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Gary Champion, president of Clarks Americas

The Race is On!

Gary Champion, president of Clarks Americas, on how the brand is poised to start regaining its comfort lifestyle title status.

Gary Champion, president of Clarks Americas
Gary Champion, president of Clarks Americas

It only took eight years and four global CEOs, but Gary Champion says Clarks is poised for its comeback—finally. It’s what he envisioned the day he returned in 2016, after a six-year hiatus managing other brands, to the division he and former CEO Bob Infantino guided over two decades into a near $1 billion juggernaut. (Along the way, Clarks became the standard-bearer of how to operate a Euro comfort shoe brand successfully in North America.) After many fits and starts, Champion says the entire team, led by Global CEO Jonathan Ram since April of 2022, is on the same page and fully backed by Viva Goods, which now has a 51 percent ownership stake in the company. The necessary rightsizing of the business has been completed, a clear strategy is firmly in place, the initial groundwork is being laid, and the goals are big yet realistic. Indeed, Champion believes 2024 marks Clarks’ official start to becoming a comfort champion again.

“I gathered our team together last May at the start of the sell-in for Spring/Summer ’24 and told them this is the starting pistol,” Champion says. “The starting and stopping, starting and stopping is over. This is a true plan of attack matched up with strategies, objectives, and goals—everybody is aligned, not only from a regional perspective but also globally, on what we’re trying to achieve.”

For the North American market, that means a brand with the elasticity and strength to once again fire on all cylinders. It means continuing to deliver trend-right products for major department stores and chains like DSW, as well as recapturing the premium market sold at comfort specialty dealers, upscale chains, and boutiques. The latter, Champion says, is where Clarks had dropped the ball and, amid the CEO churnover, kept fumbling. “The premium strategies kept changing, as we had a lot of different CEOs come in with different ideas on how to approach that segment,” he says. “There were some pieces I got done, but there were other pieces where I kept running into problems to get us where we needed to be.”

Enter Ram, the fixer and grand overseer. A veteran of 16 years at New Balance that included rebuilding its European business and culminated in being EVP of North America, he understood right away what needed to be done from a global perspective while allowing for regional nuances. In fact, Champion knew Ram was the right man for the job on their first call. “By the end of that hour, we were finishing each other’s sentences,” he says. “Jon understands how to utilize the tremendous global power of the Clarks brand, but he also understands globalization versus centralization—that there are a lot of efficiencies to take in from a global perspective, but you need to create space to take advantage of the nuances within the regions.” Champion adds, “Jon has created a lot of flexibility for us in the Americas and other regions to thrive. We all sense it. He’s brought real clarity about how we’re going to achieve our goals.”

Selects from the women’s Fall/Winter ’24 collection.
Selects from the women’s Fall/Winter ’24 collection.

Champion’s primary focus now is on rebuilding the premium business. It’s a three-tiered approach broken into Originals, Signature, and Artisan. Or, as Champion says: fastest, faster, and fast. Originals targets trend setters. It’s a tight collection that includes updates on iconic Clarks styles as well as collabs, like the recent ones with Zara and the 8th Street Samba with Kith’s Ronnie Feig and Adidas Originals. “They’ve been extremely successful,” he reports. “Originals sets the halo for bringing new consumers into our brand.” Meanwhile, Signature is aimed at the contemporary consumer who, at the moment, probably isn’t thinking about Clarks as their purchase, admits Champion. “We know how to put genuine comfort into a contemporary product that, when they try it on, they’ll instantly understand,” he says, noting that the collection pushes the envelope on the brand’s design and development capabilities. “We just had to get the styling right, and we have.” And Artisan lies in the premium sweet spot that Clarks used to dominate, just with modern updates. “Artisan is bringing consumers who know and love us back into the brand,” Champion explains. This is the audience the brand expects to recapture first, he adds. “That’s the Schulers, Shoe Mills, and Brown Shoe Fits of the world, whereas Signature is white space that we have to nurture. Those consumers could be shopping in boutiques, Dillard’s, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, Saks.”

Dillard’s, for one, is giving Clarks a test online this spring. While small in overall scope, it’s a big deal for Champion, who met with President Alex Dillard when he first returned to Clarks only to be told that the department store chain was stepping away from the brand. The reason: Clarks wasn’t providing the premium product Dillard’s needed to build its business. Dillard told Champion to call again when Clarks had fixed the problem. The rejection really stung, but Champion resolved to take the advice and call only when he felt the product was right—the Spring/Summer ’24 line. “It was great to see Alex again,” Champion says, noting that Dillard’s had been a top customer for years. “We expect it to do well, and we’ll be trying to get on their floors again going forward.”

Speaking of new floors, Champion believes there is “tremendous” potential for Clarks in athletic dealers like Dick’s, Foot Locker, and Cabela’s. The brand already boasts plenty of street cred—its Wallabees have long been embraced by hip hop stars and streetwear influencers. In addition, he says a brown shoe brand’s take on sporty casual presents a fresh perspective. “How many people buying Hoka and On don’t even run? It’s a huge white space,” he offers. “There are some big athletic brands on the fringe of that world, whereas Clarks has been there for a long time with iconic styles. It’s about finding ways to unlock that business.”

Champion is chomping at the bit for all the growth opportunities that he believes lie within reach of Clarks, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2025. One might argue that his patience and loyalty alone deserve such a reward. (Many veteran execs would have skipped out after the second or third CEO.) Not Champion. He’s Clarks to the bone. “It’s a great company, and I love this opportunity to get the business back to where it should be,” he says. 

You’ve been delayed, but not denied?

You could say that. But have I accomplished all of what I set out to do when I came back? No. Although, there were things that needed fixing right away, which we’ve done. We got our inventories in line and downsized our business as the overhead costs were quite large. That included moving to smaller offices, lowering the head count, and reducing our full-price retail footprint because the premium business was no longer selling. We’re now down to 42 full-price stores and 117 outlets. All of those things had to happen while also making sure that we kept the value side of our business thriving, which we have. We’ve been profitable the last seven years. And having Viva Goods take a 51 percent ownership stake in 2021 really helped stabilize the business further and position us for growth.

The Torhill Hi
The Torhill Hi

What does Viva Goods bring to the equation?

They’re good business people, and they come from the footwear world. They understand development, manufacturing, sourcing, etc. And they’re willing to invest in the business. This isn’t a turn and burn scenario. These guys want into the global branded apparel business, and Clarks is a major step in that effort. I’m thrilled with their support; it really changed the attitude around here. Then they brought Jon into the business, and he brings a global perspective, he’s a strong brand guy, he knows the athletic world, which helps me, and he understands brand perception and how to utilize those strengths. And what better brand is there than Clarks when you talk about the comfort world? The consistency and strength of Clarks’ brand globally is impressive. We’re turning 200 years old in 2025; we’ve been making shoes a long time

The fourth CEO is a charm?

Yes. Nobody before was able to bring the globe together like Jon has. He has a clear vision of how to implement strategies, objectives, and goals on a regional basis. He’s done a terrific job in a very short period of time. He’s giving me the opportunities to do what I need in order to accomplish our goals. It helps that there are also plenty of people in our division who’ve been with this company for over 20 years. They’re strong product and brand people. That’s why I’m motivated every day to get us back to that point we were. We’re going to make it happen.

Was there ever a point—after the third CEO, perhaps—where you felt you just can’t do what you came back to do?

Of course. But you have to stay focused, adjust, and keep moving forward. There’s over 1,000 people counting on me to keep this business moving forward. Now, do you get frustrated at times? Sure. But you find ways to survive. Fortunately, we still have a strong company culture, which is important. We still make great product. We just need to get the premium base rebuilt. That’s what I’m focused on now.

Why do so many Euro comfort brands insist on a global approach to product when it’s proven such uniformity doesn’t work well, particularly in the U.S. market?

That’s a good question. While the brand image and perception should be consistent, no matter what country you’re in, how you interpret that within the product should allow for some regional differences. It’s how you merge and meld those two aspects that give you the opportunity to grow. That’s the beauty of Jon in that he’s already done that. He rebuilt the New Balance brand in Europe and Viva Goods understands Southeast Asia. We’re in a good position to grow. The team is very knowledgeable, and they want to win. It’s the first time in a long time that everyone around me feels this way about the brand.

So the strategy for 2024?

My main focus is rebuilding our premium business—Artisan, in particular, and Signature. It’s all white space for us. Artisan is the way back and Signature is the way forward. The first step is to go after those retailers who’ve been waiting for us to start doing the right things again. That’s the Schulers, Scheels, and Brown Shoe Fits of the world. We got down to very small amounts in those doors. We held our space as best we could, because they wanted us to stay on their floors as well. But we used to have walls of Clarks in those stores, and now it’s tables. We want to get back to walls. That’s where we’re heading with Artisan. We started this year with a bang, and our bookings through fall are heating up. Signature is about winning over boutiques and more upscale chains. We’re working hard on that.

Just how hard is it to win retailers back?

Retailers have been very good to us. They’ve been patient, because there were times we’d deliver product, and then it would change. I told them to just hang in there with me. We’re going to get it right. It has to do with trust and integrity, and they’ve shown me plenty. That’s the other piece that brings me back into the business every day. I want the team back together. But the team isn’t just Clarks employees; it’s got to include our retailers as well.

What will retailers see at the Atlanta show?

They’ll see a clear, tight, strong direction for Fall/Winter ’24 in Originals, Signature and Artisan. We’re trying to take back premium market share, so we didn’t want to throw too much at them. It can turn and burn. Overall, it’s ace Clarks product that, regardless of the price, is good quality, good fit, good value, and good materials. So a customer who walks into a JC Penney understands the shoes, the same way a person walking into Schulers or Dillard’s will understand those. I should add that our volume business is almost like where we were with the premium side back in the day. We have solid plans around growing that business further managed by great people who understand that business. We also have strong relationships with those retailers and their customers. There, we’re taking market share away from competitors as well as picking up sales from those who are leaving/have already left that business.

And the plan for Originals?

We’re creating a lot of excitement there. For example, the collabs we’re doing are creating a lot of excitement for a whole new level of young trendsetters that we’ve never reached before. And that bleeds down through the whole brand. The white space for a brown shoe brand like Clarks in that sport casual category has huge potential. It’s a big market. Brands like Hoka and Hey Dude came out of nowhere.

It helps that Clarks already possesses strong crossover appeal with that target audience.

It’s amazing. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about what trendsetters are wearing as a break from sneakers. An Originals style was one of the five examples. That (unpaid) endorsement is great, but now it’s about how to build off of that. How do we unlock that piece of the business? Before, we’ve never actively tapped into that market. We just let it ebb and flow. This is the first time we’re nurturing that base. It’s the mentality of an athletic brand, and having Jon and Tara McRae, our chief marketing and digital officer, who both come from that world, is key. They understand how to nurture that segment. It’s more of a slow burn. Originals will never be more than 10 percent of our total business. But it keeps us youthful and exciting, and it will bring more people into our great shoe manufacturing brand overall. What we build underneath that halo has real power.

You cited the loyalty of many retailers who have weathered Clarks’ fits and starts of the past few years. So what’s your take on the Dear John letters some of these retailers have received from some brands?

I don’t understand that philosophy. I believe you stay with the people who got you to the dance. How could I ever turn my back on the independent retailer when they’ve helped me along for the last eight years on the belief that I’d get this business back to where I said I would. On that note, we got too aggressive in the number of stores, which put a lot of pressure on them. We were up to 270. And while I think 42 is too low, we’re not going to be a “retail” company. We’re going to have stores and DTC, but we’re doing it the right way. It’s got to be a win-win for everybody.

Where do you envision Clarks in three years?

Rather than state a specific number, I think we’ll grow quickly over the next three years and could skyrocket if we hit on the right product in the sport channel segment. My overall vision is anyone walking into a tier one store in Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America will see innovative product in our Originals, Signature, and Artisan collections. The offshoots of those collections should bring us into a stronger stance in chains like Journeys and hopefully sports dealers like Foot Locker, Dick’s, Bass Pro Shops, and Cabela’s. Meanwhile, I envision our volume business to continue to grow. That’s the three-year plan. We’ll see what happens.

What screws it all up?

You never know. Look at the chaotic year we just went through. The economy can screw it up. World affairs can, too. I’ve got no control over those things. We can only control things within Clarks and try and move forward, and we can only adjust to the things we can’t control. I fall back on the strength and diversity of the Clarks brand. We’re really good at making shoes, which we’ve solidified and strengthened even further. Jon has streamlined our sourcing; we were in way too many factories. We’re also changing the way we purchase materials and manage product development. That’s all strengthening the brand, overall. We’re building the right products that offers quality and value, whether it’s a $200 or $90 shoe. Of course, we won’t always bat 1.000 when it comes to product. There will be adjustments along the way, but the strategy and the clarity around the goals is working. Plus, we’re diversified. There are a lot of different areas that we can go after. It’s about tapping into those various consumer segments, and as long as they understand who we are and like what they see, we should be in good shape.

Any desire to exit stage left any time soon?

I’m still having too much fun. Plus, I wouldn’t know what I’d do if I retired. I’m reading articles about guys who are still in the work world into their 80s. Who knows? I’m inspired now, and I’m hanging around to make sure we accomplish what I came back to do.

What do you love most about your job?

It’s always the same answer: the people I work with and the culture we build together. The relationships are everything. I want to be successful so the guys who got us to the dance the first time can be successful again.

Looking back to your Clarks Americas office manager days, did you ever imagine you’d be leading the company one day?

Never. But that’s what this brand offered me, and that’s why I’m here. I raised by family off this brand. Back when we were really growing, it was a different company every few years. There were shifts and people took advantage of them. A lot of great people working at different companies today started at Clarks, and many still work here. We created a terrific brand and culture. Why shouldn’t we do that again?

Off the Cuff

What are you reading? For business, I’m reading The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It by Sandra J. Sucher. She’s a Harvard professor and a neighbor of mine. And for leisure, I’m reading Light Bringer, the latest in the dystopian Red Rising series, by Pierce Brown.

What was the last movieyou saw? Oppenheimer. I kind of liked it and kind of didn’t. But it brought back memories of when we’d sit under our school desks for those atomic bomb drills.

What might people be surprised to know about you?  My degree is in education, and my first job with Clarks was in HR as an office manager.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received? Treat everyone with respect. It came from my father, who was a safety engineer for General Electric.

Who is your most coveted dinner guest? Abraham Lincoln. I think he’s one of the greatest human beings ever. Maybe I’ll get a chance one day. (Laughs) Of the living, Pete Carroll, the former coach of the Seattle Seahawks. Players love him, and I love how he pulls everyone together with similar goals. He really builds a team.

What is inspiring you right now?  It has a lot to do with why I originally came back to Clarks: creating opportunity for people who want to succeed. I love coming in every day to work on rebuilding this brand and have the people engaged with me in that effort succeed and have opportunities as well. That’s when everyone wins.

What was your best concert?  I’m not a big concert-goer, but this is one I’ll always remember. I was in my early 20s at a small café watching Livingston Taylor perform. About 40 minutes into his set, his brother James Taylor walked onto the stage and they jammed for about an hour. It was incredible..

Where is your moment of Zen?  It’s 6 a.m. every morning when I meditate for 15 to 30 minutes. I’ve been doing that for about three years. It really pays off; I love that quiet time.

What is your motto? Just keep moving forward one step at a time.

What is your Kryptonite? I don’t have one. I never felt like anything could ever freeze me up and take my powers away.

The June 2024 Issue

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