Clarks’ Journey: Q&A With Jim Salzano

As the president of Clarks Cos., N.A., Jim Salzano is in his comfort zone, but he’s certainly not taking things easy.

The company veteran, promoted to the top spot last summer, is working hard to refresh the brand’s retail presentation, bolster relationships with retailers and foster a strong corporate culture.

“Even [after] having been around here for 17 years, every day feels like the first,” said Salzano, a former EVP at the firm, who took over from mentor and friend Bob Infantino.

Salzano is leading the brand during a time when it is experiencing solid momentum in the U.S. market: The exec predicted sales for the fiscal year ended Jan. 31 will be up 10 percent. “We exceeded last year, which was our greatest year ever,” he said.

According to Salzano, Clarks’ ability to stay connected to its retail partners has enabled the company to remain ahead of the game.

Retail feedback spurred the brand to begin wholesaling its kids’ footwear, which will launch in U.S. stores this fall. “The children’s business in the U.K. is very significant,” Salzano said, adding that he expects the debut to have a positive impact on sales across the board. “We’ll invite new consumers into the brand as they’re being introduced to kids.”

Dave Levy, owner of Hawley Lane Shoes in Shelton, Conn., said Clarks continues to be a strong player under Salzano’s leadership.

“The product’s good and the margins are good,” Levy said. “[Jim] knows what works and what doesn’t.”

Clarks — which sells footwear under the Indigo, Privo, Originals, Unstructured and Artisan labels — is committed to growing its wholesale business, but its retail stores remain a priority, too. The brand operates 149 full-price and 100 outlet locations throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and opened 22 stores last year.

Looking ahead, Salzano will expand his own reach and is set to assume oversight of the Central and South American businesses at the beginning of next year. (At that time, the company will be renamed Clarks Americas.)

Here, the executive talks about expanding into new categories and why customer service is critical.

What are your biggest priorities as president of the brand?
JS:
We have a real opportunity to refresh or upgrade the way the brand looks everywhere we’re sold — the fixturing, visuals, bringing a more branded presence to our business throughout all our distribution, whether it’s wholesale or our own retail. When we look better, we sell more. Second is to make sure our retailers understand that even though we’re growing and achieving records, we’re still humble. We want them to understand how grateful [we are] for their business and how important [it is] that we recognize this. Lastly is making sure we maintain a culture in this company where we involve a lot of people in decision making and give people the opportunity to develop.

You’re part of a large global company. How closely do you work with the Clarks team at the U.K. headquarters?
JS:
I sit on an executive leadership team. We’re in the process of creating a global organization, bringing the businesses together to create a brand where consumers [can] experience [Clarks] in a consistent manner. The growth vehicle right now is opening up Clarks stores, mostly franchised. It’s something we’re going to begin exploring here. Part of the [initiative] will also be the addition of Central and South America to our responsibilities. On Feb. 1, 2013, [we become] Clarks Americas. We’re investing heavily into the business right now in terms of systems, logistics capacity and organizational structure to prepare for it.

As you make more investments, how worried are you about the uncertain economy?
JS:
We do pretty well in tough times. This is a good chance for us to gain market share because our value proposition is very strong. And we never pull back on any service propositions, whether it’s in our stores or [at] wholesale.

Many brands had a tough fall due to weather woes. Will retailers scale back for the next season?
JS:
Clarks had a great fall season this year, selling through our products. And we aren’t hearing the uncertainty from retailers that an uneven winter can sometimes bring. At the Outdoor Retailer show, we had an extraordinary response from existing customers as well as from new customers.

You have also just revealed plans to wholesale the children’s line — which already performs well globally – in the U.S. market. Why are you making that move now?
JS:
The timing’s right. [Currently], it does very well in our [retail] stores. We’re going to launch in a soft way in fall ’12 — 20 retailers in the U.S. and 15 in Canada. We’ve had a lot of requests over the years from wholesalers [telling us they] need a kids’ brand and [they] want Clarks. [However], it’s only lately that we’ve been able to put together some principles about how to do [it]. Over the last few years there’s been some confusion and chaos in [this] part of the marketplace in North America with people coming in and out of [children’s].

During your career at Clarks, what’s been the biggest change in the industry?
JS:
Online. No one would have called that. I give a lot of credit to Zappos.com for making us all believers. [Conversely], one of the things that disappoints me is the [current] lack of attention to service, especially in the U.S. Even some retailers who’ve been well known for service have fallen off. It’s a huge opportunity. All you need to do is invest in people and inspire them to want to service customers. Then, you’re 90 percent of the way there.

How has your background as a retailer helped you in your current role?
JS:
I started in the stockroom [at Altier’s Shoes in upstate New York] and ended up running the place. I understand what it’s like to sell [shoes] by the pair — what it means to connect to a consumer, to unload the delivery truck, eat lunch on top of a shoebox and work crazy hours. I took Altier’s through bankruptcy. [I know] what it means to build, manage and lead a [corporate] culture that can provide value to shareholders.

Discuss your experience as an industry mentor.
JS:
Being a mentor, done right, you get as much out of it as the person you’re mentoring. I work on and off with Danny Muskat [of Deer Stags Concepts]. He’s so energetic, bright, innovative. That was [orchestrated through Two Ten Footwear Foundation]. The leadership piece at Two Ten [has also been] very important. In fact, I’ve moderated the Leadership Forum in New York that Ron Fromm underwrites two years in a row. It’s been a great way to bring in young people and get exposure to some of the great leaders in the industry. We have so many.

Who have been your key mentors?
JS:
First, my father, Joe Salzano. He came to Clarks [before me]. Bob Infantino recruited him from Rockport. [Today, he] manages the independent sales reps and has almost got a cult following. Next, Bob Infantino. He had a huge presence in this company and the industry, and it’s a testament to him. We’ve spent a lot of time together. He prepared me very well. Jim Issler has been another. When I won [Two Ten’s] A.A. Bloom Award, he won the T. Kenyon Holly [Award]. Being on stage with him was one of the top 10 highlights of my career. Ron Fromm has been another great mentor, [as well as] Peggy Kim Meill.

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