

Inflation. The rising costs of running a household are impacting consumers. Gas and groceries are a higher priority. Also, retailers are facing increased operating costs.

Is it a case of just having to tighten the belt and wait it out?

Life and business are full of cycles. We’ll work through it, like we always do. But it’s going to take a while. Everyone just must weather the storm. We’ve cut budgets in certain areas, which is never easy or desirable, but it is necessary as we battle the current headwinds. We’ve also been very surgical about investments, a big part of which has been in product and service for our customers.

Switching nearly all the factory partners seems like major surgery, no?

It was a significant undertaking but necessary to align ourselves with the right partners. We had a lot of factories for a relatively small company, which was partly because we offer sizes and widths and therefore make a massive number of silhouettes. Also, a sandal factory doesn’t usually make boots. Still, a lot of change had to happen, which created some chaos because moving from one factory to another, especially with legacy products. That can be dynamic and risky as there’s little cooperation or sharing of information when you move to another factory. These changes resulted in a few late deliveries and shortages for our fast-turning products. But now we’re in a stronger position with better factories. In parallel, we created and improved our product machine. We created processes to ensure we have a great-fitting product that we’ll deliver on-time. We also diversified our sourcing base by adding a factory in Vietnam. It’s a high-quality factory that makes the most beautiful boots that I’ve ever seen Propét produce. The elevation of the quality, fit, and finish is amazing. Overall, the foundation is now set. If we follow our calendars and processes, we’ll be a reliable partner to our customers. If retailers make a commitment to us, we’re going to fulfill that promise, whether that be quality, fit, delivering on time, etc.

Where do you see the most growth coming from in the near-term?

Within our product assortment, we have three key product categories we’re investing in. Travel is a franchise, and also where we can play with color and materials, creating lightweight shoes and sandals for travel and adventure. We also see growth in athletic (walking) and boots. We make functional and sophisticated boots, but we won’t have too much dependency on seasonality going forward. We’ll be making more versatile styling that’s not as weather dependent.

You appear to be the right fit for Propét at this point in time.

I’m a shoe dog who learned this business and best practices working for some great companies. In addition, I’ve lead organizational change in companies that were tired and their survival was dependent on change and evolution. I’ve learned there is no formula that works in every situation or organization. Every company has a unique culture and approach to products, customer service, and delivering the right products at the right time. At the end of the day, success is defined by identifying the opportunities and problems, and then developing a plan and budget for your team.Ultimately, it’s all in the execution. It helps, though, to start with a brand that has established trust with customers and has built brand equity. It’s been a great affirmation that Propét is a well-respected and loved brand. Our customers have stuck with us through these changes because they believe in our brand. They believe we will contine to bring to market a different product than most other brands. There are so many choices out there, which is something that we are acutely aware of, and why we strive to stay focused on serving our customers and creating great products.

There’s plenty to be optimistic about?

There is. Propét is a great brand with nearly 40 years of crafting high-quality footwear that places foot health front and center. The brand was founded on the belief that comfort starts with the perfect fit. We offer comfortable and stylish shoes in a full range of sizes and widths to cater feet of all shapes and sizes. We now have strong operating platform where we strive to have 99 percent of same-day orders fulfilled with speed and accuracy. We strive to set the pace and go the extra mile every day.

What do you love most about your job?

Product is obvious. It’s why I came back to the shoe business from apparel. I have a degree in finance and could’ve gone in a lot of directions, but I fell in love with shoes a long time ago, and I’ll be in love with shoes for a long time in the future. I just love everything about this business. What I also love about this particular job is the level of teamwork that we’ve been able to establish. Working together and finding ways to improve the business is super-rewarding. •

Off the Cuff

What are you reading? I’m a voracious reader; I always have a work bag full of unfinished books, magazines, and newspapers. I’m currently working through a classic business book, Customer Mania by Ken Blanchard. It’s a foundational reminder and focus on customer first. I also read The Wall Street Journal cover to cover every day, trashy car magazines, and professional cycling websites.

What was the last series and movie you watched? The Tour de France: Unchained series, which makes me super-happy I’m no longer a bike racer seeing how hard these guys crash sometimes. The last movie was Unfrosted. I loved it. It’s as funny as all get-out, but it’s also about business. I lived in France as the GM of Salomon footwear, and whenever I’d come back to the U.S., I was always blown away by our cereal aisles with like 500 choices. It’s incredible how competitive that market was and still is.

What is inspiring you right now? My kids, who are young, working adults. I learn so much from them about how young adults view the world, and how they use technology. This next generation gives me a lot of confidence in the future.

Where is your moment of Zen? When I’m on my bike and unplugged. I clear my mind while covering a few miles fast. It’s the best way to start and finish my day when I can commute to work, or a good ride before breakfast

Who was your first concert and best concert? First rock concert was Boston when I was in high school. The best was when my wife and I saw Elton John a couple of years ago. He played straight through for two-plus hours, and it was phenomenal. He seemed passionate and is a fantastic entertainer.

Who has been the greatest influence on you? I’ve been fortunate to have had amazing business mentors. It started in college with Vern Ho, an organizational development specialist, who hired me as an intern to help with KKR’s acquisition of Fred Meyer, a local grocery store. I learned that consultants can prescribe medicine to an organization but if it decides, for whatever reasons, not to follow that regimen, it’s very easy to fall into their old ways. Helen McCluskey and Paula Schneider, the former CEO and president of Speedo and Calvin Klein, respectively, were two other amazing business mentors. They had a significant influence on my career and me evolving as a leader.

What keeps you awake at night? The uncertainty regarding the dynamics of the current geo-political environment. I’m not the only one, for sure. We need leaders and people focused on diplomacy, and then I might sleep better. It’s building up to a big crescendo this November.

How would you like to be reincarnated? My first thought is a cat. Ours has a pretty cool life, although he’s an individualist. Then I think a lion, because they have a pride/community. Ultimately, though, I choose a leopard or a cheetah, because the superpower I’d most like to have is more speed.

The July 2024 Issue

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