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Lift Off: Bob Infantino

Bob Infantino, president of Drydock Footwear, makers of Aravon, Dunham and the new Cobb Hill, reveals how the company came into being and why it will be a comfort-based powerhouse right off the launch pad. By Greg Dutter

qa-bob-2-2012Bob Infantino wasn’t out of the footwear game for long. Even during the mandatory non-compete period upon leaving the Clarks Companies N.A.—after nearly two decades at the helm that saw sales top off at around $800 million annually—it’s not like Infantino’s mind took a complete vacation from the business. When you eat, sleep and drink shoes for more than 30 years, it never fully leaves the system, especially since Infantino had zero intention of retiring.

“I never, for a moment, thought I would stop working,” he says. “I was just reassessing what I was going to do next and who I would do it with.”

Enter Jim Davis, chairman of New Balance and fellow Boston-area resident. Over a casual cup of coffee, Infantino laid out a general idea of the company he wanted to start. Infantino was upfront: He wasn’t looking for a “job,” but he did want to start a new business—just not absolutely from scratch. “I wanted a strategic partner who had a lot of what I would need already built,” he says. “I wanted to do the part that I really liked, which is the whole front end of the business.” During the initial meeting, Infantino brought up New Balance’s budding brown shoe business—its Aravon and Dunham labels—as evidence that the company saw that segment as a potential avenue of growth. Infantino says those brands weren’t part of his proposal; it was Davis who suggested soon after that if he was going to back the launch of Cobb Hill, then why not have Infantino take over the management of those two as well. That brief meeting was pretty much all it took: “I said what I basically wanted to do in 20 minutes and Jim reached across the table, shook my hand and said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.’”

It all falls under the corporate name Drydock Footwear, which references the location of the company’s soon-to-be swanky new headquarters. “We are located on the Boston seaport, right across from where they bring in big naval and cruise ships for dry dock,” Infanitno says. “It’s a quarter-mile long slip where they drain all the water out and work on the boats. It’s so cool to watch how they do that.”

It also sounds like the perfect setting for what has demanded an all-hands-on-deck effort to launch a business of this magnitude. Right from the get-go, everything about Drydock is bigger than your usual footwear start-up. It involves one new brand launched from scratch and two completely revamped brands (Aravon and Dunham underwent extensive makeovers, including new collections and overhauls of the brands’ marketing messages), for a total of approximately 20 new collections and 200 SKUs for this fall. “Most brands start out with two or three collections out of the gate, and a big, established company might do 10 collections in a season,” Infantino notes, adding that the breadth of the brands’ collections covers just about any customer in the comfort space.

Even with the logistical might that New Balance brings to the table, Infantino admits setting Drydock on its maiden voyage has required a 24/7 effort that, in the beginning months, consisted of just two full-timers: Himself and John Daher, the trusted line builder he brought over from Clarks. “We kept going to Europe to see what was trending and made several trips to China working with a team of contract designers,” Infantino says. “It was challenging and, at times, seemed overwhelming, but we’ve since culled it down to something reasonable.”

The large size of the Drydock launch, Infantino says, is meant to show retailers the company is determined to be a meaningful player from the start. He won’t be satisfied landing a few items and seeing how it might go from there. Being “insignificant” in stores is what Infantino wants to avoid. “We want them to look like brands from day one,” he says. “We want the consumer to see them as great opportunities.”

Infantino is banking on his successful track record, starting back at Rockport and throughout his Clarks career. It’s not cockiness, just proven results: “I know the shoes are going to be good and, if they are presented correctly, I think consumers will quickly develop an allegiance to these brands.” That’s the ultimate test because, as Infantino freely admits, his reputation may get him meetings with retailers, but the product has to do the talking. “Retailers don’t really give a damn about me, and the end consumer doesn’t know who I am. At the end of the day, the shoes are going to have to perform.”

Infantino is confident they will do just that. And, he adds, it doesn’t hurt that the timing seems right to introduce some freshness into the marketplace. The slowly recovering economy presents an ideal opportunity, since many manufacturers have been taking few risks of late, not to mention the fact that retailers have been heavily invested in one brand for a while now. “You can only go so long on that strategy,” Infantino warns. “A lot of retailers are realizing that there’s a need for something new.” Nor does it hurt when retailers learn that Infantino and Davis are in cahoots on this new venture. As Infantino assures: Retailers will get a great partner who takes care of all of their needs and understands what consumers want. It’s not like the two execs’ combined 70-plus years of proven results can be dismissed as a fluke. “When you put all of these aspects together, I’m confident that our brands will bring additional revenue to our retail partners.”

Beyond all of the company’s structural attributes, there’s also what Drydock represents to Infantino on a personal level. It’s an inspiring story: A longtime industry veteran embarking on a new chapter under his terms and with the corporate backing most would drool over. Infantino admits to feeling reborn by the entire process. And while he’s juggling a chaotic schedule, it doesn’t feel like work. “I hate to admit this, but I never turn off my phone now,” he confides. “If I wake up in the middle of the night, I check my email. I’m interested all of the time to see what’s going on.” Infantino adds, “When it’s like this, you never really work a day in your life.”

What was it like not running a shoe company—at least for a little while?
I was really only off for about six months, which gave me time to study the whole business, look at all kinds of opportunities and reflect on what I wanted to do next, as I had a bunch of offers. I was basically doing an evaluation of the next move in my life. I never wanted to stop working, that’s for sure. And certainly, when I talked with Jim Davis, it was pretty clear he was the guy I wanted to work with.

So no time to even improve your golf game?
My break was during the winter, so unfortunately I made no improvements there. But I did get to spend some time with my family in Florida. If you do something like this for as many years as I have, you’re just in it. I never stopped looking and I was always in stores.

What did you miss most?
I missed working with the team. I love being in the tussle and working with people I really like. I missed the hell out of that.

So what is it about Jim Davis, in particular, that you like?
Without being a total sycophant, Jim is just a remarkable human being. From a business point of view, he has built New Balance almost identically to the way I built Clarks: With great product, high value, an abundance of sizes and widths, and by treating retailers as well as you possibly can. He has integrity and really understands the value of partnering with good retailers. There is not a single person who has a bad thing to say about him, and he’s been in this business for 40-plus years. He just always does the right thing and is a man of his word. If he wasn’t in the business and was my neighbor, he would be my favorite neighbor. You would never know he is the head of a $1 billion-plus company.

What do you like about New Balance as the corporate parent?
Everything. It starts with all the autonomy New Balance provides to start brands. It has the backroom—the IT, HR, logistics, finance, order-entry, etc.—all in place. Not to mention, New Balance has the reputation for being the best in the business in all of these aspects. And at my point in life, building all of those systems from scratch was way more than I was interested in doing.

Is being able to start a brand from scratch a dream come true?
Yes. I wanted to start Cobb Hill from a piece of white paper. But to have Aravon and Dunham to help get things started has been a real bonus. I wouldn’t say Aravon and Dunham are starting from complete scratch. With Aravon, we’ve kept two collections that performed well and added six new ones. The new collections feature New Balance’s proprietary N-ergy comfort system in the forefoot area.

What did Aravon represent before its makeover?
It was sold mostly to retailers that wanted to take out the footbeds for orthopedic inserts. We are keeping that part of the business, which goes up to five widths and sizes up to a women’s 13, while the new collections will go to three widths. Overall, we are making the design more contemporary and tailored, and we are going after that customer at the $110 to $140 price range instead of the $300 price range of our competitors. I believe Aravon will hit a real niche at that price point. And, during my career, I’ve been making a lot of shoes priced under $100, so the added ceiling to make product at $130 allows me to put a lot of luxury and comfort into these shoes.

What’s new regarding Dunham?
Dunham has a great brand heritage that dates back to the 1880s. And it has delivered some classic styles (the Waffle Stomper, for one) into the market. In addition, Dunham offers more sizes and widths (D to 6E and up to size 20) than any other brand in the world. We started out by taking one of its logos from the late ’60s and featured it as our main one. It is beautiful. We will introduce four new collections aimed at a younger customer. It’s just great street product. We’ve also done some unique looks—one of which is a play on New Balances’s Minimus barefoot construction. I think it’s the most interesting street collection that I’ve ever done. Dunham’s price range will be from $90 to $150, with a waterproof group at the high end of the spectrum. Overall, I believe it’s a very high-value brand. We’ve also taken back the license for Dunham Work and will be producing that line as well.

Which takes us to Cobb Hill. How would you describe that brand?
Cobb Hill [named after a park in Infantino’s hometown of Rochester, NY] is a younger, more contemporary brand for women. It represents the new shapes. John and I weren’t tied to a specific brand anymore. We could take the time to design the right shapes. We worked really hard on the lasts and heels. All of the bottoms were tweaked several times until we hit upon a design that was fashionable but still commercial. Cobb Hill is going to be a major brand so we have to be commercial, but I think we’ve done it in a way that offers more style. To that end, we focused heavily on the materials. We saw what was going on in Europe with vintage leathers. In prior seasons, it was all about embellishments—beads and all kinds of jewelry. Cobb Hill uses vintage materials as the embellishment. There are lots of nice touches, like ruching and burnishing. The shoes tell a nice story; they are comfortable and have a terrific feel. Our focus groups reveal a broad acceptance—some styles are appealing to women in their 20s and it goes up to those in their 50s. To use an overused expression, Cobb Hill is a lifestyle brand. It is priced from $80 to $120, and some boot styles go up to around $200.

What prevents these from being just me-too brands?
Basically, we took all three brands and designed what they were going to look like inside and out. It’s been a 360-degree approach so that they hold together as unique brands. We put them side-by-side to make sure they each will have a distinctive place in the market. That’s involved serious white paper work. We are already working on some interesting things for Spring ’12 and, going forward, we will introduce some big concepts like we did with Clarks’ Unstructured collection. The next big idea will come when it comes. I just haven’t sat down to figure out what that will be just yet.

Throughout this launch process, what has been the biggest surprise?
A nice surprise has been how excited the people at all levels of New Balance have been, making this a kind of cause célebre for them. Many of its people have worked extremely hard in getting this off the ground. I think it speaks highly of Jim Davis. They have such allegiance to wanting to make this work.

Well, it instills life into two of its brands and brings on a potential huge new one. What’s not to like?
And let’s not forget that this is a worldwide launch. I recently spent a week in Turkey at the New Balance international sales meeting and met with all of the agents. The first year will be in the U.S. and Canada, but after that a lot countries in Europe and Asia will be carrying these brands.

I sense a growing hunger for something new—from retailers and consumers. Do you agree?
There are a lot of items getting tired out there—ones with a lot of open-to-buy dollars tied to them. They still might be big businesses, but they are not going to be chewing up the open-to-buy dollars that they have been. The fact is that since the recession, manufacturers have been playing it safe and, as a result, consumers have been seeing a lot of the same ol’. Coming out of the recession now, I believe consumers are looking for something new and may have a little more money to spend. If they have a job now, they feel more secure that they are going to have one tomorrow. And they want to update their wardrobes. Look at the popularity of leather riding boots this season. Women wanted something special. I think there is some great business coming around the corner because people are going to treat themselves a little bit more.

Could you have done this launch two years ago?
Well, I’m sure glad this opportunity presented itself now (laughs). It definitely would not have been a good time when people were clinging to life rafts. But, with regard to our industry’s relatively affordable price points, if you can deliver interesting product, it’s always a pretty good time. It’s not like selling homes or cars. It’s something that makes you feel good. Even in the bad times, you can still do pretty well.

Being able to hire people must feel good, right?
Yes, I’m doing my part in that regard. My first hire was John Daher. We had worked together for nine years at Clarks. He’s just an astute product developer. He lives in shoes stores and always has. He grew up in retail and understands it so well. Overall, I have hired about 30 people.

Are you picking an all-star team?
Definitely. They are great people. I often said that I make my living in the shoe business, but my life is about team building. My goal is to make Drydock a place where people really want to come to work, a place where people get the involvement that they want out of their jobs and the commission they deserve. I want people to do the jobs that I hired them for. Everyone needs room to breathe. I’ve also hired salespeople that have never sold before. They were tech reps that are young and possess great enthusiasm. I believe they have all the makings to be spectacular salespeople, but I wanted to train them. Overall, the team is the most important aspect. We are not looking for stars; we are looking for people that play well with others.

How has your job changed from your previous one?
I’m in the details now. I’ve always been, basically, a line builder, merchandiser and marketer. Along those lines, my second big hire was Sue Dooley as director of marketing. She worked for me years ago at Clarks and most recently worked at Airstream, which is a very cool brand.

What advantages does being involved in the details provide?
Without sounding arrogant, I want these brands to reflect what our team and I have learned over the years. There is a great deal of ownership in them for me. So being in the details has given me the opportunity to really live and feel it, and make decisions with John and Susan on how these brands will come across. I enjoy being involved in the creative side of this business. When you are running a really big business, as much as you might like to do the creative aspects, you just keep getting pushed up.

The launch of Drydock sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Yes. To do it all from a white piece of paper and then to be able to take it into new directions by filling in slots with interesting product lines—you don’t often get to do that.

Well, a launch of this magnitude won’t come from a 30-year-old.
No. You would be so small and probably using your own money that most likely you wouldn’t get to second base. Oftentimes, there are people with good ideas but they don’t have the wherewithal to get the products made. Making this number of prototypes is a very expensive endeavor. A huge business like New Balance allows us to be more adventurous and try some new things. Think about what a retailer gets from us when we enter the room: Product from people who have been developing some of the best products in America for decades. And they are connecting with two people who have never let them down before. On top of that, they are getting the engine of New Balance to make it happen—the financial security of knowing the product will be made in the best factories and will be delivered on time.

Beyond that, as a retailer, if you have one great brand, don’t you want two? Especially if it’s unique and it has as many good items as your other strong brand. What’s the harm in adding another brand—one offering sizes and widths that fit and look great? Retailers don’t get that kind of opportunity very often.

How do you define comfort?
It’s not just some open-cell foam footbed. It’s putting a lot of features together to create a whole system—one that allows freedom of movement for people on their feet a lot. For example, when you get off a plane and have to walk half a mile, you don’t want to be uncomfortable doing that. You also want to wear the same pair at work and then to dinner. For me, comfort is about being able to live a comfortable life in the clothes you wear.

Yet it’s common to see women suffering for their footwear fashion.
Those shoes may look good on the outside, but they are less expensive and poorly made. When you make legitimate comfort shoes, the price of poker goes way up. The lasts, insoles, outsoles—these systems are expensive and you need to have experienced people that understand how to engineer such product. There aren’t many companies that understand that process. That’s why I think that brand loyalty comes from wearing a truly comfortable product. You really make a lifelong friend if you put a product on someone’s foot and they say, “Wow, I can’t live without this, and it’s all I ever want to wear again.” When you find a shoe that allows you to be who you want to be on your feet all day, that’s life-changing.

In a nutshell, you just described why legions of runners have been so loyal to New Balance.
Exactly. Jim has always made sizes and widths and nobody else did that. And that’s another definition of comfort: Shoes fitting correctly. You can make the most comfortable shoe in the world, but if you don’t make it in widths and someone has to buy a size up in an effort to get a little more room, they will lose all of the comfort in that construction. The fit and the comfort system have to work together to create a serious comfort shoe. And it has to look good.

How did the first Drydock sales meeting go?
It reminded me a lot of the early days for me—getting a great group of people together to go over great product. The excitement in the room was palpable. I got a barrage of emails in the following days about how excited everyone was. It was right back to blocking and tackling for me.

Do you feel reborn in a way? Rejuvenated?
Well, I never felt like I got old (laughs). But, yes, it has been a rejuvenating experience. That’s a good word for it. Actually it’s the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It put me out of my comfort zone. I started thinking about how to create again.

What do you love most about your job now?
What I love the most is the sense of creativity again—looking at everything fresh and building this team. I’m asked all sorts of questions now. I can concentrate on sales, marketing and product development again. Before, I had to be on a board and I had to worry more about things like how big the warehouse was, shipping concerns and financial matters. I had to be more of an “executive.” Of course, I have to know what’s going on in my business, but I have all of those people in place taking care of those matters.

Do you consider yourself lucky?
Very. I feel like this is a whole new lease on life.

The June 2024 Issue

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