Hall of Fame: Stephen Rubin

Hall of Fame: Stephen Rubin
Stephen Rubin, photographed in Pentland Group's North London headquarters

I ‘m too old to get another job, but I own the joint, so they can’t get rid of me,” joked Stephen Rubin, 74, proud family man and leader of Pentland Group Plc, one of the largest shoe firms in the U.K.

But heading up Pentland wasn’t in Rubin’s grand plan. He graduated from University College London in 1958 with a degree in law and planned to become a barrister — a picture of him wearing the iconic wig hangs in the legal department at his impressive headquarters. In 1959, he stood for a seat in the House of Commons, in an election where Winston Churchill was the oldest candidate and he, at 21, was the youngest.

He didn’t make it into Parliament and instead that year joined the family business, Liverpool Shoe Co., which was founded by Rubin’s parents, Berko and Minnie. “I had just gotten married and, in those days, it’d probably take four to five years to break even as a practicing barrister, so I went into business instead,” he remembered. He worked alongside his father for 10 years as joint managing director, and upon his father’s death assumed the role of chairman in 1969, five years after the company went public.

In 1973, the firm officially became Pentland Group, named for luck after a successful maritime business in the family’s portfolio and to prevent the company from being associated with just shoes. Over the years, the company has bought — in whole or in part — or become the licensee for brands such as Ted Baker Footwear, Hunter, Kickers, Red or Dead, Lacoste Chaussures and Ellesse under the Pentland Brands division. The firm also has a 57 percent controlling share in JD Sports, a publicly traded athletic retailer with more than 800 units.

And footwear remains at the core of Rubin’s career. “The best thing I ever did has got to be [investing in] Reebok,” he said. “But the truth is no one ever knew at that stage how big it was going to be.”

Rubin purchased a stake in the athletic brand in 1981 for $77,000, finally divesting those shares in a two-part deal in 1991 for $770 million. “When I bought that business it was bust,” he said. “I thought it wasn’t worth $77,000; I thought we overpaid.”

David Spitz, the former owner of Kurt Geiger, founder of Shoe Studio Group and chairman of Spitz Consulting, has known Rubin for more than 40 years and said Rubin’s vision has successfully guided Pentland into many uncharted territories. “Stephen had the foresight many years ago to start working in the Far East, and in many ways pioneered the more affordable footwear that we all take for granted today,” Spitz said.

Indeed, his work in human rights was spurred by what he saw in the East. His commitment to fighting exploitation within the manufacturing industry has seen him work to eradicate child labor and ensure that everyone in his supply chain earns a fair wage. Pentland is a longstanding member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, a global alliance of companies, trade unions and organizations that aim to improve the lives of the working poor.

Rubin’s son, Andy, who is now CEO of Pentland Brands, said these efforts will define how his father is remembered.

“He cares deeply about people and will always help those in need,” said Andy Rubin. “His legacy will be having created a company that always evolves, leading the way in having a soul and wanting to do the right thing. Corporate responsibility is at the heart of everything we do.”

As chairman of the Pentland Group, Rubin still presides over his empire from the Pentland offices in Finchley, North London. Rubin privatized the company in 1999, saying he felt constricted by the public markets and analysts’ opinions that he should buy more companies and gain leverage.

“We got to a stage where there was no advantage to being a public company. We were then able to do what we wanted, [like] building the headquarters here, which I never would have been able to justify to shareholders,” Rubin said. “We are not motivated 100 percent by profit. We built the building because we wanted to show [our] staff that we care, we want them to have a good place to work and we aren’t milking the business.”

Pentland’s office was built in 2002, and connects, over a lake, to an older building that was opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. It houses a gym; a pool; foosball, table tennis and snooker tables; a restaurant; a shop; a daycare center; a massage room; a conference center and a lot of colorful furniture. Inside, a history wall proudly charts the company’s progress, from the early days of the Liverpool Shoe Co. to Michael Phelps winning Olympic gold in Speedo, a Pentland brand. It’s a good summary of Rubin’s accomplishments, which have gained him respect in the industry.

“Most importantly, Stephen is a man of his word,” said Spitz. “He has an eye for spotting opportunities and is a true gentleman with real values — something pretty rare to find in someone today.”