In Good Company

NEW YORK — In a year when most footwear firms stayed quiet, Brown Shoe Co. made plenty of noise.

The company turned up the volume, despite the economic turmoil, with attention-grabbing celeb deals, new designer partnerships, international expansion and the relocation of its Famous Footwear headquarters to the St. Louis area.

“It’s been a pivotal year in the transformation of our business,” said Chairman and CEO Ron Fromm. “We set the stage for a significant amount of progress to be made over the next five years.”

The buzzword at Brown, according to company President and COO Diane Sullivan, has been innovation — and that came to life through initiatives such as Via Spiga’s collaboration with emerging ready-to-wear brand Vena Cava and Brown’s new footwear licensing deal with Vera Wang’s Lavender label.

“We think about innovation [in terms of product], but innovation also comes through partnerships and business models,” said Sullivan, citing the company’s Sam Edelman investment as another example of its fresh approach. (Brown acquired a 42 percent stake in the brand in 2007.)

“[Ron and Diane] are constantly looking for innovative ways to improve results and are quick to identify and present opportunities that will benefit our business and our customer,” said Jack Minuk, EVP and GMM of shoes at Nordstrom.

In an effort to fuel excitement at retail, Brown decided to beef up its celebrity offerings this year, adding Fergie and Reba McEntire to the brand lineup.

“I looked at the quality of [Brown’s] products and felt they understood the goal I had for my line,” McEntire told Footwear News in October.

To that end, Sullivan said the firm works hard to forge strong ties with its celebrity partners — a huge factor in creating successful lines. “It really does start with the relationship … [and making sure] we have a very clear understanding of the expectations on both sides,” Sullivan said. “The other part is that we try to understand what the celebrity is all about and how to translate that DNA.”

That strategy is a huge selling point, said celebrity stylist and TV personality Gretta Monahan, who launched her eponymous line with Brown earlier this year.

“I was always afraid of doing something personal on a large scale like this, but luckily, I can say that Brown has put so much quality and time into this line,” Monahan said. “[The Brown team] has so much business savvy and such a passion for entrepreneurial projects like mine.”

Lisa Mayock, one-half of the Vena Cava design duo, also applauded Brown’s commitment to young designers.

“[The Via Spiga collaboration] was our first time designing shoes, and [they] were very helpful in guiding us through the process step by step,” said Mayock.

Though developing new projects has been a priority, Brown hasn’t neglected its core businesses — Naturalizer, Dr. Scholl’s and Famous Footwear — which drive the vast majority of the firm’s revenues.

The firm has steadily grown Dr. Scholl’s distribution and product offering, while Naturalizer continues to dominate the fashion-comfort space.

Fromm is also adamant about nurturing the more than 1,100-door Famous Footwear chain. “We would never be successful if it wasn’t for Famous Footwear,” he said. Like many other retailers, the chain is facing challenges amid a huge downturn in consumer spending. Still, Famous Footwear rules the family footwear sector — and execs are confident it can grow to 1,500 locations over the long term.

Now Fromm and his team, based in Clayton, Mo., will be much closer to the Famous Footwear business — a huge milestone, according to the CEO. “We pulled together one interconnected company this year,” he said of the relocation, which was announced in April.

While working to strengthen its businesses in the U.S., Brown also dove deeper into international waters this year. Like many other companies, the firm is banking on China to be a growth engine going forward and is also eyeing other opportunities across Europe and Asia.

Heading into 2009, Brown is prepping two Fergie lines and its Vera Wang Lavender label. Plans are also in the works to bow a Libby Edelman-branded collection at Famous Footwear. Naturalizer also will introduce a new retail concept early next year.

As the exec team gets ready for a busy 2009, they are upbeat about the expansion plans in spite of near-term challenges. Fromm said, “We’ve got a lot of great, new, exciting things that are blossoming right now.”

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