Glen Barad, president of Taos, on how paying heed to all the little aspects are adding up into a rapidly growing success story.
by Greg Dutter
Glen Barad never really set out to run his own shoe company. In fact, he fell into the business quite by accident when he was selling his parents’ wicker basket samples at Los Angeles area swap meets to help put himself through college. It was during that time he helped out a fraternity brother who sold work boots—earning $25 a day—at the same swap meets. As fate would have it, Barad’s former Little League coach was Jack Silvera, CEO and founder of Dynasty Footwear. Barad asked to sell his samples, eventually expanding his operation to several meets per weekend. He then got a job as a stock boy at a local Nordstrom outlet but after about a year he dislocated his shoulder and had to go on leave. That’s when Silvera took him off the DL, so to speak, and gave him his official start in the shoe industry big leagues. “I joined as the guy who swept the floors, shipped samples and pretty much anything they needed me to do,” Barad says, adding it was the first rung on the industry ladder that led to line building, product development and going overseas to learn the sourcing aspects of the business. “It was a fabulous background that spanned sales, development and costing to establishing relationships with agents and factories,” he says. “It was an extremely, unbelievable learning experience.”
Sixteen years later and armed with a master’s degree in shoes, Barad launched his own private label company. But it wasn’t long until his sourcing epiphany hit: “I came to the realization that there’s loyalty to a point, but no matter how great your designs are or how attractive the price, the response too often was, ‘I need the lowest price,’” he says. And the only way to really deliver on that request was to strip down the shoes. Less was definitely less. Tired of being asked to pare down his designs, Barad did an about-face (the year was 2004) and got into the branded business with the launch of Taos. “Instead of taking components out of shoes, I decided to put them back in and offer more value to the consumer,” he says. “We went in the opposite direction.”
Barad’s accumulated knowledge gained from sourcing shoes for others gives Taos a distinct advantage. Specifically, he and his team know what design elements to include that deliver the ROI. Those added touches involve rich leathers, unique fabrics and eye-catching embellishments, be it earthy stones, burnished buckles or delicate embroidery. “We set out to do comfort casuals by putting as much into the shoes as humanly possible,” he says.
It’s one of the reasons Barad bristles at being generalized as just another “comfort” brand. “Absolutely not,” he retorts. “Taos is a lifestyle brand, but we do obsess that our shoes must be comfortable.” He adds, “It’s a shame that there are some great-looking shoes out there that are just not comfortable.” The comfort aspects of Taos derive mostly from its lasts and patterns. “We incorporate adjustability where we can on top of our supportive foodbeds,” he notes. “Just because a shoe or a sandal flexes doesn’t mean it’s necessarily comfortable. As a matter of fact, sometimes that hurts the foot more than anything else.”
Barad believes it’s the actual shoe that should be the point of difference at the point of sale. It doesn’t have to be strictly about price. The shoes matter, he says. Specific to Taos that involves addressing the needs of a denim-friendly world where women juggle work, family and personal pursuits. Comfort is a prerequisite, and style and versatility are equally important design facets.
It may sound simple enough—a comfy footbed, a few pieces of hardware and some nice leathers, and you’re off and running… But it’s not that easy. If it were, everyone would be successful at it. To the contrary, Barad says the details incorporated into Taos each season are the result of a painstakingly involved process that really never ceases. “It’s like producing a Broadway show each season,” he offers. “You have so many different components that have to go into these shoes, then the factory has to do a great job making sure everything matches and fits, and when it doesn’t, revisions have to be made on the fly. Then you have to ship and, finally, the consumer makes the ultimate decision.” Barad says it can be a “brutal” process, but it’s a necessary one. The fact that Taos is also committed to being in-stock on a good number of styles adds to the performance anxiety. Whereas a lot of companies avoid taking such an inventory risk, Barad says Taos does to a fault. But he knows allowing retailers the ability to fill-in on successful styles is an attractive brand feature. “Hopefully we’re right more than we’re wrong,” he says of inventory management. “The reality is you never enough good stuff. That’s just part of being in the shoe business.”
So far so good as Taos’ attention to detail is delivering solid results. Sales are gaining momentum as the brand becomes more of a year-round staple (its roots are in sandals). “Things are accelerating and we are gaining a lot of market share,” Barad confirms. “We might be at a true tipping point and, if we aren’t, we are certainly close.”
Rather than cite a particular collection or a standout style as the factor behind the recent uptick in sales, Barad attributes the good fortune to an ongoing team effort. “You can have a particular style sell really well, which is great,” he offers. “But it’s really more about the consistency of the entire team over the long term that is the reason for our success.” He cites the “great” teams in design and development, marketing, warehouse and customer service. (“If it’s not the best in the industry it’s certainly one of the best.”) “The passion of everyone in the building is remarkable,” Barad says, adding the company just moved into a bigger facility in Torrance, CA, to accommodate the growth. “That’s what really makes the brand. It’s not any one shoe, it’s not any one season.”
Not to be overlooked in this team partners. “We are in this together and we let our customers know it,” he says. That’s why if a problem arises, Taos is committed to finding equitable solutions, efficiently and amicably. “We really don’t care about getting an order,” Barad states. “We care about building a business, and I am proud to say that our team is continually striving toward that goal and accomplishing it.”
As a former sourcing person, what are the best aspects of owning a brand?
Owning a brand allows me the option to pay 50 cents or $1 more to make a better product or have it made in a better factory. When you are an agent,you are the middleman. You never take ownership of any inventory. As a brand owner we are putting our money where our mouths are. We truly believe in our product because we have invested dearly in it.
To turn a classic movie reference around: It’s personal, not just business.
My team eats, drinks and sleeps this company. And nothing comes easy, so yes, it’s personal. We understand there’s a business aspect to it all but we also believe that because we are so passionate about what we are doing – from the product to the customer service to having shoes in stock to our factory and retail partners—yeah, it’s personal.
Well, if you succeed, then all of those other people have a better chance to succeed.
Yes. And we are not going to succeed if they don’t. That’s why, for me, it’s not just about getting an order, it’s about building a business. And you can’t achieve that working part-time. But this is also our hobby. We love it.
Would you describe yourself as a designer by this point?
I don’t think of myself as one, but I do help our design team in terms of overall direction and what we want to believe in as a brand. To this end, we have a lot of meetings and I want to hear everyone’s thoughts and ideas. And I believe, collectively, that we have been making some pretty good decisions.
But after nearly 30 years in this business in a hands-on way, do you have a gut feeling on when a shoe looks to be a home run?
I’d like to think so. Our company owns a phenomenal track record, and we had the same track record when we were a private label entity. I don’t like saying it often, but the proof is in the pudding. And God bless us that we all work so hard and the result is a good track record. There’s no smoke and mirrors here. You don’t get that chance to miss in this business. If you do, it’s for a season and then you’re done. Taos is women’s casual lifestyle footwear—like a long list of other brands claim. What is it that is making Taos stand out more of late?
I know everyone is reading the same trend reports, but maybe we just have a better feel for it. All the hours we painstakingly go through debating constructions, styles, materials, colors, etc. It’s a battle back and forth that involves a lot of experience not just from the sourcing, design and development sides of this business, but includes retailers, marketers and what I would describe as regular people who offer an outside perspective. We listen to everyone. We are just sponges for continually wanting to understand what is happening in the marketplace. It’s all the small details that add up to being the difference. I know that a lot of brands like to use a variation of “where style meets comfort,” but I can tell you it’s mostly a bunch of bull. Most brands don’t really deliver on the premise.
I can name 10 brands off the top of my head that use a variation of that mantra.
It drives me crazy. I often look at the so-called style and wonder where did that come from, because it’s so off the mark. Was it Eastern Europe? What were you thinking? I have been anti the comfort/style slogan for a long time, but everyone still seems to be using it in some form or another – including us! (Laughs.)
Well, it communicates to consumers what they basically want. They don’t want to be unstylish and uncomfortable, right?
Absolutely. It just requires a very good taste level and, if we make a mistake, the ability to adjust quickly. To steal a baseball reference, we’ll take ground balls morning to night to ensure that we don’t make any errors during the game. The goal always being: The best product at the best value for the ultimate consumer.
Who exactly is that consumer?
One of our starting points is a young mom. But the reality is it’s any woman who’s on her feet all day, and that spans college-age women all the way up to grandmas. That broad range is one of the aspects that’s helping us move product at retail. It’s also why it’s important for us to have something for everybody, which includes a broad price range (between $90 and $250). Our higher priced goods are a smaller percentage overall right now, but we have been asked by a lot of boutiques and better grade independents to spend a little bit more time there.
What is the distribution focus for Taos?
Better grade independents, specialty chains and the one national chain we are currently in is The Walking Company. We also have a tight group of e-tailers we work with.
Department stores are not a part of the mix?
No. We would certainly entertain being in a Nordstrom, but we haven’t been too aggressive because at the rate we are growing it would be difficult to accommodate them they way we would want to. Hopefully we will be able to get together at some point in time.
It’s about quality over quantity in terms of distribution and overall volume?
Yes. Sometimes less is more. We want to build great product, and I would rather pay more for it from our factories and be more focused in our distribution than just running numbers. I think one of the saddest aspects about our industry today is that it’s more about numbers than the passion of the shoes. Certainly, we are in the business to make money and we’ve had calls from department store and mid-tier levels, but we just don’t want to be all about the numbers. We want to take that next step when we are able to do so on our terms. In the meantime, our current distribution is requesting more from us.
How would you assess the overall health of the independent tier today?
Those that are still out there are pretty healthy. The last few years has been a bloody nightmare, and that’s why those who are still standing are really fabulous retailers. Nothing is ever easy and they all have to stay on ￼their game, but I think as long as they align themselves with companies with similar philosophies and distribution strategies like ours, they’ll have a shot. They also have to offer great service. They’ve got to make the people in their respective communities want to come back and buy shoes from them again and again. And their merchandise mix doesn’t always have to be the result of a wholesaler offering a deal. It’s driven me crazy the last few years where I hear brands saying, “We’ll give you this huge discount or you don’t have to pay us for X amount of days and this, that and the other…” The problem too often is the shoes they offered the deal on arrive late, don’t fit properly or just don’t sell because they’re no good. That’s why I hate “making a deal.” We’ll work with our retailers, certainly, but it’s more about the shoes. And at the end of the day, if the cash register rings everybody is happy. Thankfully, our retailers’ registers have been ringing for a few years now.
It’s reassuring because sometimes I wonder when all I seem to hear is talk about making numbers.
Nothing in this business is easy. And I understand retailers have pressures too. But I’m encouraged as more and more independent retailers and small specialty chains recognize that they have to support brands that support them. If they buy from brands that sell to everybody, it’s only going to end badly. That’s also one of the reasons why we’ve implemented a very stringent MAP policy to make sure that everyone is on a level playing field price-wise.
How does this independent or specialty chain compete with, say, a Zappos?
For starters, our pricing is going to be the same. Beyond that a boutique atmosphere has to be fun. The proprietors have to make it an inviting and memorable experience. They must be truly excited about all the products they carry. They also have to know their customer exceptionally well. Along those lines, people still go to the movies because it’s a cool experience. I’m still a strong proponent of shopping—actually touching the shoes and putting them on before you buy. And having a dialogue with a knowledgeable salesperson—that can be an invaluable experience too. And let’s face it, there are some people who just don’t want to wait a day or so to have five pairs shipped to them, try them on and then have to ship four pairs back.
Brick-and-mortar retailers could also inform them of the incredible amount of fuel and packaging associated with that form of shopping. You said that, I didn’t (laughs). Along those lines, I’m hoping that some industry leaders figure out how to minimally package shoes to cut down on the waste. It’s too much. I’m looking forward to when we hopefully become a leader and can push for those types of changes.
Despite a difficult economy, shoes sales have performed relatively well overall. Why?
It’s one of those simple pleasures in life where you really don’t have to think twice like a more expensive purchase requires. A pair of shoes can make you feel good and costs $100 to $200. We are only on the planet for a short time, so God bless us to be able to offer that type of pleasure.
Macro fashion trends look to also be playing into the hands of shoe sales—one of which is people paying more attention to their overall appearance in order to make a better impression.
Oh, absolutely. People want to be proud of how they present themselves. Two good examples are wing tips and man tailored shoes—two of the biggest trends in the industry right now. It can be interpreted with shiny finishes for dressy occasions to suede for more casual looks. It’s a style that can be dressed up and down, and that versatility is an attractive feature right now with consumers.
In a retail landscape not as dominated by Ugg possibly, how might that impact a brand like Taos?
For years it was hard to grab retailers’ open-to-buy. And even though I felt bad about that, I also felt good for retailers because it meant that they were basically OK. It was a slam dunk: They knew that 25 percent of their buy was going to be fine, because they were going to sell it all and at full price. That represented a huge amount of dollars, but now it has opened up opportunities for us in terms of gaining more of that open-to-buy share. Retailers are recognizing that they have to explore different looks, and if one works, then they have to try and own that a bit more. For companies like Taos, that’s a very positive trend.
Following such a slam dunk era, might there also be a bit of a panic trying to decide what might fill the void?
I would definitely be concerned. But there are cycles and you just have to be prepared. The good retailers are always trying new things. Some work and some don’t. Retailers have to trust that they know their consumer better than anyone and be willing to give a brand that they haven’t carried before a try to see what potential it might have. And it should be because the retailer believes in the actual product, not because of any deal that might be in the offering. The shoes should make sense for their customer base. And if they don’t work, then that’s OK because at least they are still learning and trying. It’s when they become stagnant in their selection and ignore the shifts in cycles that often leads to trouble.
Everything seems to move faster today. Do you think there could be another Ugg-like fashion phenomenon?
Ugg was a massive look, and we saw it from many other labels and sold at pretty much every tier. It won’t go to zero and another look will come around. But who knows when? In the meantime, it’s healthy for retailers to have to carry new and fresh merchandise. Along those lines, the Ugg phenomenon became a commodity. It was one of the easiest items to buy online because they all fit basically the same and the customer had become very familiar with the purchase. This opens up the playing field for independent and specialty retailers to be prepared for whatever the next big thing might be. And it might be two or three things to make up for that business.
Where do you do you see Taos in three years?
Continuing to grow, getting into some new categories and offering different price points for a range of consumers. Overall, to be a bigger company with a stronger team. I just want to be really proud of our product, where the goal is always to get better and better at it. But the size is relative. However the consumer who embraces us will dictate our size. If we continue to make great product and ship consistently on time and help our retailers as best we can, then we will continue to experience growth.
Might Taos expand into additional categories—like men’s, for example?
We could do men’s or kids’ in a heartbeat. But I just think that there’s so much more room to grow in women’s before we take on other categories. For example, our fall collection is extremely strong—maybe as strong as our sandal business, right now. We probably have three categories that are just killing it this season. Through trial and error we just got better with that type of product. And people talk: Everyone knows everything in a minute- and-a-half today. Retailers are now giving us real estate year- round, which works to their advantage because they really don’t want to have to move us out one season and then have to bring us back.
Could you envision selling Taos to a conglomerate down the road?
You never say never, but it’s certainly not what we are thinking about doing right now. We must savor this time, because it’s a unique period in any brand’s life.
What do you love most about your job?
I play a different role than I have in the past but the great thing about my job is I get to do a little bit of everything—from development to working with the sales team to operations to marketing. The other aspect that I love is being able to step back and watch it all work. One of the proudest aspects is watching employees who are so passionate about Taos and letting them do their thing. Finally, what I love most about this business are reorders. That means, after all that effort and hard work, something worked.
How do you feel when you see someone wearing a pair of Taos shoes?
It’s the best feeling in the world. It’s hard to even verbalize. It’s a sense of accomplishment. Certainly, if our business does well, we wind up with financial rewards. But seeing a person in our shoes has nothing to do with that, really. It’s a case of putting a product into the marketplace that somebody loved enough to actually spend their money on. That’s just an unbelievable feeling.