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What’s up, Doc?

Record profits, celebrity buzz and new ownership— Bob Bradford, senior vice president of sales for Dr. Martens USA, on why the iconic brand is rocking again.

HGKSRHGIt’s the kind of exposure brand managers dream about. The triple crown: unsolicited, unseeded and unpaid. And the cherry on top: It’s a who’s who of influential trendsetters that spans a broad age range with diverse backgrounds. The hit parade includes Sasha Obama, who was viewed by millions wearing a pair of Dr. Martens’ classic 1460 boots at the annual pardoning of a Thanksgiving turkey. The 12-year-old daughter of the leader of the free world added a personal fashion twist by weaving in both pairs of laces that come in the box—bright yellow and black, specifically. Bob Bradford, senior vice president of sales for Dr. Martens USA, admits that the two pairs of laces were intended to be an either-or option. But Obama’s double lace touch (An example of self-expression that is right in step with the brand’s successful Stand For Something advertising campaign.) made it all the more special and noteworthy.

Perhaps more influential and, some might argue, more powerful than a member of the first family was the recent sighting of Blue Ivy, daughter of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, rocking Dr. Martens’ floral print boots recently in New York. The sighting—like pretty much every Blue Ivy one—instantly went viral. A similar scenario played out when David and Victoria Beckham’s 2-year-old daughter, Harper, was photographed this fall wearing a pair of classic black 1460 boots. The member of English fashion royalty sporting the U.K. brand was an ideal match. Not only do such celebrity tot sightings help usher in a new generation of Dr. Martens customers, if one didn’t know the 53-year-old brand had launched its first kids’ collection only last July, they probably do now.

The coveted brand exposure doesn’t stop there. Bradford says product sightings of late include Rihanna, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj and members of the Black Eyed Peas. “I was sitting with my daughter recently watching an episode of So You Think You Can Dance and an entire dance troupe came out wearing our boots,” Bradford says of the unexpected but pleasant surprise. “The cast of Glee has been wearing our boots in recent episodes,” he adds.

Then there’s the heavy hitting product sighting that’s been crashing through TV screens worldwide on a near hourly basis: Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” video. In case you’ve missed it, the queen of twerk and reigning gossip magazine cover girl is wearing nothing but a pair of oxblood 1460s as she swings back and forth on an actual wrecking ball. Love or hate the performer, it’s a pop culture phenomenon and, if one is a believer in the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, then this is a home run for Dr. Martens. “Pretty much everyone has seen that video,” Bradford confirms. “Our boots definitely stood out.” But he is quick to reiterate that not one of these celebrity sightings has involved a paid placement, nor are any being directly promoted by Dr. Martens. “I believe that they see us as a brand that represents individual self expression,” Bradford says. “It’s a way for them to stand out and be a little different, like we hope it is with all of our customers.”

The organic celebrity exposure is surely helping fuel Dr. Martens’ strong sales of late. Global sales were up about 20 percent in 2013, which follows similar annual gains during the prior three years. The brand that experienced its sales peak at the turn of the century is more than half way back to that volume, Bradford reports. The outlook for 2014 looks equally promising. What’s more, Bradford, who has been with the brand for 17 years, believes it’s only the tip of Dr. Martens’ long-term potential. “We want and believe we can become a $500-million brand, and go on from there,” he says.

Bradford believes such growth is attainable because, for starters, few brands possess as rich a heritage and have as strong of an emotional connection with its customers as Dr. Martens does. It’s a legacy of cool that stretches back to Pete Townshend of The Who, Joe Strummer of The Clash and

Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who have all helped pass the baton of rebellion from one generation to the next while wearing the brand. Dr. Martens is rock. It’s punk. It’s alternative. It’s genuine. It’s English. It’s a brand dripping with attitude and authenticity. And, Bradford likes to add, Dr. Martens boots and shoes are comfortable, durable and versatile—all musts in today’s footwear universe. What’s more, Dr. Martens now has firm financial backing, following last October’s acquisition by the private equity firm, Permira, for a reported $485 million. (The deal is expected to be completed this month.) Permira has extensive expertise in backing global brands, as it demonstrated with Hugo Boss and Valentino. The general consensus is it will help take Dr. Martens to the next level. The plan is to keep the existing management team, led by CEO David Suddens, in place and let them keep doing their thing.

Another macro trend benefiting Dr. Martens lies within the current eclectic nature of fashion. With no dominant trend to lead the way, retailers are increasingly turning to heritage brands. Bradford says the recent FFANY show in New York only reaffirmed this sentiment: “We had appointments throughout the week and we asked every one what they were seeing and what is working, but there didn’t seem to be a huge defining must-have,” he says. “It’s a wide open marketplace, and that bodes well for strong brands that have a diverse product line.” Along those lines, Bradford says Dr. Martens has learned from previous mistakes, most notably not to overly rely on just its iconic 1460 boot. The product line has become much more diverse and sales are now split about 50-50 gender-wise. Previously, it was a 60-40 in favor of men’s, which skewed even higher when sales hit a downturn during the previous decade. Just as noteworthy is the diversity of Dr. Martens’ manufacturing base. What was once the Achilles heel of the company—trying to keep its English manufacturing facilities up and running—now involves 12 state-of-the-art factories in four countries around the world. “Before, we were pretty much locked in to one factory and one (high) price,” Bradford says. “Now we are more a sourcing company than a manufacturing one. It was one of the best moves we made.”

So how’s business?
Business is really good. This (past) year marked the fourth year in a row of double-digit sales increases. It was also the most profitable year in the history of Dr. Martens. Asia is up, our third party distributor sales throughout the world are up and the U.S. is slightly up more than any other region. Our e-commerce business is also up. We just opened our 12th retail store in the U.S., and that business is strong. Certainly, the overall strength in boots is helping propel our growth, but we are experiencing success across our product range. Of particular note is the launch of Kids in July, which has been selling like crazy. We believe we are only at the tip of the iceberg there.

What factors are helping contribute to this broad success?
It’s a combination of factors. Our retail partners are doing a really nice job of presenting the full product range. We’re also selling more at full price. Along those lines, we have very tight distribution, which certainly helps in that regard. And, quite honestly, we’re a much smaller, flatter organization. We have quite a few less people as compared to our peak years that spanned 1999 to 2001. The belt-tightening that occurred during our lean years has really helped. For example, we’re not spending $1 million per show at WSA anymore. Back then we had a 50-foot by 100-foot, two-story booth with AC, live bands and we damn near fed everyone attending the show. I mean, we had the Foo Fighters playing at our parties.

I remember. It was a blast.
Yes, it was phenomenal (laughs). Those were great times, but I think we’re spending a little bit differently and smarter than we were back then.

Record profits are not solely the result of belt-tightening. 
No. There’s certainly an increasing demand for our brand overall and our boots, in particular. I know that my marketing brethren would also tell you that the new Stand For Something ad campaign that we launched this yearis is really resonating with consumers. It champions self-expression by showcasing authentic customers who wear our boots coupled with personal stories about what they stand for. We also have a whole new group of designers, led by Damien Wilson, our global design director, who are doing terrific interpretations of our entire product range.

What caused the lean times?
A major reason was that we were slow to move off a very Dr. Martens look—that iconic eight eyelet 1460 boot with the yellow welt stitching, groove side wall and heel loop. We weren’t able to adapt and evolve quickly enough. But we’ve since been able to transition from that look with different materials, cool linings and rolled down options. We also have a lot more built around our Originals collection with several line extensions. For example, we now have women’s specific product. Back in 2000, it was all unisex styles, which wasn’t particularly flattering on women. To be a great footwear brand today you must be aware of fit, comfort and styling, and we’re doing a lot better job of that now in all areas.

How much broader is the line today as compared to 2000?
It’s probably double. Our collections now include Originals, Casuals, Rugged, Open Airwair (sandals), Kids and Industrial. Originals, believe it or not, doesn’t rank in the top two, volume-wise, in the U.S. They are Casuals and Rugged. Now some might look at a Rugged style and assume it’s an Originals, but it has a more lugged outsole and, unlike our typical smooth leathers, it’s milled. If you walk into a Journeys, which is our largest global customer, they represent looks from across our range. We also now do a significant business with the family channel—DSW, Shoe Carnival, Famous Footwear, etc. They don’t carry Originals, but the label reads Dr. Martens, which is a brand their customers believe provides good value because it’s long lasting product. In addition, sales outside of boots are picking up. Urban Outfitters, for example, is reporting some of our worn-in leather looks have been performing well. Our sandal sales are picking up as well. Birkenstock has experienced an uptick of late, especially in Europe, which is a great precursor for the category overall and bodes particularly well for us. The entry point for a lot of consumers who are currently in their thirties was our footbed sandals.

It’s not easy to have any product extension accepted, particularly when a brand is so well known for one specific style.
That’s absolutely true. There is nothing harder than going into a presentation and a buyer looks you in the eye and says, “I don’t need that from you.” Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good the product is, the price, the materials, etc. Fortunately, we have been able to break through some of those barriers with additional collections.

Might younger consumers see Dr. Martens as a new brand?
What we have discovered in our focus groups over the last several years is a lot of people under 20 had no idea who Dr. Martens was. So there is a sense of discovery going with a lot of younger people.

Like Sasha Obama, for example.
Yes. I doubt she has any idea about the history of Dr. Martens and what the brand represents. And while we would be happy if she knew about our rich British heritage, our strong connection to music and, like one of our original taglines states about our product, that we are “made like no other shoes on earth,” it’s probably none of the above. But that’s OK. Throughout our history there have been a lot of sub cultures—Mods, Punks and Grunge—who have adopted the product as their own. These people saw it as a way for them to express their individuality. The big difference now is we offer a broader range of styles for people to do that. But we never dictate how they should wear our shoes or suggest which particular trend they should pair it with. A mantra used around our offices is individual self-expression, and the Stand For Something campaign really ties into that. Our flagship stores also run a promotion on Facebook called How to Wear It. It feature a gallery of photos of customers’ personal style twists with their Dr. Martens. It spans cute skirts with leggings to dresses to full-on punk looks. The overall point being we’re not tied to one look or type of consumer. That said I do believe there’s a little bit of rebelliousness in everybody and we give opportunities to show that through their fashion.

What are you doing this time around to try and minimize any downturns going forward? 
That’s a great question and it’s certainly one that I get asked often. My pat answer is there are many aspects about the company that are different this go ’round. First off, we no longer strictly manufacture shoes in England. So in addition to our Goodyear welted styles, we now manufacture strobel and cement constructed shoes. In fact, one of our strongest categories of late is Eclectic, which is extremely lightweight, low profile, cup sole product. It mirrors the DNA of our 1460 boot, but it’s a much lighter weight, more affordable package. We also offer a corner stitch program, which has become a significant part of our business within the family value channel. We’ve also retrenched in our Industrial division, which now includes a dedicated sales force. That division represents more than 20 percent of our business—selling to pipe fitters, welders and construction workers on job sites. That’s the true heritage of Dr. Martens, which was originally developed as a work boot for longshoremen, postal workers and bobbies (British police officers). We have a compelling story in that segment that represents 50 years of success. All of these aspects combined have really made us a more rounded company.

What is the distribution strategy going forward in the U.S.?
Our distribution continues to be very tight. We have some accounts that we have been dealing with who consist of the exact same people for 17 years. They have always believed in the brand and they believe in what we are doing. And we are very loyal to them. Along those lines, I think one of the contributing factors to our success is that we are not so easy to find at retail. We are very strategic in who we sell. Often, I’ll have a stack of business cards coming back from a Project show of delightful people who represent terrific stores, but it’s just not the right fit.

Can you achieve substantial growth within your existing distribution?
I told the team at our recent global sales conference that we can double our business with our existing retailers by doing nothing more than expanding our SKU assortment, making sure that we are in stock and helping drive sell-through.

A lot of brands that get hot often get greedy and over distribute.
Yup. Conversely, when a knock comes on the door from a 1,000-store chain, it’s really hard to say no when you are struggling. We’ve been faced with that situation a couple of times in the past decade, but we respectively said no. Those were tough decisions. At the other extreme, I get phone calls literally every day from somebody who wants to put up our entire line on their web site—with us doing fulfillment, of course. But they very well could be someone sitting in their mom’s basement wearing pajamas. Those are much easier decisions to make (laughs).

How is Dr. Martens approaching the online channel?
There was a point about five years ago where we ratcheted back on this tier and decided to focus on key players. These sites are very prominent and can feature our product in such a way that really showcases it to potential new consumers. We will also unveil a new global e-commerce platform next month. It has mobile applications and acts as a real showcase for the brand.

Be they branded stores and e-commerce platforms it seems like everyone is a retailer these days.
It can seem that way. We talk about what that percentage is going to be going forward and, quite honestly, we don’t want that to get too lopsided because we can’t do what a Nordstrom can. Who Nordstrom has walking through its doors may not be the type of person who would walk into one of our stores or shop our site. Nor can we open 1,200 Famous Footwear or 1,000 Journeys stores. And Journeys is a brand, too, that appeals to a broad range of kids. They really know how to cater to them. I want Dr. Martens to be a part of that. I think it’s critical for our long-term success that we maintain those relationships and offer products that resonate with those consumers when they walk through all of those different retail doors.

How many more flagships do you plan to open this year?
Currently, we have 12 stores (The most recent one opened in Columbus, OH.) and we’ll probably open three to five more. I know retailers don’t like hearing that but it’s really only a handful and they serve as a billboard for Dr. Martens. They have helped the perception of the brand in those respective marketplaces. It legitimizes what we are doing. For example, at our store in Portland, OR, which is on the first floor of our headquarters, it’s amazing how many people walk in and the first thing they say is, “I had no idea that Dr. Martens made shoes like this.” And no matter how much I browbeat Dillard’s or Nordstrom, they can’t represent the brand the same way. Even if it’s nothing more than a visitor seeing what our brand is all about, the stores are worth it.

What’s your overall assessment of retail right now?
Certainly, there’s been a lot of shakeout these past several years. And if I look at the retailer list during Dr. Martens’ three biggest years, it is absolutely frightening how many of them no longer exist. Those that have survived are certainly more optimistic than they were two or three years ago. But it’s a very cautious optimism. Many are risk-adverse and are more inclined to buy established brands. There was a point in time not too long ago where if you had a great shoe, you could walk in, set it on the table and—boom—the orders would be written on the spot for all doors. That just doesn’t happen any more. Even with our closest partners there’s a test period now: Let’s get it in 30 doors and see how it does. That’s why I think it’s very difficult now for a new brand to become meaningful. You would need considerable financial backing or already be well-established, like Under Armour. They were strong enough as an apparel brand to get significant placement in footwear.

Is this necessarily a good thing for our industry?
As a consumer, I don’t think it’s a good ting. There’s less innovation in the marketplace and there’s less experimentation overall. And there’s less selection. But as someone managing sales of an established brand, it plays into our strengths. It’s also enabling us to introduce a more diverse product line.

Like, for example, the Agyness Deyn collaboration?
Collaborations like that as well as others we’ve done recently with Hello Kitty, Liberty of London, Yohji Yamamoto, Raf Simons and Adrien Sauvage have been instrumental in getting us into some key retailers—ones where maybe you wouldn’t normally see Dr. Martens carried. You can expect to see more collaborations going forward. Currently, we have been teaming with classic English brands as part of our premium crafted Made in England collection. It includes wing tips featuring Harris Tweed patterns incorporated in the designs. We’ve also partnered with Stephen Walters and Sons Ltd., which makes beautiful silk ties. We feature select prints as linings in several styles. The best part is we have fired up our U.K. manufacturing facility in Cobb’s Lane to make these shoes. They have had to add an extra shift to meet the growing demand.

What do these items retail for?
From about $300 to $400. It’s certainly a distinctive look for a distinctive customer. Along those lines, we’ve had great meetings with Lord & Taylor, Barneys and Neiman Marcus, who are targeting that type of customer. And while it’s not significant pairs overall, it really honors the brand’s heritage as well as appeals to an older consumer who maybe wore Dr. Martens in the past but doesn’t want to wear a steel toe, 10-eyelet boot now. This gets them back into our brand.

Where do you Dr. Martens in five years?
A lot bigger overall and well balanced. We expect to see significant growth across all segments. Similarly, we want growth to come from around the world and not be overly dependent on one particular region. Certainly, the potential is there. There are great growth opportunities in Asia, for example. If we can replicate the amount of sandals we have been selling in Vietnam elsewhere, it could mean great things for the brand. There are stores in that country where half the shoe wall is dedicated to Dr. Martens. We also have good momentum in Canada since we took sales management back from our distributor. That business is probably four times bigger than it was in the hey-day around 2000. We made the same move in France recently, and that business is coming on strong. And there’s plenty of opportunity to expand further in South America, where we’re taking a little different approach by partnering with some retailers to open dedicated Dr. Martens stores.

Looking back on your 17-year tenure with the brand might this be the best of times so far for you?
Oh, absolutely. It’s the overall mood. How we treat our employees and our facilities—it’s a coveted place to work. More importantly, when people are happy their work reflects that. I love going to battle with our people every day. And I’ve even been able to hire back a few sales people. They are thrilled to be here again. They love the brand, the company and the pace of our organization.

Well, it sure must be the lean years.
Back then it was more of an entrenchment mentality. We had something to prove that we were not going to let the brand go under and we scratched and clawed our way back. And, an added bonus, is seeing some of the people who have been with us the whole time advance in their careers. The effort is paying off.

What do you love most about your job?
That it’s different every day. While at times it can seem that I’m on airplanes too much, when I’ve been in the office for a stretch I get that itch to get in front of our customers to show all the new things we are doing. That aspect never gets old. I also love the mystique associated with this brand. When people ask me where I work the response usually triggers a spark in their eyes. Immediately, they are taken back to where they were when they bought their first pair. We often get pictures from people who were married wearing their beloved Docs. It’s more than just footwear to so many of our customers. That’s what makes what we do an incredible joy, and I’m very fortunate to be where I am.

The March 2024 Issue

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