Running Man

Having just completed a brand makeover and introduced an eponymous label, Adam Tucker, president of Me Too Footwear, shows no signs of slowing the pace as the company races to the next level.

By Greg Dutter

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Adam Tucker is off and running—literally. If it’s not the day-to-day running of Me Too Footwear in New York—meetings with the sales team, the design team and pretty much any team within the company—it’s the frequent hurrying to catch flights to Seattle, Dallas, Los Angeles and wherever necessary to present the brand’s latest collections to its retail partners. In addition, there’s the enormous international running around of late required to introduce his new label (Adam Tucker Me Too), which has involved plenty of running back and forth to Europe and to China—upwards of eight times in the past year alone with regards to the latter—to make sure no detail is overlooked. Last but not least, there’s the daily morning runs Tucker takes to clear his head and prepare for the multi-tasking skills his job demands.

Tucker wouldn’t have it any other way. For starters, he likes to keep moving. “I like purpose. I like being busy. I’m just not good with free time,” he says, noting he recently tacked on a trip to India to meet with the owners of a factory making a small collection of Me Too boots (see side bar, p. 20) before jetting to China to review the brand’s latest line. Being a relatively small company trying to keep pace with the conglomerates that run at full-steam, Tucker says being fit to run hard is simply job requirement No. 1. If you lack the stamina or are just unwilling to put forth such effort, he believes you’ll quickly run your business into the ground. “The business has just gotten tougher and more brutal,” he says. “[My competitors] just don’t stop. They are machines. And they are not going away, so they really make us step up our game.” In fact, Tucker believes retirement is not even a consideration for those career lifers. “They are going to die with a shoe in their hands,” he says, only half-kidding. “But since they are never going to hand me the baton, I’m going to have to try and take it from them.”

What are you reading?

Wonder by RJ Palacio. My 11-year-old son Jacob turned me on to it. It’s phenomenal. I read it in one shot, which is a miracle for me.

What one word best describes you?

I’m a walking oxymoron. I’m a total clown, but I’m extremely driven. I’m laidback, but I’m also competitive.

What is inspiring you most of late?

Being from Boston and watching people come together after the bombings. Obviously, it shouldn’t take something like that, but it was nice to see when the chips were down how people rose together.

What famous person in history do you admire?

Following my recent trip to Key West, FL, it’s Ernest Hemingway. He was unapologetic about living life to the fullest and always loved the journey.

Who would be your most coveted dinner guest?

Bob Dylan. I just love eccentric people like a Hemingway and Dylan.

What is your most guilty pleasure?

A breezy, fall Sunday afternoon. Football. Family. Food. Lounging.

What might people be surprised to know about you?

Deep down, I’m very shy and private. And I’m a huge sports fan, particularly that of the Baltimore Orioles.

That’s not to say Tucker hasn’t been offered opportunities to join a relay team of sorts. There has been a fair share of conglomerates interested in acquiring Me Too, but Tucker values the company’s independence and agility too much to go that route. “I got too much Hemingway or Tucker in me,” he laughs. “My father (Mark) was the same way. It’s not about the control as much as it’s about the competitive aspect of winning and losing on my own terms.” And Tucker is OK with taking a few bumps along the road, because he feels that after more than 20 years in this business he has gained the experience and knowledge to now come out on the winning end far more often than not. “No matter what industry, we all have our prime and don’t want that to be taken from us,” he offers. “And at 45 I believe I’m just in the prime of my career where nothing is going to take me off this ride that I foresee for our team.”

Tucker understands that in order to get Me Too to the next level he needs to expand. “If your shoes are successful and you do the right thing by the brand, then you are going to grow,” he says. “But you must be prepared for that growth.” Tucker adds, “You see the magic of what one item can do in terms of sales. So imagine the magical ride it can become when you hit an overall brand concept. That’s what we’re aiming for.” The way Tucker sees it, he’s got at least 15 to 20 years to go before he taps out, so there’s no time like the present to kick it into an even higher gear.

Step one was the Me Too facelift. Tucker describes it as a “push pause” moment, realizing that the brand was resting too much on its flats-based laurels. “We reached a plateau and the product needed a bit of a makeover,” he explains. “We got a little bit younger without losing anything as far as the overall classic, easy dress look of the brand and its comfort appeal.” So far so good as Tucker reports that, in the face of a cold spring, sales were up noticeably over last year. “The brand has been refreshed and I believe we will really maximize that aspect going into next spring,” he says.

On the heels of that came the Adam Tucker Me Too launch this spring. Tucker says the decision came partly out of his intense competitive drive and a look at the current retail landscape. “It seems like everyone is coming up with multiple brands. So I decided to compete in that arena too,” he says. Tucker aimed for something reflective of his own design sensibilities and to not have it be just another “me too” product—literally and figuratively. “It’s very different from what I see in the marketplace,” he says. “It’s not just some gimmick to try and make more margin, to play name games or soothe my ego.” A muse, Tucker notes, is actress Kate Hudson. “It’s what I picture her wearing. It’s super cute and totally casual.” Specifically, he describes the collection as more hand-finished and buffed with vintage leathers, heavier bottoms and leather linings—an overall “downtown” vibe. “Me Too is your classic uptown brand with patents, clean leathers and ornamentations with a little more shine to them, whereas Adam Tucker gets a little more dirty,” he says. It’s also a little more expensive: Me Too suggested retail runs from $79 for flats to booties that are $100 to tall boots ranging from $149 to $159. Adam Tucker runs from $99 for flats up to boots that are priced from $250 to $300. The only similarity between the two brands, Tucker notes, is in the comfort aspects.

Despite the intense competition that only shows signs of getting tougher, the industry-wide sourcing woes in China, the increasing demands of retailers, the price pressures brought upon by the Internet and consumers who are more discerning than ever, Tucker confesses that he is enjoying the business more than ever. “It’s that oxymoron response to what one word best describes me,” he laughs. “I’ve never been more happy or excited about being in this business, but at the same time it’s harder than it’s ever been.” Tucker’s joy largely stems from the long-term potential he sees for Me Too Footwear. “I don’t think that we’ve hit our full running stride and there’s plenty more room to grow,” he says. “And I love the whole challenge that it entails.”

So what makes Adam run?

I see the growth and the opportunity that lies ahead for our company. And I’m so competitive that when I get into something, I’m just really all in. Unfortunately, this business has become 10 times harder than when I first started. And it’s getting harder every year as there are more and more challenges. Yet I see such opportunity. I guess I’m not tapped out or beaten down yet. Although, I do shake whenever I grab my Blackberry in the morning fearful (mostly) of what challenge the factories will present that day. But after my run, I’m truly energized and ready to roll.

How is business this year so far?

It’s coming back well. Overall, business has been tough as many brands have had to deal with a cold spring and its subsequent impact on sandal sales. You don’t want to lean on bad weather because you want to believe that if an item is good it will sell no matter what. But it won’t if it’s 35 degrees and raining outside, which it has been that for a while this spring across huge parts of the country.

Specifically, what’s different about Me Too since its makeover?

The overall aesthetic is best described as refreshed. Basically, halfway through a recent season I asked myself, “God, am I going to build another basic flat in patent leather? And tell everyone it’s also flexible and comfortable?” I felt that we needed to expand from our comfort zone. We got a little bit fresher as far as the overall look and materials are concerned. Instead of just churning out flats in black, red and driftwood, we got more interesting as far as materials—fabrications, leathers, pony hairs and ornamentation. Our categories expanded as well. We went down from 70 percent flats to about 30 percent. Making up the balance is sandal-type footwear and dress styles—a lot more heels than before. But it’s classic dress, nothing junior-y or too over-the-top. It’s right in the strike zone of what brought Me Too to the table.

You expanded further into boots as well, right?

Actually, that’s our biggest breakthrough of all. We’ve placed as many boots and booties as we ever had this year. I believe that’s going to take Me Too to the next level, because we tended to ride flats through fall just by re-detailing them in darker colors and fabrications. The fact is boots and booties are now selling year-round. Along those lines, we’ve established a niche by offering basic combinations of leather and stretch boots with padding.

How would you describe the boot market overall now that it is no longer as dominated by a particular brand and silhouette?

That’s a good question. There are cycles and eventually downswings to all of them. That look largely was replaced by a sea of black riding boots last fall. Since we didn’t have the name recognition in that category and were heavily skewed in flats, it forced us to do mid-heel boots and booties. They look sexy but aren’t too aggressive. And it also got us away from what everybody else was doing. This fall I’m seeing trends toward a casual military boot, which I think we are in a perfect position with the Adam Tucker Me Too brand. I got lucky because I naturally lean toward more casual designs. We did a lot along the lines of military, motorcycle and vintage-y boots that have a little more lug to them. That’s been our biggest score on top of filling in on mid-heel boots and booties that are built on a comfort construction.

Do you expect the boot category to be more eclectic for a few seasons or will it coalesce around one look?

I think it’s going to be a little more all over the place. A lot of times when a big run slows down it opens up the market for brands to try and fill that void. This is where the need for creativity comes heavily into play. There’s not that big item that’s easy to chase. But you can never go too far off base where you build something that is beyond sellable.

Is this a better environment for the industry as opposed to having an easy target?

I think so. I like change and I’m into this added degree of challenge and need for creativity. For a brand like Me Too, where we are still on the rise, this type of eclectic market is a perfect scenario.

Did that factor in with the decision to launch the eponymous label this year?

The truth is the idea has always been there. In that sense, it’s what you live for. But the reason it specifically came about now is part of the same process that began about a year ago when I came to the conclusion that Me Too could no longer rest on its laurels. We needed to take it up a notch without raising the price because I like the volume. Still we needed to take it to the next level in terms of materials and expanding into new categories. It’s basically the same scenario behind the launch of the Adam Tucker Me Too brand. I just didn’t see this look in the market in the way I felt I could do it. While anybody can make a casual shoe, why does one flat sell and another doesn’t? I think we became very good because of the extra details we put into our product, and that makes all the difference. And I knew we could do that with my brand as well as anyone else. I see the look out there a bit, but it’s much higher priced. So I figured we could fill a void.

How has Adam Tucker Me Too been received?

It’s been well received and the Yale smoking slipper, in particular, has performed phenomenally at Nordstrom this spring. It has literally been 25 to 28 percent sell-through a week. The online reviews for the line have also been incredible—and I’m not the one writing them. I have some sandals coming out now and this fall we’ll add some boots and booties that take the brand’s direction a little more forward. And let me just add, not that I don’t care about Me Too, but when you put your name to something there’s that extra gear that comes into the process that says, basically, “God, don’t let me make a complete ass of myself.” There’s a lot of pride involved.

Why not just call it Adam Tucker and drop the Me Too?

Because my ego is really not that big that I think that I could carry the brand on my name alone just yet. I need all the help I can get at first. (Laughs.) Me Too is a good name that carries some weight and consumers respect. Eventually, I could step out of the Me Too shadow. In fact, I’m planning to show a five-shoe package at this month’s FFANY that’s just Adam Tucker.

Counter to what some people claim, retailers are interested in new brands and styles.

Absolutely. But it’s really a numbers-driven game today and you’ve got to perform. Every retailer I know—from independents to online to department stores—are busting our balls about numbers because they are really up against it, too. They demand shoes that perform. And a lot of the buyers today are women who really love and know shoes. You can’t hide from that. The product is either there or it’s not. I mean, in the old days people were doing cocaine and writing orders on napkins. It’s not like that anymore. Relationships are great, but retailers today will tell you two dinners in that your product sucks and that this isn’t going to work. But that just keeps our juices flowing, because there is no room for error. There’s so much competition to choose from as an alternative. Back in the day it was often a case of, “We’ll ride you out for a couple of seasons, you’ll give us our markdown money anyway and as long as you guarantee the margins who cares…” No more. Now you’ve got the little Adam Tuckers of the world coming up and even ones behind me who can’t wait for you to fail. It’s cut throat and more competition than retailers can even buy, but they are at least willing to check it out.

Everyone is possibly one item away from the next $100 million run.

You’re absolutely right. There’s always that opportunity if you do it right, and buyers can’t ignore something that is right no matter whom it’s from. They can’t and won’t ignore talent. And that competition is coming from everywhere.

Perhaps, after all, this business won’t dissolve into five wholesalers competing for the shelf space of five retailers?

I don’t think so because, for one thing, the consumer has the ultimate say. A lot of people believed that amid the recession consumers would get more conservative and go to their standby brands, but the biggest growth period our company experienced was during that time. I think I know why: Because consumers wanted something a little different and they also wanted value. People gave us a shot and we took a lot of market share during that time because we delivered on both of those fronts.

I think the opposite occurred in that consumers lost faith in many of the brands they once trusted, particularly ones like banks and financial institutions.

I’m a witness to that because it happened with our brand. And that’s why I believe there are always opportunities in the marketplace. There’s always people looking for something new—consumers and retailers. It’s not just a shut-down deal where they are relying on the standard brands.

Do you consider yourself a designer first or a president?

I guess I’m a president first because I’m involved in all aspects of the business. A CEO may seem more hands-off and I wouldn’t want to go there because I’m really just a glorified salesman. I tell my team that we are all on the same playing field and let’s just make this happen. Although I will add that working with production, systems and sales teams makes me better at the other aspects of my job. Each one schools me to be better at the next. And I have a great team behind me that all do their individual jobs phenomenally well, which allows me to jump around.

Have you developed a sixth sense on whether a particular shoe will be a hit?

Yes and no. Some do much better than I thought and there have been stinkers where I couldn’t believe they missed their mark. And then, for example, there’s the Yale smoking slipper that I just knew was going to be a big hit. The fact is if you hit two or three constructions and maybe a couple of patterns out of an entire collection where you may be showing 150 styles total, then that’s a home run. Maybe 90 percent of your shoes just don’t work. And we build six collections a year, and I’m compulsive beyond belief where I bring in 60 styles even for in-between collections when the industry norm is 20 styles.

Why is there such extraordinary room for error?

I really don’t know. There’s only so much shelf space and that’s a magical little spot where everybody decides if it’s a good shoe or not. And if it’s not, you can’t say, “Well, I had that other style that we all agreed wasn’t good enough beforehand…” That doesn’t matter. A lot of times you are limited by the department stores’ style directives. While I may have a few items off their beaten path and believe they would sell phenomenally, they don’t play into what they are looking for. We can test them online but, for the most part, because of minimum issues you have to support what is being supported by the industry as a whole. Otherwise, you are taking a huge risk with your factory. It’s a tough decision.

Speaking of online, what’s your assessment of that tier going forward?

Pretty much all retailers report that the Internet is the biggest sales growth area, and I see it in sales with our Internet partners. But with our distribution remaining very clean, we haven’t cannibalized our sales. If a customer shops Me Too there’s generally one consistent price online. We strive to protect the integrity of our brand. Otherwise it can start to look like a cheap discount brand. It also helps create a trust factor with our existing retail partners.

Are we heading toward a world some day where the majority of all shopping will be conducted online?

I don’t know, but the truth is I really hope not. That’s not how I built Me Too. Personally, I want to go into the store to touch and feel the shoes. Plus, there’s something about the human touch. I don’t even like to do banking online. I want a human being dealing with me. I want some level of accountability. Maybe I’m old school, but I don’t believe the industry is fully going to go that way. I get that online shopping is convenient: If you see something in the store, try it on, you can [then] buy it from them later online so you don’t have to carry it around. But initially, I have to be up close and personal with shopping.

So long as you buy it from that store’s online site. If consumers just use brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms they will not survive.

It’s a problem. We definitely see a lot of independents struggling, which is a shame because I shop a lot of those stores and I’m blown away how beautiful some of them are. I, for one, am more willing to make a purchase in those types of stores. But it’s tough to buck a system like online shopping when the technology allows one to instantly find it cheaper elsewhere. But that partly goes back to having a clean distribution policy. Between all of our highs and lows with the majors, independents have been our most loyal retail base and we value them tremendously. That’s why we’ve always had six reps killing it in all states. Some of the stores we have been doing business with for more than 10 years, and they have presidents that I talk with on the phone regularly. There’s something very authentic in those conversations where that small business owner is paying his or her bills in an effort to survive, and so am I.

What do you love most about your job?

The industry camaraderie. How we are all in it together. Every time I go to a show I realize how much bigger this all is. There’s a kinship that seems different than other industries. Perhaps that’s why many of those who leave come back. I love what this business has brought to my life, which includes having met my wife. I also love being in touch with fashion—it keeps me young. I love seeing all the work involved bleed down into a style that really pops—that’s really cool.

Well, unlike VCR tapes, I don’t see the need for shoes becoming obsolete anytime soon.

Even if I came up with a way to eliminate gravity so we can all float around, people will still buy shoes because they are just cool. I bought a new pair of running shoes the other day and during that first run I floated through those miles because there’s just something cool about that type of purchase. And it’s a relatively cheap thrill. And it’s the accessory that often tops off an outfit and just makes you feel good. What’s not to love?

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