5 Questions for Oboz’s John Connelly

Oboz has a knack for cultivating growth — and not only with its mission to plant a tree for every pair sold.

Since launching in 2008, the Bozeman, Mont.-based brand has built a sterling reputation in the outdoor world, thanks to a tight, consistent product line that prioritizes fit for the consumer and service for the retailer.

Sales have also multiplied under the leadership of President John Connelly, an industry veteran who has worked on both sides of the equation — as a storeowner for 13 years and at brands such as Vasque and Five Ten. Despite the fact that Oboz debuted prior to the recession, it has logged high double-digit growth every year and expects to continue that pace in 2015.

“There’s a lot of great competition, but it seems like retailers are always looking for something new: an emerging brand that’s not overdistributed and has a unique story,” Connelly said. “We want to continue doing what has gotten us here, not change the culture and lose sight of [our strengths].”

Going into spring ’15, the offering has expanded to 45 styles for men and women in various colors, with hiking, backpacking, multisport and a new category the brand calls “trailsport.” Items in that category are meant to be versatile, lighter-weight and more athletic, designed for hiking, biking or running on-trail.

Here, Connelly sounds off on target markets, sourcing as a small brand and navigating through trends.

Where are you seeing opportunity for growth today?
JC:
We’re very strong in Australia and New Zealand, and it’s beginning to go well in Japan and we’re starting in China. We’ve been in South America, and we’re just opening up the U.K. We have distributors in all those markets, and there’s good potential growth internationally — and good potential here, too. We’re in most of the better outdoor stores and chains, but we’re not in every one of them, and that’s the plan. We will be.

Are you targeting other types of retailers?
JC:
Today, we have about 400 dealers, so close to 900 doors in the U.S. and Canada. We’ve been doing quite a bit with specialty shoe stores and some chains that have great distribution in markets where there are no outdoor stores. That’s just in the last two years that that’s started to grow. And they called us. It’s a nice business.

Have you considered adding more lifestyle or casual offerings to take advantage of that?
JC:
We do design and develop samples, and we ask ourselves how much we should be doing. It seems a lot of outdoor retailers have had mixed results with lifestyle, and the shoe stores are coming to us for authentic trail outdoor footwear. They don’t buy our lifestyle shoes at this point. We’d all like to have a younger customer, but retailers are selling to older customers, and they’re staying [with more classic styles]. Comfort, fit and value are always going to be important to people. If you nail it on colors, aesthetics and patterns, you’ll sell more of it, but we, as a small company, have to be careful of chasing fashion or short-term trends.

Speaking of trends, in 2012, you stopped making trail running product — one of your original categories. What led you to move away from that business?
JC:
Tooling is very expensive, and we do all of our own, so every time we come out with something new, it’s a large expense. We pulled out of trail running because we couldn’t afford to change toolings every year, as that market changed so drastically — with barefoot and minimalism, and then brands like Hoka One One going in the opposite direction. I’ve always been involved in trail running, and we wanted to be there, but our feeling through all that was it would settle back to where it had been. But like I said, we’re a small company and we have to be careful.

What’s the overall outlook on sourcing and manufacturing?
JC:
We make all our product in Vietnam; we moved from China a couple of years ago. I’ve been doing business with the group in Ho Chi Minh City for [about] 20 years, so we have good, long-standing relationships with the owners, and there’s a certain comfort level. But it’s halfway around the world, and the world’s a crazy place these days. In terms of pricing, we’ll continue to see small increases — leather prices have been going up, and [there are] things not in our control on the sourcing side. Right now, Vietnam is a pretty good place to be. There are shoes being made in other countries as well, but generally to make quality footwear, you need to be in an area that’s established. It takes a long time for the big guys to move to a place with cheaper [labor], and it’s only after [they do it] that it makes sense for [companies like] us to move there.

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