Even 42 years after starting Cels Enterprises with wife Carol, the CEO continues a jet-set lifestyle that includes trips around the globe for production meetings and factory visits. In the past month alone, he’s visited China, Japan, Russia and the U.K. So the fact that Goldman is often credited as one of the first to manufacture in China is no surprise. The executive has never shied away from change, moving with the industry and acting fast to capitalize on trends.
“The excitement of this industry is that it’s always changing,” said Goldman, 71. “Whether it’s the product or country or [customers], you are constantly learning different realities and learning to do business in different countries. It has been a cultural revolution in my life.”
His interest in the industry started well before he ventured out on his own, even though it wasn’t his decision to get into footwear. His mother encouraged him to take a stock boy position at Alexander’s department store in New York when he was 16.
From there, Goldman held retail posts at Blue Star (later acquired by Stride Rite), before founding Cels as a private-label and service company in 1971. Soon after, Cels was producing globally, in Italy and Argentina, and in 1979, the company started doing business for Esprit. It was there that he met Sam Edelman, and the two have been friends for 30 years.
“Bob is blessed with being an incredibly intelligent man, mixed with undeniable street smarts and a work ethic that’s second to none,” said Edelman, who was president of Esprit at the time. “He understands international business and the consumer better than almost anyone I’ve ever met.”
In 1981 Cels launched its first brand, Chinese Laundry. A year later, Goldman moved his manufacturing to China for quicker production and speed to market. What was one of his greatest accomplishments was also one of his biggest obstacles, he said. As a pioneer in overseas production, Goldman faced learning the culture and finding the right supporters.
“You have to build relationships with people who can make things happen,” he said.
Similarly, Goldman has great pride in his Los Angeles-based employees, many of whom have worked for the company for three decades. His partners also value this characteristic.
“He’s extremely loyal, genuine and cares about people and the longevity of his employees. That is a personal trait that is really special,” said Louis Mastrogiacomo, SVP of the fashion office at Macy’s. “I’ve been at Macy’s for 30 years, and it’s the same people [at Chinese Laundry]. It’s refreshing and nice to see that in the industry.”
Adding to the family feel, Goldman’s son Stewart and daughter Lauren hold executive positions at the firm. Both have been with the company for more than two decades, with Stewart now the VP of marketing and Lauren VP of design. The siblings said they learned a lot from their father, and never questioned joining the family operation.
“My father started his business from nothing, and I felt the need to carry it all the way,” said Lauren Goldman. “He’s been in business so long because of his ability to change when the world changes. He always taught me to listen to the consumer, and he’s good at taking risks.”
Indeed, over the years, Goldman has expanded the firm through product launches and even unlikely partnerships. In 2011, Chinese Laundry became the official sponsor of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. He’s also grown his stable of brands to now include CL by Laundry, Dirty Laundry and Kristin Cavallari by Chinese Laundry, after the former reality TV star joined the team as a brand ambassador.
“Bob has created such a fashion-forward brand that speaks to fashion’s hottest trends, but has done it in a way that’s very attainable for consumers,” said Cavallari. “I really enjoy our design meetings. Seeing the sketches come to life into samples was a dream come true for me, and Bob has made that possible.”
Such examples show the CEO’s ability to change with the consumer, a skill that keeps him on his toes — and prevents him from retiring just yet.
“Retirement is a wonderful thing, but when you love what you do, you want to continue to do it and find new ventures,” Goldman said. “[My job] is about making the fashion statements the consumer wants. My favorite memories of the shoe business [thus far] are when times change. You need to be prepared for the opportunities.”