Let’s Talk Turkey

Martin Berendsen, CEO of Fast Forward Footwear, distributors of Inuovo, reveals why buyers are gobbling up the colorful Turkish fashion brand and that it’s only the appetizer.

By Greg Dutter

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It’s not uncommon for a wholesale exec to proclaim the brand he or she is pedaling is the hottest thing since sliced bread. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that, well, let’s just say I could buy a whole lot of shoes. So when industry veteran Martin Berendsen, whose managerial resumé includes stints at Dr. Martens, Camper, Vans, Caterpillar and Geox, claimed during last February’s FFANY show that his latest venture, Inuovo, was hot, hot, hot, I was not surprised. However, taking into account the fact that many of the previous brands Berendsen has managed were more than tepid, I was inclined to believe his assessment of the Turkish-made line. That, coupled with the fact that Berendsen is a genuine product guy, intrigued me.

When Berendsen first told me about Inuovo, I was all ears but my eyes, unfortunately, would have to wait as he regrettably said his samples went M.I.A. The thought that the hotter-than-hot shoes had possibly been spirited away under the cover of darkness only added to my sense of intrigue.

What are you reading?

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. It’s a terrific book about a German priest who fought against Hitler’s beliefs.

What one word best describes you?

Passionate.

Who is inspiring you right now?

My family. It’s unbelievable that my wife and children allow me to spend so much time away from home and don’t hold it against me.

Who is your favorite character in literature?

Ed Grimm in the book Dark Horse. He’s a minor official chosen to replace a presidential candidate who dies shortly before the election. Forty years later the story of behind-the-scenes brokers that make all the big deals is as relevant as it was then.

Who is your most coveted dinner guest?

Richard Branson. He has enormous drive and gets people around him to make things happen. I would love to talk to him about how he goes about achieving that.

What might people be surprised to know about you?

That I’m very shy. After all of these years, when I present in front of a new customer it still takes me a while to get over my nerves.

What is your motto?

Carpe diem.

What is your favorite hometown memory?

I’m from Den Haag, Holland, and it’s the times when we celebrated Sinterklaas, which is basically our version of Santa Claus. It’s celebrated on Dec. 5th and marked by special songs and candies. I just heard one of the songs a short while ago and it brought back very good memories.

Months later, at the Platform show in Las Vegas, I finally got to see Inuovo in the leather, so to speak. Even then it was not easy, which was another sign that Berendsen’s hot assessment might be on target. The bare-bones booth was jammed with buyers. Samples were strewn about the floor and passed around amongst visitors. There was no fancy signage or build-out—Berendsen’s intent was to let the shoes do the talking. And they appeared to be doing plenty, as I’ve seen my share of major booth buzz over the years and it’s something that can’t be staged. Word travels fast, because any buyer worth their salt knows a potentially hot brand is, for all intents and purposes, like giving away money—so long as you’re able to place the orders.

So what is it about a Turkish fashion brand that appears to be so hot? A brand that, Berendsen says, isn’t technically “comfort” yet is very comfortable to wear? One that has taken the counterintuitive approach amid a difficult economy by going extremely wide on its selection and color palette—17 at last count for its Spring ’13. A brand that, Berendsen believes, offers an incredible amount of fashion at relatively low prices—suggested retail range is $49 to $60 for spring—and terrific margins. Berendsen admits it’s tough to pinpoint exactly what makes Inuovo so unique and appealing, accept that it’s all of the above and then that special something that designer Ismet Doganer brings to the table. “Ismet takes simple constructions and creates them in such an artisan way where they look very rich and natural and, combined with all of the colors, trigger a huge reaction,” Berendsen says from his new home away from home at the company’s headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey. “It’s the little details—a woven material here, a flower appliqué there—that might not seem so special until you see the collection and realize it is.”

Berendsen goes so far as to say that the 34-year-old Doganer, who comes from a long line of shoemakers, is a design prodigy. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling the volume and quality of styles he produces,” he says, noting the Fall ’13 collection is no different. “He’s just popping out different styles and even though I say, ‘That’s enough,’ he’s got more. We’ve now got something like seven different heels, six different soles and I know he’s going to feature a boatload of different colors in all of them.” Berendsen is resigned to the fact that Doganer is going to crank out the styles, but it’s worth it in the end. “The designs are unbelievable,” he gushes, noting that several trusted colleagues have said Doganer could name his price to head design for their companies.

The wide selection, Berendsen believes, makes for a refreshing alternative amid an industry landscape where going narrow has been the norm since the recession kicked in. The result is a largely monochromatic tradeshow floor of similar constructions. Less, Berendsen says in this case, is not more—just more of the same. “When you walk into our booth, there’s a tsunami of styles and colors. People are really struck by that,” he says. And, he notes, customers are often picking 10 styles or more. “It’s not too difficult, at those prices and margins, to write an order,” he says. “What’s not to like?”

Berendsen has his brother-in-law, a fellow shoe industry colleague, to thank for the Inuovo opportunity. If it weren’t for him looking to sell the brand in Holland and Belgium, he would never have learned the company was seeking someone to run sales in the U.S. The recommendation was made, an appointment in Istanbul soon followed and that’s where Berendsen said he was interested—albeit under one condition. “I made it very clear that there is only one captain on the boat,” he says, noting that he believed Inuovo had enormous potential but would implode quickly if certain distribution guidelines weren’t followed. It turned out to be a non-issue, as Doganer, a designer by trade and heart, wanted nothing to do with that end of the business. “He doesn’t like the CEO aspects of the job,” Berendsen says. “He used to get all the grief if any issues arose. Now any time there is a problem, he immediately points to me and says, ‘That’s the CEO, talk to him.’”

This CEO, specifically, helms Fast Forward Footwear, which is based in Portland, OR. Berendsen has already added another brand, Fast Forward, to the mix that is expected to hit stores next spring. It’s built on a design premise that shifts vertical power into a horizontal action. In other words, it makes walking more efficient. Berendsen, who admits to being a cynic when it comes to a lot of techy mumbo-jumbo, was sold on its rejuvenating comfort merits after the first try-on. “I tested one shoe while wearing my old shoe on the other foot and was amazed,” he says. “I confess that I don’t know exactly what this technology is, but it really works.” It allows Berendsen’s young rep force to sell a men’s brand that is also more year-round to the same account base as Inuovo. In addition, with retail price points ranging $149 to $249, the 10 percent commission generates a healthy return. “The retailers who buy Inuovo for the fun fashion will also buy Fast

Forward,” he predicts. “It’s a shoe that you can wear all day.”

After all of these years, the shoe passion that fuels Berendsen remains as strong as ever, and that’s despite the extended time away from family and the many long flights he must endure to get Inuovo off the ground here. Then there’s the cultural hurdles a 6’10 Dutch guy faces when roaming the streets of Istanbul. “The biggest challenge is I don’t speak Turkish. So, basically, I talk with my hands and my feet,” he says, adding that many Turks drive with a sense of wild abandonment and smoking appears to be a national pastime—“preferably five cigarettes in one’s mouth at the same time.” But Berendsen says he’s there to work, which he does daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. “I don’t lead a very thrilling life at the moment,” he admits. “I work, go home, eat and then go to bed. And while I was never the person to want to hang out in the bar all day, even if I were to go to one here, 99.9 percent of the people wouldn’t know what I was saying, anyway.”

Berendsen is confident his hard work will pay dividends to the point that Fast Forward will be the last company listed on his resumé. “I want to build a nice company with people who I really like and who really like me, and if it’s $50 million in size, then fine. But if it’s $20 million and we are all happy, so be it,” he says. “If I can have a nice life where I enjoy my co-workers as well as my customers, what else is there?”

Inuovo appears to be hot. But you already knew that.
What I didn’t even realize until I became totally involved with the company is how their European distribution is a who’s who of the best stores. During my first Micam and GDS shows, the booth was jammed the whole time. People were buying the shoes like crazy, arguing about how many they could buy and telling others to stop touching their samples. It was a frenzy. So yes, it’s very hard not to be motivated when you see that level of excitement. You can smell the potential success. We just need to make it happen.

Although, not everyone is willing to leave their family behind and move to Istanbul. What made you willing to make such a commitment?
Because this company has such incredible potential, but it was very much underperforming and I believed I could help. The talent and the will to do it is here, but in some cases they didn’t have a clue how business is conducted in certain countries. For example, I always worked off the premise that the delivery date is when you want the shoes to actually be delivered. Here, it was when our factory had the shoes ready, and then it’d be another month before the shoes were actually shipped. So with respect to any U.S. buyers, the shoes would already be a month late. There were also issues with sizing, boxes, quality control and importing from Turkey, as there are not a lot of boats leaving this country for the U.S., for starters. Importing was especially a challenge for the smaller customers who generally buy 160 pairs—a tenth of a container. That was rectified by basing the company in Holland so we could first ship goods there and then onto our European customers so they don’t have to pay import duties upfront. It makes their lives a lot easier. So there were a lot of these types of issues that were preventing the company from maximizing its full potential.

Had there been similar problems with regard to the U.S.?
They were dabbling a little bit in sales here and I could right away see if they were not careful, they would screw it up. For example, they would literally be willing to sell Nordstrom and Payless the same shoes. They had no clue who was who and would just write the orders. I immediately advised that distribution should be much more selective.

How do you define selective?
Simply put, we want the best retailers. That means, for example, Little’s in Pittsburgh, Benjamin Lovell in Philadelphia, Tip Top Shoes and Eneslow in New York, Hanig’s in Chicago, Shoe Mill in Portland, Oregon, and Karavel in Houston. The goal, in two years, is to be in the best stores in the U.S., which are not necessarily the ones that make 5,000- pair orders. But that’s not the issue right now. We want to take it one step at a time and build the brand in the right stores.

What do you think those retailers will see in Inuovo?
I think they will see the same design qualities and brand potential. Let me put it this way: When you walk into our booth at a show you cannot be in a bad mood looking at the collection. It’s impossible. Retailers will say, “At that price and for this margin, I can sell this one, this one, this one and on and on.” Picking the styles is simple, but they often argue for hours about which colors to choose. In all my years, I’ve never seen that level of debate. And it’s because they want every color, and we actually make all of them. You want orange—here it is. You want three shades of brown; we’ve got that too. You want three shades of blue, here it is. Purple? Got it. Gold, green, etc. Every color that is shown our retailers can order. If anyone were launching a brand today, I would tell him or her to bring it in wide. Don’t bring in one shoe in 17 colors; bring in 40 shoes in 17 colors. For those retailers who have been playing it overly safe of late and buying mostly black and brown styles: Why would anybody want to shop in your store? Because I’m convinced every woman and man in America has at least one to four pairs of black or brown shoes already in their closet.

Are consumers willing to buy color—provided they see it in stores?
I think consumers are very receptive to color. It’s like Zara and H&M, where my daughters will buy sweaters often in the oddest colors, but as they are priced at $25 they can buy four or five versions and they don’t mind taking the fashion risk. But they do not want to buy another black or brown sweater because it’s boring and they already own that style.

Might the willingness to embrace color be reflective of an improving consumer mood overall?
I don’t know about that. I hope the mood is improving, but I still think that in the U.S. as well as in other countries there’s a general lack of trust among consumers. They don’t trust their government, their banks or big companies. The feeling is you have to be very careful because everyone else is trying to screw you. But that’s also why I believe simple pleasures like Inuovo shoes, which are fun and make a woman feel good, become more attractive.

Exactly how would you describe Inuovo?
It’s a fashion brand that actually feels very good. But the word comfort is nowhere to be mentioned. It’s for a customer that spans 16 to about 28 years of age. They want something new where the dress may cost $100 and the shoes $60. My daughters, who helped me sift through samples, were good bell weathers. In return for helping, I said they could pick out a style they liked which, at the time, I thought was a good deal for me. However, the two of them asked for like 16 styles. So I knew I was onto something big perhaps, which was soon confirmed at the Atlanta show when a retailer from Hawaii came into our booth and immediately bought 210 pairs. Actually, I had 12 customers walk into our booth, which couldn’t have been in a more out-of-the-way location, and they all made buys. The Hawaiian retailer later happened to be in Istanbul and asked to visit our showroom, which was an absolute zoo at the time. I wasn’t really trying to sell her more shoes, but in a half hour she picked nine more styles. I just think the brand makes retailers feel good—an $18 sandal that sells for $49 is a nice way to make some money. A similar scenario played out, albeit on a much larger scale, with Nordstrom buyers during another show. They came in at 7:30 one evening and I laid out the styles and colors that I completely believed in so they wouldn’t have to sit there for hours. But they went back to the rack and picked more styles. And then when we visited them recently they asked for more styles.

Does the buzz remind you of any other times in your career?
We have some shoes that remind me of my Dr. Martens days. And some retailers have told me the same thing, and that if we keep doing this the right way, we can become a very big brand.

Are you capable of keeping up with potential jumps in demand?
We are in the process of building a factory on top of our offices. We hope to make about 800,000 pairs annually in that facility. And we have several factories around Istanbul that allow us to hit 2 million pairs without too many problems.

Might retailers be more receptive of a new brand since there isn’t one brand dominating like it has been the past several years?
I would think so. But there’s still a ton of sameness in stores. If something becomes big like studded shoes this season, then everyone carries 55 variations of that same look and not much else. The reality is for some customers that’s a nice look, but for a lot of others they would never wear it. This summer, for example, a lot of stores were carrying really high heels, but when you looked at most women walking on the street they were wearing flats. You need to sell what people want as well as need. Along those lines, I would say right now the must-have shoe is Toms. But then there are a lot of shoes you see in the comfort sector that are just plain ugly. I mean, I would sleep in the garage if I saw my wife wearing some of those styles. The fact is there aren’t any “old” women anymore. So I think making them feel happy and fashionable is perhaps a better approach than offering another ugly and depressing comfort shoe that they don’t really want to wear.

In what ways will Inuovo’s collection evolve for Fall ’13?
One area we believe strongly in is non-functional sport shoes. Think of L.A. Gear 15 to 20 years ago. Sporty looks in great color combinations and very soft materials. One example is a running sole on a leather basketball upper. Another collection features polished leather where one color is covered in black and then burnished by hand for a unique color. We just have to make sure the left and right versions match well enough. We also think creepers are coming back next fall, but with a twist. The sole and last will be tweaked as well as some fresh materials. We will have boots as well, and the simplest description is military boots gone fashion.

What’s your sales outlook for next year?
I think we’ll grow in the U.S next fall, but Spring ’14 is when we expect sales to explode. Thankfully, there is no mandate that says we have to grow a certain percentage this quarter or else. This is much more organic, which it needs to be. As a matter of fact, we closed quite a few European accounts that I thought we should have never sold to in the first place. And that’s despite the fact that many of them were buying more pairs overall. It has led to increased sales from the better stores and, I think, we have made up for the lost sales from the retailers we discontinued.

When it comes to distribution, the key word is selective.
Yes. If the best store in the world is Nordstrom, then why would you sell Sears? You’re not going to necessarily sell more, and you’re probably going to kill your brand. If we have the right stores and they sell enough pairs, then why would we sell to someone else? Fortunately, we are almost in virgin territory in the U.S. so we can pick the customers that we want to work with and ignore those that we don’t. There’s no history, for example, where a customer has bought for so long and a rep is arguing that we should continue to sell to them. If we don’t believe they are the right fit for the brand, then we simply won’t sell them. Personally, I believe selective distribution is the magic word with regards to the long-term health of a lot of brands across all categories. So if we do our job right, in order to buy our shoes you will have to shop the best stores. And there’s a store pretty much in every town that meets that criteria.

Might your combative reputation with regard to aspects like distribution policy and listening to management be an issue?
I have realized over the years that I have a little bit of an authority problem. My wife uses different words, but I think at times I’m annoyed very easily by people telling me what to do and I can get really frustrated. That’s why I decided that maybe it’s best that I try to run the show myself this time. But when it comes to things like trying to sell only the best retailers, I’m really proud of that record. While there may be those that haven’t always liked how I talked or dressed, or liked the length of my hair, I feel most respect me for that approach.

What do you love about your job?
The people, and they are the most important aspect. I prefer, for example, selling a retailer that might not do the most business, but I like him or her personally as opposed to the one who buys more pairs but is unpleasant. I also love working with the young people in our company. I hope to get to a point where we all have a good life and we are genuinely happy. Let’s say, for example, we do $20 million in sales and we are really happy—where we have a great life, great customers and are able to attend the soccer game of our son and the ballet recital of our daughter, so to speak. What’s wrong with that? So much in this country is geared to wanting more, more and more. While that’s part of the power of America, there are times I wonder if people are able to be happy amid that constant drive. I want our employees to be successful, but not to lose sleep about their jobs.

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