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Rich Rask, president of Rieker USA

Reliable Resource

Rich Rask, president of Rieker USA, on why the parent company’s manufacturing muscle is a difference maker in unsettled times.

Rich Rask, president of Rieker USA
Rich Rask, president of Rieker USA

The numbers speak volumes. Rieker Footwear, makers of Rieker and Remonte, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. It’s a long run that’s made even more noteworthy because the company is still privately owned and operated by the Rieker family, now in its fifth generation. Like a well-oiled German machine (now based in Switzerland), Rieker continues to do what it does best: make a lot of shoes, as the company employs approximately 20,000 employees in Morocco, Slovakia, Tunisia, and its three company-owned factories in Vietnam.

Rieker is one of the last vertical shoe manufacturers on the planet, says Rich Rask, who has been president of its U.S. division for 16 years. The breadth and depth of the Rieker and Remonte seasonal selection run deep. What’s more, the company’s track record of delivering top-notch quality consistently, in-full and on-time, is unmatched. Rask believes Rieker provides the ultimate reliable resource in an increasingly turbulent industry. It’s why he’s so optimistic about the company’s growth potential in the States going forward.

“Having this massive flagship to rely on is reassuring, because I know we have the resources and backing to make business happen,” Rask says. “I work for a genuine shoemaker, whereas most of the others are marketing companies that happen to sell shoes.”

Rieker’s vertical business structure is a huge point of differentiation, Rask stresses. “Most production is now being made by third-party manufacturing, which moves frequently from one country/factory to the next. As a result, there’s little consistency,” he says. “By contrast, our comfort, fit, quality, and styling are going to come out of the box the same way the samples are presented.” Rask adds that the Vietnam operations are a sight to behold. “It’s pretty awesome seeing employees just making our shoes,” he says. “We have our own color kitchen; we make our own lasts…we do everything from start to finish. We are truly shoe manufacturers, and I say that with great pride.”

The sheer volume of styles Rieker makes each season is a key selling point to retailers, according to Rask. There’s plenty of styles to choose from. The wide selection can also give retailers a head start on trends. If a particular color, material, or silhouette is trending, there’s a good chance the company has it covered. “Because our lines are so big, we often see what’s happening in Europe and I can bring that into our collections for our retailers to get in on,” Rask explains. “Even if it’s just a particular color or a mix of materials, we can pick from those successes; a lot of companies will never even see that because their ranges are so much smaller.”

Remonte styles feature premium materials.
Remonte styles feature premium materials.

The extensive selection also lends itself to serving a broad retail base without much style overlap. That has enabled Rask to steadily expand Rieker’s presence among its primarily independent specialty distribution base. “We’re no longer confined to that ‘comfort box,’” he says, adding that’s not what the brand is about. “Rieker is an out-of-the-box, items-driven brand and, over the past few years, we’ve opened up our retailers to trusting that approach because our shoemaking abilities enable us to keep up with the latest trends. We’ve incorporated our comfort and width base with more pop and pizazz.”

The same goes for Remonte, although it’s built more on collections and comes in at a slightly more premium price point. “Remonte is all about removable insoles and the highest-grade materials, which entails 90 percent leather,” Rask says. “It’s premium comfort and great styling.” The company recently partnered with actress/model/fashion icon Elizabeth Hurley for its new advertising campaign, “Great Women Wear Great Shoes.” The campaign will run this fall and winter in more than 10 countries and will run for two seasons. It’s a move Rask believes will create brand awareness and send a message that the parent company is committed to growing Remonte.

That message is steadily getting through, Rask reports. “We’re doing well. Our product is spot-on,” he says. But Rask isn’t resting on any laurels. There’s too much uncertainty in the world to hit cruise control. “The upcoming election, the state of the economy, and all the turmoil around the world…We feel that, as well,” he says. “But the overriding assurance with us is the strength of our parent company.” Rieker is going to keep making shoes, just like it did straight through the pandemic. “We were one of the few,” he notes. “So regardless of what’s going on in the world, we’ll continue to push through and make new shoes, which is always exciting as well as reassuring.”

You’re on a record sales pace when many brands are struggling in what is a very difficult industry climate. What gives?

It starts with our extremely diverse collections, which enables us to be so many things to our retail partners. We can offer a lot of products to a lot of different customers. We can dial in on different areas of distribution without overlapping. Also, we’re not just pigeonholed into one small category. We’re able to sell boutiques, mom-and-pop independents, and majors. And we can fill distinct voids. Plus, our retailers have the comfort of knowing the shoes will look and fit like we claim. Sometimes, it’s easier to work with one partner who they already trust and have a strong relationship. They can add a SKU here and there, instead of having to add a separate brand. We’re also one of the higher maintained margin brands in the industry because we’re not sold everywhere. That gives our retailers a point of difference, and it’s one of the reasons we’re growing. We’re also very protective of our brands and our retail partnerships. With regards to the latter, they’ve bought us to the dance. We only want to do what’s best for them. Overall, it boils down to our ability to work with our retailers, and we’ve been building upon that partnership and trust since 1987 in the U.S. and for 150 years around the world.

Do you feel like Rieker and Remonte are poised to take that next big step in the U.S.?

Yes. But I never want to say we’ve arrived, because I’m never fully satisfied. I’d say we have tremendous potential, and you’re going to see growth in both brands based on the platforms that we’ve built. But we’re just scratching the surface of our potential here. Rieker and Remonte aren’t household names yet. But we’ve got a lot of opportunity, which is exciting. I’m confident that, over the next few years, we’re going to create some momentum with both brands in this market. The separate design teams working on Rieker and Remonte are a huge asset, particulary their efforts in stregthening our Rieker Sport & Style in men’s and women’s, which is trending strongly of late.

Are you able to tweak designs to meet the particular tastes of the U.S. market, which many Euro comfort brands have resisted doing?

Our tweaks are related to bringing the best materials and components into our U.S. collections. I also think the American and European taste levels have become more aligned, so there doesn’t need to be those changes, especially in men’s.

Rieker Comfort & Style fashion spans men’s and women’s.
Rieker Comfort & Style fashion spans men’s and women’s.

Are Rieker and Remonte sold separately?

Yes. In fact, I instruct my reps to go in with a Rieker hat one day and a Remonte hat another day, if possible. Both brands demand their own open-to buys, because they’re that distinct and good. Rieker, of late, is getting a lot of growth in men’s. We are experiencing stronger distribution and traction. The market has opened up for us as we’re making the right products. Remonte is gaining a lot of momentum, too. It all goes back to quality, fit, consistency, reliability, etc. It’s that small margin of error where you can hang your hat on consistency and execution that makes a big difference at the end of the day.

What keeps you awake at night?

It’s a very tough industry environment. Keeping your head above water is a win right now. There’s a lot of sameness and not a lot of newness. Plus, I don’t see the sneaker trend, which historically has been cyclical, going away any time soon. Travel around the country and you’ll see nine out of 10 people wearing sneakers. It narrows the playing field even further. Hence, the focus on our Rieker Sport & Style category in men’s and women’s.

It helps to have such a strong parent company.

I count my lucky stars, because I work for a great company filled with great people. I’ve established strong relationships with management as well as our line builders. Many of our employees have been with us for as long as me, if not a lot longer. That familiarity breeds teamwork and understanding. We’re all on the same page. I’m truly blessed.

What do you love most about your job?

First off, the people. It’s what this business is all about. The relationships I’ve developed and maintained over the years mean everything to me. Plus, I love the backside of this business—delivering shoes and making sure they sell through and meet the expectation of our retailers. It’s hands-on and about building relationships, and it’s always rewarding to see those final results at the end of a season. I’m also a shoe freak, in general. I just love the product, and I love being involved in figuring out what we need to do for the U.S. market. Whenever I get into the stores and see that our shoes are selling, our customers are excited…I’m reminded why I love this business so much. It’s that energy. It’s where I started, and it’s in my blood.

All In

The shoe biz is the only one Rich Rask has ever known, and that’s perfectly fine with him.

First industry, only industry. So it goes for Rich Rask. And now, 32 years in and still going strong, he’s got shoe leather for veins. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m a product guy; I’ve always loved shoes,” Rask says. “I probably don’t wear the same shoes more than two or three times, ever.”

Rask’s industry roots run deep. After stocking shelves and working the floor at a couple of California Nordstrom stores during high school and college, his first job upon graduation in 1992 was as the Southern California rep for Fila. He hit the ground running—a full-on sprint. The brand rocketed in popularity during his seven-year tenure. Rask enjoyed the ride.

Next stop for Rask: Northern California rep for Josef Seibel. It’s where Rask fell in love with the brown shoe side of the business. Unlike athletic, which was basically sell-in and see you in six months, this side is all about relationship-building. Rask has been hooked ever since. “I’ve worked on many of the floors of my customers, doing trunk shows nationwide,” he says. “I pride myself on making genuine relationships with these retailers.”

In fact, when Rask first joined Rieker USA as a key accounts manager in 2006, he asked to have a territory because he “needed to be on the ground floor.” He’s basically been there ever since. “To keep Rieker and Remonte moving in the right direction, you need to know what’s happening inside your retailers’ doors—meeting with their salespeople and seeing what’s going on,” he says. “Every time I go into those doors, it’s like an adrenaline shot, and seeing them working their tails off…if I can help them succeed and it leads to a long partnership, it’s a win-win. That’s what’s fun about it, and what keeps me in this business.” —G.D.

Off the Cuff

What are you reading? The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, which he wrote in 1643. He was an undefeated samurai. It was highly recommended, and I’m working through it trying to find the meaning of life, basically.

What was the last show you watched? My family and I are big Harlan Coben fans, and the last mini-series we watched was The Innocent on Netflix.

What might people be surprised to know about you? I played the violin in the school orchestra during elementary school. More recently, I’m a volunteer basketball coach at an elementary school.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received? Always have your ears open and listen to learn what’s going on and what your customers’ needs are.

Who is your most coveted dinner guest? I want one more dinner with my mom. She passed at a pretty young age. I’d tell her about what my three kids are doing and see how ecstatic she’d be as a grandma. That would be it for me.

What is inspiring you right now? Striving to continue to build on Rieker and Remonte’s U.S. businesses.

What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to win the Green Jacket. But then work got in the way. Then you lose another 15 years or so raising a family. But I’ve been getting back into playing of late, and my sons like golf, so that’s fun.

What was your first-ever paying job? I was 16 and it was stocking shoes at a Nordstrom in Northern California. When I was 18, I moved to Southern California and did the same thing while playing basketball at Saddleback College. They’d just bury me in the stockroom to get ready for the anniversary and half-yearly sales. And once I earned my stripes, they threw me onto the sales floor. That’s how I got going in this business.

First concert and best concert? My first was Van Halen in 1984 at the Cow Palace. I was a freshman in high school. I remember exactly what I wore. My best concert, by far, was U2 in Amsterdam. I went with my oldest son, who was 18 at the time, and a Rieker colleague.

Where is your moment of Zen?  Definitely not at a Van Halen concert. Being a Pisces, I love swimming in the ocean. That’s where I always feel best.

What is your favorite hometown memory? I grew up in Bellevue, WA, and it’s of playing sports at the local Boys & Girls Club. I spent hours and hours there with my friends, playing basketball, ping pong, flag football…whatever games they offered.

What is your motto?  Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference. I try to improve myself at least one percent every day. If you do that, hopefully it adds up to being a better person.

The June 2024 Issue

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