5 Questions for OTZ’s Bob Rief

Under new parent company K-Swiss Inc., OTZ Shoes will carry on with its appreciation for the past — the very long-ago past.

Earlier this month, for an undisclosed sum, K-Swiss bought the Malibu, Calif.-based brand that derives its designs from a shoe found on the 5,300-year-old mummified body of a man discovered in the Ötztal Alps, on the border between Austria and Italy. In February, footwear veteran Bob Rief took over as CEO of OTZ Shoes and will continue to lead the label under its new owners and pursue the line’s unique look.

“[The mummy] was wearing footwear constructed by a craftsman more than 5,000 years ago,” Rief said. “The shape was exactly the outline of the foot, not compromised like most shoes today. It had an inner structure made of sinew, and attached to it was a bearskin outsole with a deerskin upper. The shoes were lined with lichen and leaves for insulation — simple and practical, and nothing but natural materials, of course.”

OTZ’s styles feature organic materials, a cork footbed and unusual styling. The brand has been around since 2010, when it was called Oetzi3300. With Rief on board, the label is tapping his footwear experience and proven track record to target growth areas. Previously, he served as CEO of Sanuk Footwear, now owned by Decker’s Outdoor Corp., and was president of Reef. He also has held executive posts at Merrell and Nike Golf, and most recently was COO of Boardworks Surf. And outside of work, Rief is part of a group of executive volunteers called the San Diego Sports Innovators, which advises young brands and helps them raise financing.

“We help 10 or 12 new brands a year meet with the investment community,” he said. “It’s very gratifying and a great way for us old guys to pave the way for the next generation.”

Here, Rief talks about what primitive footwear can teach the modern market and what keeps him coming back to the industry.

How does the K-Swiss acquisition change the game for you and OTZ?
BR:
On the practical side, if you look at the place where we could do better, it’s in the world of distribution and all the backroom tasks such as accounting and financing. We’ve been experiencing 300 percent growth per year, and having a partner like [K-Swiss and its parent E.Land World Ltd.] means we can buy the inventory to grow the market size. Our retailers will be happy to know we can fulfill orders on time and more completely. That kind of growth is hard to finance internally so, from the get-go we had the mindset of trying to attract an equity partner.

While so many people are adding technology to their shoes, how do you sell a sort of backward approach?
BR:
Reverting to simple designs and natural materials with as little waste as possible is actually going forward. To me, teching up simple things is actually going backward. An ancient hunter used basic materials to make footwear used in extreme climates like the Alps. But seeing this very early example of engineered footwear provided an opportunity to think and unlearn the conventional wisdom.

Because no one holds the patents on this prehistoric construction, how do you own the design in the marketplace?
BR:
OTZ is different. Being different is a state of mind. That’s the only design we own. We will continue along our path. My advice to other people and brands is to do the same. The market is so congested with look-alike products that they can’t all succeed. By definition “being yourself” means you won’t be like us.

You have a good track record of spotting footwear hits early on. What makes you think this is the next one?
BR:
I see a large part of the global population moving toward simplicity. In some places it’s the paleo [diet] movement or LOHAS [Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability], but whatever it’s called, a large group of people are focusing their lives on elements that are important to them. I believe OTZ’s values resonate with them, [along with] the color sense, Italian linen materials, natural leathers and cork. And from a retail point of view, OTZ is a differentiating brand that will help them be different, too.

What keeps you coming back to the footwear industry?
BR:
I wish I knew. Honestly, stepping back from the corporate world a few years ago, I realized that small brands are critically important to successful retailing. Sometimes, in the evolution, brands get trampled by business challenges. I have seen it happen and felt the pain, too. Maybe I can simply provide some strategic value and help achieve some business [goals], minus the drama.