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Tony Adams, president of Hälsa Footwear

Proud Parent

Tony Adams, president of Hälsa Footwear, is beaming about the potential his four-year-old comfort fashion startup shows.

Tony Adams, president of Hälsa Footwear
Tony Adams, president of Hälsa Footwear

Over his life-long career working retail and wholesale in the footwear industry, Tony Adams has helped give birth to many brands. In fact, during a 17-year stint with H.H. Brown, he became a brand birthing specialist, launching Sofft, Bionica, and Isola, among others. As soon as those brands could walk, Adams was transferred to another startup because management deemed him so valuable in the birthing process. Yet he longed to parent a brand all the way to adulthood, helping it blossom and reach its full potential. If only the stars would align.

That cosmic ordering began in 2019, when former H.H. Brown coworker and veteran designer José Sanchez reached out to Adams about launching a new comfort fashion brand then in the embryo stages. Sanchez was working for Suecos, a Spanish manufacturer specializing in occupational shoes. He saw a void in the marketplace for a new lifestyle brand led by a couple of comfort design patents he owned. Sanchez sought someone to bring the brand to life—someone who could get buyers to say yes. Adams was his first and only call.

“He took me to lunch and said, ‘I’m not going to launch a brand unless you’re a part of it,’” Adams recalls. “He said, I ‘really know how to sell shoes.’” Indeed, Adams had developed quite a reputation for his passion for selling at H.H. Brown. He was nicknamed “The Tornado” for his ability to sell multiple accounts simultaneously, whirling from one to the next while spinning out various styles from the collections. “I learned how to sell shoes working the floor of my dad’s store. When it was really busy you had to work three or four customers at once,” Adams says. “And selling shoes to consumers is really the same as selling to retailers: You’ve gotta love it and translate the passion that gets them just as excited by the shoes as you are.”

Sanchez had Adams at hello. “It’s fun launching brands, but this time it’s my brand. No one will take it away from me once it starts walking,” he says. “It’s an even more fun adventure.” Plus, Adams is a firm believer in Sanchez. “We go back 20 years, and he’s one of the most talented people I’ve known in this industry,” he says, noting Sanchez’s resume includes designing for Easy Spirit, Nine West, Bass, White Mountain, Phoenix Footwear, and H.H. Brown, among others. “Every company needs a talented team to succeed, and with his design skills and my knowledge of launching brands, it’s a win-win.”

Sanchez and Adams broke away from Suecos in 2019 to focus on ensuring a healthy birth for Hälsa, which translates to “health” in Swedish. The design centers on its Equilibrium+ technology, an ergonomically orthotic insole that helps prevent arch instability, knee pain, plantar fasciitis, and pronation while promoting proper alignment and maintaining stability with every step. Included in this construction are positively charged silver ion layers that help prevent bacteria, fungi, and odors from forming. “Silver ions are used by NASA and medical supply companies, as well as Egyptians 4,000 years ago, for their health benefits,” Adams explains. “It’s where the expression ‘being born with a silver spoon in your mouth’ stems from. If you could afford to feed your baby with a silver spoon, you could help protect against infection and illness. WWI doctors would also place a silver coin on a wound before bandaging.” Adams is fascinated by the numerous beneficial properties of silver. What’s more, he claims this is a shoe industry first.

Adams thought he had a great story in Hälsa, but he needed affirmation. Would retailers agree? “There’s that moment of silence just after finishing a presentation when you wait to see if they think your baby is ugly or cute,” he explains. “When they think it’s cute, there’s no better feeling.”

Hälsa passed the cute test. And looks aren’t the only thing the company has going for it. Adams has layered in an exclusive independent channel distribution strategy with no DTC sales. His market research showed that the No. 1 request, by far, was for Hälsa not to sell DTC. That was followed by requests for higher margins, sizes and widths, not selling to Amazon, and having an open stock program. “We listened and reacted,” Adams says. “We offer some of the highest margins in the industry, and our open stock program allows retailers to order one pair at a time, if they like.” Not selling DTC, though, really caught the attention of buyers. Adams believes retailers have had it with such competition. “Some brands are putting contest flyers inside their boxes offering a chance to win a free trip to those who sign up for their emails. They’re offering styles retailers can’t carry and they’re frequently undercutting on price. How can retailers compete?” As for brands that claim DTC is necessary and/or isn’t a primary focus? Adams is skeptical. “Once they taste the gravy on those margins, they want more. I don’t believe they’re cutting back.”

Adams thinks and acts like a retailer. That’s where he cut his teeth, starting at age 14 in his father’s store in Southern California. (See sidebar: p. 16.) He understands how hard it is just competing against fellow retailers. “I know what they go through on a daily basis,” he says. “I want to protect independents as much as I can, whereas I think a lot of brands have forgotten about them.” Adams also believes the independent tier remains critical to the industry overall, starting with helping to introduce new brands. In addition, he says small businesses are vital to communities.

Adams has walked the walk in terms of supporting independent dealers since the day after Hälsa shipped its first collection. As (bad) timing would have it, that’s when stores closed nationwide due to the pandemic. Adams’ retailer instincts kicked in immediately. “I called every account and told them not to pay the invoice. We carried the paper until they were comfortable paying,” he says, noting that 90 percent of the approximately 90 retailers kept the inventory. “It might have been six or eight months, but everyone paid.” Adams adds, “We’re building Hälsa with independents who can trust that we’re partnering in their best interests. That’s how we want to stand out.”

It’s been relatively smooth sailing for Hälsa despite a pandemic, supply chain chaos, record inflation, political unrest, wars, etc. Adams is confident that the course he and Sanchez have charted will be successful. They envision their nascent brand blossoming in the coming years. He forecasts continued double-digit growth as the brand enters adolescence. “Our retailers are no longer testing us; now they’re giving us more shelf space,” he says. “That’s what will drive our business over the next three to five years, and that offers plenty of growth potential.”

No DTC nor selling to majors. Why go where basically no brands are going?

Because our target customers’ No. 1 request was to not sell DTC. As for not selling to majors, we’re just not geared for spa reports, which are basically givebacks. We don’t want that liability. It’s too much hassle and you have to ask whether you’re really making money off of that partnership? We believe Hälsa is better off working with independents and, if they have a problem, we can offset that with a markdown or something else, but not a giveback.

And the independent tier is enough of a market to grow meaningfully in the coming years?

Yes. Offhand, I’d say there are at least 700 good comfort specialty independents out there. Those doing 108 pair buys…Yes, I think we can grow very nicely over the coming years. That also makes Hälsa quite unique. Name three brands that are working with key comfort specialty independents and who aren’t selling Nordstrom as well. You can’t. But we don’t need to be in Nordstrom. Sometimes, you’re chasing a carrot and growing for the sake of growing, but profitability suffers while overhead costs increase. We don’t want that.

There’s also plenty of growth opportunity just from competitors’ mistakes, no?

Exactly. And being a small company, we can turn on a nickel. Take our debut fall/winter collection for this year. We don’t have to go all out with an extensive collection. We just need that “wow” factor, which we’re doing in a tight collection of transitional season styles. It’s all about shelf appeal in something that’s versatile and can be worn year-round. That’s less risk for retailers. We’re not making knee or thigh-high boots. We’re about great-looking, versatile comfort styles.

Might that include sneakers going forward?

We’re in the drawing stages and have some prototypes. I’m looking forward to how we’ll continue to evolve for Fall ’25. José has a talent for designing great-looking shoes. So much so that our Equilibrium+ and silver ion technologies haven’t even been the lead pitch to sales. Retailers tell us they just need to put our shoes on the customers’ feet, and they walk out with a pair.

Looks first, and everything else after?

Looks start the conversation. I see it as a three-second window where consumers make a decision to buy or not. In the first second, they spot a shoe and then in the next two seconds, they decide to pick it up or not. For example, our sandals, being the lightest in the industry, grab the consumers’ attention. If you get a customer hooked in those three seconds, they’ll likely want to try it on. That’s when it usually seals the deal for Hälsa, because our shoes are extremely comfortable.

What does your three-second rule say about the belief consumers largely shop based on brand?

It tells me there’s so much opportunity out there—if you have the right product. It’s an ocean full of sharks, and as long as you use the right nets, you can catch them. That’s what we did with Sofft, Bionica, and Isola. And my father and I did it with our In Touch, Wood N You, and DeMars brands. Having the right product is what it’s all about. Fortunately, José is great at designing, and I’m in the field always looking. If I see any void in the market, we’re on it right away. I give ideas that José interprets in a fresh and distinct Hälsa way.

Taking into account your extensive  experience launching brands, what might have you learned to avoid?

Don’t be everything to everybody. That never ends well. Stay focused. The comfort market is full of brands saying they are one thing, but if you peel away the layers, you discover that’s not always true. If you’re known for a certain entity but are making styles outside of that realm, you’ll lose direction. Always listen to what your customers tell you. Because when you stop listening, you stop growing.

Like, for example, don’t sell DTC?

That’s what retailers have asked of us. I’ve subscribed to a few brands and I’m bombarded daily with sale offers as much as 50 percent off. When I Google a store that carries the same brand/style and see it listed at a higher price, how can that retailer compete? I’ve been in their shoes, and I really hate seeing this type of selling. And more brands are doing it. Even if some claim it’s not their main focus, they’re not giving it up entirely. We like the way we’re going about it.

I’m guessing the Dear John letters some independents have been receiving of late is something you don’t approve of either?

That’s truly shameful. You need to take home the person you brought to the dance. There will be no Dear John letters from Hälsa. Above all, I always tell independents to challenge their brands. Hälsa, for example, has a very clean distribution. We also constantly monitor and enforce our MAP policy. We’ve based our growth on supporting our independent dealers. We should be held accountable to those claims. I think it helps, personally, that I spent years working in retail. A lot of brand execs never worked on that side. What also separates Hälsa from other Euro comfort brands is our American sizes and widths. That includes using combination lasts, full and half sizes, and extending our unit bottoms to accommodate wide widths. Most of our accounts are “greet, seat, and measure feet” businesses, and sometimes that customer needs that half size to fit correctly. Then there’s our Equilibrium+ and silver ions stories, and consumers love a good story. Lastly, we feature unique leathers in on-trend colors and the latest details.

Who is the Hälsa customer?

She’s looking for fashionable, comfortable styles. She’s looking to replace her old comfort shoes with something new, fresh, different, and exciting. It’s true the new 70 is 50, as is the new 50 is 30. Once these women discover Hälsa, they’re buying multiple styles or multiple colors of the same style.

How was business this past year?

We experienced the best year to date with our spring collections, and that’s despite California, our biggest market, having had a very mild summer and sales not really starting until late June. We are expecting to do better this year, especially with the introduction of our first collection of fall transitional styles.

Lots of execs have cited inflation, political divide, Ukraine and Israeli wars, among other problems, as making business quite challenging. Would you agree?

Every year there are problems—elections, interest rates, home prices, inflation…the lists goes on and on. Fully controlling our own supply chain along with people you trust to make the right decisions helps. And since we’re based in the U.S., we haven’t been impacted by a lot of the problems occurring in Europe and the Middle East. And any problems with supply chain that happened during Covid are no longer affecting us.

Despite world turmoil, the U.S. economy seems to be doing relatively ok. Is that translating to Hälsa’s sales?

As a new player, we’re experiencing double-digit, year-over-year growth. It’s great for America to be so resilient with unemployment at 3.7 percent. The cost-of-living crisis has also made consumers analyze their spending habits; they’re looking to buy less but at higher quality. That works well for Hälsa.

What is your general assessment of the retail landscape right now?

Only the strong survive, and this is so true of today’s independents. Heightened demand for physical locations among consumers experiencing ecommerce fatigue is helping brick-and-mortar retailers. I see more consumers looking forward to shopping in a store environment, rather than sitting at a computer screen or shopping on a phone. They’re looking to get out of the house and explore. It’s up to retailers to offer that experience. They need to constantly innovate on the in-store shopping experience, as well online.

What are your primary goals for 2024?

Continuing to find those nuggets out there. There are so many great stores that have not discovered Hälsa yet. We’re also on the hunt for a new VP/sales manager. We’re growing. We now have 22 employees in our main office, along with seven reps in the field. We outgrew our offices and warehouses within the first year. Fortunately, we were able to take over the three buildings next to us in San Marcos, CA.

You’ve been around this block plenty. What keeps you in the game?

The fun and excitement in growing a brand, as well as helping independents grow their businesses. The relationships I’ve made over the years mean everything to me. Once you become a shoe dog, it’s in your DNA. You never quit. I still have that passion. I don’t ever envision sitting on a beach and watching the tide come in. When you don’t have a passion for something, your mind wanders away. Living outside the box keeps my mind young.

What do you love most about your job?

That it isn’t a “job.” It’s a fun adventure, and who doesn’t love that? I love the excitement, risks, and rewards. It’s like when I’m sailing, every once in a while I need that pucker factor, like when I’m facing 70 knot winds and my boat might capsize. If I don’t have those peaks and valleys, how am I going to really enjoy life? I don’t want my whole life to run on an even keel. There’s no adventure in that. So I’ll never forget the time I was rescued by the Coast Guard, or when I fell 30 feet while climbing a mountain. And I’ll never forget launching Hälsa.

Woof, Woof!

From earning big spiffs to selling stripper shoes, Tony Adams looks back fondly on a shoe dog’s life.

Tony Adams caught the shoe bug at age 14. It happened the first time his father asked him to take a break from sweeping floors and pitch in on the salesfloor of his busy high-end fashion store catering to Hollywood’s A-list. Adams was instantly hooked. He fell in love with the product, the bustle, the thrill of the sale, commissions, and the interaction with customers.

“I learned from the best shoe dogs, many of whom grew up during the Depression. They were hungry and really knew how to sell shoes,” Adams says. “They taught me so much: how to greet, seat, and measure feet with a Ritz Stick and Brannock Device.” Adams adds, “We didn’t just sell shoes; we sold customers an experience. We’d bring out lots of styles, as well as matching handbags. It was so fun, and my 10 percent commission meant the more fun I had, the more money I made.”

Adams learned how to move fast and service a lot of customers, often simultaneously. One of his father’s traffic-generating hooks was sale events that offered the first 100 customers a free pair. “He could draw more than 1,000 customers over an eight-hour period,” Adams recalls. “He was an unbelievable promoter.”

After two years of working for his father, Adams moved on to a mall store as a stockboy. But that gig lasted just a few hours because a nearby Weatherby-Kayser location offered him a salesfloor position. Over the next three years, he rose to store manager and then, over the next several years, moved on to Florsheim, Thayer McNeil, May Company, Broadway, Butler Brothers, and C.H. Baker Shoes. At each stop, Adams “looked outside the box” to increase sales. One example: dying Candie’s nubuck slides in an array of colors with Meltonian shoe polish. It was a hit. Adams sold the shoe polish for $1 a can so customers could personalize their shoes. “That C.H. Baker store sold more Meltonian shoe polish than all their stores combined,” Adams says. “Plus, I got 50 cents back on every can I sold.”

In 1985, Adams rejoined his father’s business and, soon after, they began manufacturing shoes in California. They had been selling a style by L.A. Lady when a local manufacturer offered to make a similar shoe for them. The resulting shoes caught the attention of a rep who took a few samples on the road. Lo and behold, he booked about $700,000 in that first year. From there, they acquired the factory, named the parent company Cypress Footwear, and started making casual styles under the In Touch and Wood N You labels. “I’d drive the vegetable highway in inland California, where every small city had a local shoe store, and come back with orders for 3,000 pairs off just one trip,” Adams recalls, adding that annual sales peaked at nearly $4 million.

Unfortunately, by the time the ’90s came to a close, Asian imports were killing Cyprus Footwear. But not before one last desperate salvo. Adams converted one of its factories to make provocative footwear under the DeMars label. Think thigh-high boots, platforms, racy vinyls, and men’s (drag queen) sizes. Adams let his promotional freak flag fly. At one WSA Show, he installed 10-foot mannequins while The Doors’ “Build Me a Woman” played on a loop. At another show, he hired a model to walk the floor sporting a thigh-high style and a T-shirt with the slogan “Stop staring at my boots.” “It was like the Pied Piper leading buyers back to our booth. One customer bought 5,000 pairs on the spot,” Adams recalls. Despite his best efforts, the overseas competition ultimately forced Cyprus Footwear to close.

That brought Adams to H.H. Brown, where he spent 17 years and launched a series of successful brands before leaving to create his latest, Hälsa. He plans to see this one through to maturity. “I have an endless burning desire to sell shoes,” Adams says. “The thrill of knowing I have a cute baby after each presentation never gets old.”

Off the Cuff

What are you reading? Greenlights. It’s a fascinating book by Matthew McConaughey. Life is like a tree with many branches, and you never know what branch you’ll follow that will shape your life.

What was the last movie you saw? Oppenheimer. The decisions he had to make to be the father of the Atomic Bomb…His responsibility during those times is unimaginable.

What might people be surprised to know about you? I’m an avid sailor who likes adventures. I always hope the wind is at my back and live life close to the edge so I can see over.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received? My dad always said two minds are better than one. Listen to people, but in the end it’s your decision.

Who is your most coveted dinner guest? My dad, if I could. He always had such great wisdom, vision, and advice. He’d be proud to see how Hälsa is growing.

What is your least favorite phrase? It’s not possible. Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.

What is inspiring you right now? My girlfriend, who has inspired me in so many ways. She’s the first one to really encourage me to chase my dreams and live life because we’re not here forever.

What did you want to be when you grew up? A forest ranger. I’ve always loved backpacking, camping, mountain climbing, etc. Becoming an Eagle Scout taught me a love of the outdoors.

Where is your moment of Zen?  Sundays walking the beach with my wife in California. There’s something just so peaceful and restorative about walking in the sand and listening to the waves.

What was your first-ever paying job? Working at my dad’s shoe store when I was 14. I started out sweeping the floors and then one day we were really busy and he needed help selling shoes. I was hooked!

What was your first concert and best concert? George Harrison’s 1974 “The Dark Horse” tour and Paul McCartney’s “Wings Over America” tour in 1975. Seeing Ringo and Paul play together was unbelievable.

Where is your moment of Zen?  Waking up at 4:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise on a new day and reminding myself this is the first day of the rest of my life. Use it or lose it.

What is your favorite hometown memory? I grew up in Buena Park, CA, and it’s of being a paperboy and being able to afford a horse. Also, remembering the Helms Bakery man delivering milk to our front door.

What is your motto? If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.

The March 2024 Issue

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