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Kitty Bolinger, newly named president of Dansko

Right On

Kitty Bolinger, newly named president of Dansko, is steering the company in all the right directions.

Kitty Bolinger, newly named president of Dansko
Kitty Bolinger, newly named president of Dansko.

One could make a case that from the day Kitty Bolinger arrived at Dansko as National Sales Manager in 2010 she has been on a path toward becoming its president. Steadily and surely over the past 13 years, she rose through the ranks, becoming Director of National Accounts (2012), Vice President of Sales (2013), Executive Vice President of Sales (2014), Executive Vice President Sales, Ecommerce, and Marketing (2022), and, as of this September, President. Along the way, Bolinger expanded her areas of expertise and her responsibilities to include nearly all facets of the business. Her track record at each stop proves she is presidential material. But ascendency was hardly preordained. Bolinger earned each rung of the ladder and, for the latest promotion, bested a field of candidates from inside and outside Dansko. Ultimately, she was deemed the best choice to oversee the company’s day-to-day operations. (CEO Jim Fox is taking on a big picture role.)

One of the many advantages Bolinger provides in her new role is continuity, which is of particular importance right now, given that her promotion comes during a period of significant change within Dansko’s C-suite. In the past year, the board has brought in new VPs for marketing (Christina Sewell) and sourcing (Susan Li). In addition, Kelsey Jayne was recently promoted from Design Director to VP of Design, essentially replacing Sal Agati, who oversaw those duties for the past 11 years and is retiring at the end of October. “We’ve had quite a bit of change over the last year,” Bolinger says. “And continuity is important to our organization—from the people who work in our headquarters to those in our distribution center to our retail partners. They all know who I am.”

For Bolinger, continuity also involves keeping the needs of Dansko’s retailers top of mind. “They are No. 1 for me, and I’ve been a proponent of that all along,” she says, assuring that there will be no Dear John breakup letters sent to partners. “We want to make sure our retailers have a connection here.” This includes knowing reps, regional sales managers, and executive team members on a personal level. To that end, Bolinger is taking the new, all-female executive team on a get-to-know-us tour with key partners. “I’m taking them to Schuler’s in Minnesota; Shoe Mill in Portland, OR; Comfort One in the Mid-Atlantic area; and others because knowing them personally is really important,” she says. “I want [Shoe Mill President] Josh Habre, for example, to have the same comfort level working with Kelsey and Susan that he had with Sal and me.” Bolinger adds, “We’re going to continue to listen to our retailers’ concerns. That’s really important.”

Many independent retailers complain about not even knowing who their reps or regional sales managers are for some brands, Bolinger says, and that’s not ok. Nor would it happen under her watch. “Dansko is here today because of those retailers, as well as the Dillards and Nordstroms of the world,” she says. “Being able to make sure that they know they’re being represented in the decisions Dansko makes is very important.” That’s more crucial than ever in disruptive times like the past few years, she adds. “It’s been a struggle at times to know which way is up. Now they have too many shoes. Before they had too few. Are they going to have a letter in their mailbox informing them that their number-one brand is going in a different direction? There are a ton of uncertainties keeping them up at night. But they should never worry about any of that ever coming from Dansko.”

Dansko has steadfastly maintained this conscientious approach to doing business for 33 years and counting. The culture that founders and current board members Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup (Cabot’s husband) established is set in stone.
Jim Fox stayed the course, assuming day-to-day operations in 2016 on the heels of his 10-year run as CFO. Along the way, “the little clog company that could,” as Cabot playfully once referred to Dansko, evolved into a cornerstone comfort brand—one retailers rely on season after season to boost their bottom lines. “We’re not caught up in a lot of the bad behavior going on in the industry right now,” Bolinger says. “We would never, for example, fire the sales team if we didn’t make the quarter. That’s never been the way Dansko operates, and that comes straight from Mandy and Peter. They’d never blame a department or an individual if a quarter fell short of expectations. It’s about everybody pitching in and everybody owning it.”

Bolinger believes Dansko’s management philosophy has helped retain quality people. “We’re based in West Grove, PA, which isn’t exactly a mecca for business,” she says. “But Mandy and Peter made a commitment to stand by their employees and treat them well, which is highlighted by their decision, in 2012, to make the company 100 percent employee-owned.” They could have sold the company for a handsome price, “but they feared what might happen to their employees under new ownership—or if something happened to them” before a sale, Bolinger says. Employee ownership, as well as being at the forefront of sustainability and philanthropy, truly makes Dansko truly unique. “We’re one of a kind. We don’t make short-term decisions. The brand is the most important aspect, as well as the 180 families that count on the brand. That’s always been the main focus in how we make decisions. And not having to worry about shareholders gives us permission to make the right ones.”

Playing a key role in those decisions makes Bolinger’s new post a dream job. She never envisioned things playing out this way when she joined the company, but she suspects fate played a role in her career trajectory. Bolinger had just started a job as National Accounts Manager at Vionic when Dansko reached out. “I agreed to the interview because I really just wanted to meet Mandy, who I had heard so much about and admired,” Bolinger says. “It just so happens she went to the same obscure boarding school that my mother did, and when Peter gave me a tour of the campus, there was a welcoming vibe about the place. It felt like home. So I called my husband and said, ‘I think it’s a sign that I’m supposed to come here.’”

What have been some of your first orders of business as president?

The first was getting our new executive team all in the same room and stating the financial goals of the organization. I wanted everyone to think about how they’re going to contribute to meeting those goals, and to ask me questions about how we’re going to get there. Everybody needs to be on the same page and understand those goals. And we all need to be communicating with each other on what we’re doing to get there. Now it’s a matter of executing against those priorities.

What are some of your top priorities?

We’re constantly and consistently evaluating our product, making sure it’s the very best it can be. We’ve dug in—maybe to a better degree than in the past—on what that formula is, but not in a formulaic way where it’s going to end up looking like products before. We’re looking at what has worked for us as well as where we’ve stumbled. We’re trying to own the stumbles, but also look for the consistencies and newness to make the best product in the comfort space. We don’t ever compromise. Sometimes an option costs less, but it doesn’t perform as well. That’s not how we roll here. We think differently, and I think there’s a big opportunity sticking with that quality over cost approach.

What are some avenues of potential growth?

First off, we want to reinforce and reestablish our position in healthcare, as well as making her aware of the other styles we make, which includes sneakers. We’ve held a lot of in-person events across the country recently and gave away lots of shoes to healthcare workers, specifically nurses. For example, we gave the entire graduating class of Jefferson Medical College free pairs. We want to continue our conversation with healthcare workers and reinforce that we understand what they need and are delivering it. We’re also looking at new moms as a growth avenue, because we believe that’s one of the pivot points in life when a woman decides that comfortable shoes really pay off. Maybe before, when she wasn’t running around after kids, looks were the most important aspect. We’ve done lots of research in this area and are investing in more. We also have a great relationship with teachers, and are investing in activities that are more charitable, because educators care a lot about that. Those are three big buckets that we’re targeting. We’re trying to get to know all those women as best we can.

These buckets extend well beyond clogs.

Yes, and we offer a little bit of everything. Society has changed since the pandemic in terms of how people work, recreate, shop, dress, etc., and one of the great aspects about Dansko is that our styles are in step with this lifestyle shift. So, for example, while our clogs are flight attendants’ favorite shoe, we also have the Paisley outdoor walking shoe that’s become a monster seller. Leading outdoor brands are referencing us as their pain point. We’ve also offer super-casual items to dressy transitional styles that are suitable for various work environments. Overall, we feel that whatever our target customer is looking for, as long as she wants comfort and tremendous support, we have an answer.

Will men’s be a focus going forward?

Yes. We’ll start to reengage with male consumers for Fall ’24. It’ll lean toward where we had some success previously, which was more casual and all about support and underfoot comfort. The fact is the men’s dress category doesn’t really exist anymore.

How would you assess Dansko’s ability to navigate through the pandemic?

We came through it ok. There’s never been a year in our history that we haven’t been profitable, and that includes 2020. Our biggest pain point, however, was that our largest retail partner (The Walking Company) filed for Chapter 11 right before the pandemic. It hurts when you lose 185 points of distribution in one fell swoop. We couldn’t immediately bounce back from that. We also had reduced our footprint with Nordstrom based on some promotional activity, but we’re right back in there with them and our sell-throughs are better than they’ve ever been.

Have you been able to recoup much of the lost Walking Company business?

Our Dillard’s business has been fantastic. They are great partners. Our online partners have also been doing terrific. Our business at Zappos is great, and our Amazon third party business has also been very strong. A lot of that business was likely going to Walking Company stores before. Now she’s finding us online. And as you well know, the consolidation of independent retailers has resulted in some of them becoming quite significant, and we’re lucky to be good partners with many of them.

Is there a particular channel  poised for growth next year?

Since we transferred our DTC website to the Shopify platform, our user experience is better than it’s ever been. We expect that will be a strong avenue of growth. I know that retailers don’t like to read about that, but the reality is that when we create brand awareness, it helps all our channels of distribution. But we don’t offer site-wide discounts. We hold only four sales a year, which our retailers are informed of in advance and are items that they can also put on sale. We try to be very respectful of our retailers and present the brand in the most premium way on our site.

I think most retailers are resigned to brands selling DTC online. What ticks them off, though, is being undercut on price and not having access to the same merchandise.

I think site-wide sales and email blasts offering BOGOs are too common, but anybody who follows our site knows that isn’t the case. One time, though, I received a call from a retailer who said they couldn’t get a particular clog from customer service, but when they logged onto Dansko.com, they could purchase it. That’s not ok. It was a core basic style. That should never be the case. So as long as we continue to behave fairly and honestly, I think retailers are ok with it. The Dear John letters are another example. That’s definitely not ok. Of late, I’ve been hearing a lot about how it’s all about three brands right now, and if you’re not On, Hoka, or Birkenstock, you’re not relevant. But that’s a dangerous assumption. Brands come and go, and that often depends on how they treat their retail partners.

How would you assess Dansko’s current overall strength as a brand?

We have a very strong foundation, but we’re going through a bit of a slowdown with our iconic Professional clog. Of course, we all know icons come back. In the meantime, though, we have to diversify our offerings while we’re in this valley. It’s about not being as vulnerable to the whims of whether the icon is hot or not. That said, we’re working on ways to reinvigorate our icon. It remains very important to our business and we expect it will be in the seasons to come, especially when people stop wearing oversized running shoes all the time.

It could be worse. Dansko doesn’t have an icon.

Exactly, and we wouldn’t have as strong of a brand identity. I would say we’ve done a much better job at having a softer landing this time, whereas other brands who filled in around their icons did so with inferior quality. That has come back to bite them. We won’t ever do that. If a style has our name on it, then it better be as good or better than our Professional clog.

How do you go about making sure those standards are kept?

One way now is through weekly content creation meetings, which includes people from sales, marketing, product development, and our Amazon person. We want everybody’s input to make sure we’re all on the same page. For example, if we’re sending out an email campaign, we want to make sure the creative meets with what product development originally intended for that particular style. Is this where they see that style being worn? Overall, there’s just a lot more give and take in these content creation meetings, whereas in the past it was a case of product development making the shoes and the marketing department advertising them without any conversation about how the two should align. The same rule of thumb now applies to our photo shoots. Having product development and our VPs of design and marketing at the shoots to talk it through with the photographers and stylists makes for much better alignment. We just started on Spring ’25, and these relationships are now very solid. So now when we talk about the consumer, everybody has a say. What’s more, they like working together. It’s definitely been a positive shift over the past year.

Why might it be important that a woman is president of Dansko right now?

For starters, I think it’s very important to just show what women can accomplish. Let me clarify, what a team of women can accomplish, because it’s not just me. Our entire executive team is female. That’s unique. When I entered the industry in the early ’90s (as a tech rep for Timberland), management was dominated by older men. It has slowly evolved, but it still tends to be mostly men at the top. But when a woman is put in charge, you see what they can do. Look at what Michelle Poole (president of Crocs) has done, and what Wendy Yang recently did during her tenure as president of Hoka. You go, girls! I think it’s just a different way of looking at how to run a business. The fact that Dansko is also primarily a women’s brand and now has women’s eyes looking at how things are done is very important. In addition, we’re very much an organization with a strong culture of kindness and caring. And while being a woman doesn’t necessarily make those qualities stronger, perhaps Dansko is viewed as more progressive because of our female leadership team. I believe people want to align with brands that are forward-thinking and progressive.

  

Mandy was a trailblazer in this regard. What have you learned most from her about business?

Never compromise on what you think is important. For her and Peter, it’s extremely important to leave the world a better place than when they got there. It’s real. It’s not just saying what looks good in print. She and Peter walk the walk, and always have. In fact, they’re serial entrepreneurs. They’re doing it again in Belize with the launch of Silk Grass Farms, which is essentially a coconut water and cacao agribusiness. They’ve acquired hundreds of thousands of acres, a lot of which the delegated as a preserve. They’re reimagining the agribusiness by merging agriculture with land stewardship and conservation to create a durable model that benefits the environment and the people of Belize. As Mandy and Peter always do, they do it the right way. It’s very inspiring.

It’s a big reason why you joined Dansko to begin with, right?

Yes. I’m a firm believer in this precedent of leaving the world better than the way you found it. That’s what I want, and that’s what Mandy and Peter expect. I learned so much from their example. We have a monthly call to go over the business, and she often gives me books to read about how to be a better person, a better leader, a better company…everything.

Doing the right thing is a rare company credo, especially when it’s not always reciprocated.

It is. But when a long-time retail customer recently called, informing us that they were going out of business, we took the shoes back and refunded the money. That’s just what you do when you’ve done business with that person for 25 years. We know their family, and we know it would make a big difference in their lives. I’m proud that Dansko says it’s ok to do that.

What will Jim’s main focus be as CEO?

Right now, he’s working with our board to get them in alignment with the long-term vision of the organization. It’s more guidance at 30,000 feet. Jim isn’t involved in whether a shoe should have a blue lace, or a green outsole. It’s about where we should invest. For example, if we have $2 million, we want to make sure it gets invested into the right marketing programs or new consumer acquisitions. It’s about making sure that funding is available when someone has a vision that’s vetted. He can then give the thumbs up.

The fact that Dansko has never had an unprofitable must help in this regard.

Oh, 100 percent. Our strong financial position is a huge asset. For example, some might have said we were crazy, but during the pandemic we didn’t cancel orders with our factory partners. We worked to reduce production and hold certain leathers to use later, but we didn’t leave anybody high and dry. And we paid all our bills on time throughout the pandemic. We didn’t ask for 100 days dating, or some of the other things that we heard were happening. As a result, we still have what we believe are the best factory partners in our space. They will bend over backwards for us. The fact that we could afford to do that is because we didn’t get ourselves into a jam by mismanaging our finances in the years before 2020.

Where do you envision of Dansko in three years?

It’s more of a financial vision, which is to take back some of the shelf space from brands that are maybe on-trend right now but aren’t the best partners in the world. Another big goal is to increase consumer brand awareness. With all due respect to everyone who has come before us here, hopefully we’ll be able to crack that nut better. If consumers know us, they love us. But more people need to know us, because we have a great brand story. On that note, more people are seeing the initiatives we’ve recently done on social media. We launched a couple of crazy-looking clogs that even caught the attention of Oprah, who featured our translucent style in her must haves for spring/summer in her magazine. That was largely due to our successful social media campaign. Our marketing team is leaning in on how to get consumers’ attention and inform them all about Dansko. We followed that up with another successful campaign featuring our chrome clog. It had the same engagement level. Brie Larsen even bought them and posted it on her social media feeds.

Any obstacles to fear in reaching your goals?

The biggest obstacle right now is the general lack of confidence retailers have. They aren’t buying, they’re not buying as much, they don’t know what to buy, if something gets hot then they’re unable to fill in, etc. While a lot of that is cyclical, we can’t discount all the distractions going on in the world at large, which included the murderer who recently escaped from a prison near our headquarters. We had helicopters hovering over our offices for days. That’s a distraction. And then there’s next year’s presidential election. Should we all just give up because we all know those years often stink because consumers are distracted and don’t shop as much? And what’s it going to be like the following year? Who knows. External forces are problematic, but we have much more ability to control what happens within in our industry. And right now, that’s about making our retailers feel as confident as possible. So when customers walk into their stores and ask for Dansko, they have it.

What do you love most about your job?

I love the interaction with our retailers. I also love being proud of the brand that I’m talking to them about. It’s rewarding knowing that we do right by our partners. We treat them well. I’m proud to be part of Dansko, and I hope that’s what retailers feel when we work together. •

Off the Cuff

What are you reading? Our CEO Jim Fox just gave me Herding Tigers, which is about managing creative people. I’m really going to need it.

What have you learned so far? I’ve learned that I’m not a creative person, and I don’t think the way that they do. (Laughs.) It’s going to be very helpful, as we have great creative people and I want to make sure I respect the way they process things.

What was the last series you watched? The Crown, which shows that I’m not much of a TV/movie person because it first aired several years ago.

What might people be surprised to know about you? I’m very much an introvert, which is usually not associated with being a salesperson. (Laughs.)

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received? I hear it from (Dansko cofounder) Mandy Cabot all the time: Stay true to who you are. It’s also great life advice.

If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be? Barack Obama.

What is inspiring you right now? Watching my children, who are in their twenties, become adults. Both are out of college, employed, and figuring out life. It’s just interesting watching them succeed, fail, get back up again…all of that.

What did you want to be when you grew up? A lawyer.

What was your first-ever paying job? Ice cream scooper, and I lasted one shift. I thought my arm was going to fall off. It’s very hard work!

What was your first concert and best concert? The Doobie Brothers was my first. And any time I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen it’s been pretty amazing.

Where is your moment of Zen? My dogs sitting in my lap.

What is your motto? Go big or go home.

What is your favorite hometown memory? I’m from Haddonfield, NJ, which is where my kids grew up, and it’s of our annual Fourth of July parades. It’s a march-in-the-parade kind of town.

The March 2024 Issue

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