How Three Next-Generation Shoe Execs Are Following Their Powerful Parents

Jesse Edelman Jori Miller Seth Campbell
Jesse Edelman, Jori Miller & Seth Campbell.
Jim K. Decker.

When Jori Miller wanted to join her family business, she was initially rejected. Determined to work alongside her father and grandfather at the Minnetonka Moccasin Co., she broached the subject a second time. Again, she was turned down. Sensing she wouldn’t take no for an answer, her father and other executives drew up specific plans for allowing their children to enter the Minneapolis-based company.

“I had to jump through hoops,” Miller, now VP of product development at Minnetonka, said during a panel discussion on family businesses, held at FN Platform. Miller’s father, third-generation Minnetonka CEO David Miller, was so intent on having his daughter learn the ropes on her own that he avoided managing her during her early years with the company.

“Jori finding her own way was a priority, so for those first five years, she did not report to me,” Miller said. “Each circumstance and decision is situational. We have a positive, healthy relationship, and we feed off each other’s experience and perspective.”

The footwear industry is filled with pioneering families that have multiple generations working side by side.

But for all their feel-good stories, there are plenty of challenges that come with successful family legacies. In fact, they are often fraught with strained relationships stemming from conflicts over power, loyalty and future direction.

Often, it’s not easy determining what outside experience newer generations should have, their starting salaries and level. And all of that has to be balanced with making sure the next generation has enough leeway to test new ideas.

Most young leaders on the panel acknowledged that growing up around the business — and witnessing firsthand both the perks and the hard, daily grind — yielded some of their most valuable lessons.

“I learned a lot from my dad,” Seth Campbell, VP of international sales at BBC International, told the audience in Las Vegas. “But the one thing that sticks out the most is his hard work. He is 78 years old and just got back from a 14-day trip to China.”

The younger Campbell, who, like his father, traveled more than 100 days in the last year, said that he is helping to push the company into new territory. For instance, he added the athletic label Feiyue to BBC’s roster of owned and licensed brands and has sharpened the firm’s messaging.

“For years, our focus at BBC was product and price, product and price,” he said. “I changed that mix to product, price and marketing. The need for it in this competitive environment is more important than ever. That’s one piece of business I try to push.”

But sometimes, even the best minds clash.

Healthy debate is good, said the panelists, but what’s far more crucial is not letting it hinder the brand. In fact, respect for one another’s differences can be a critical element to the company’s success, they noted.

“[My father and I] are both strong-willed. We believe in what we believe in,” said Campbell, who first worked in the business at a factory in China when he was just 13 years old. “But, ultimately, I listen, since he’s the more experienced one.”

While he has always been a supportive father, BBC founder and CEO Bob Campbell said he has not made working in the family business an easy endeavor for his son.

“Seth has had to learn how we do things. I didn’t give him any sense of having a silver spoon. He started at the bottom,” Bob Campbell said. “He has learned a lot about our international business and our branded business. I don’t encourage him to try new things, but he brings me new ideas every day. He’s a very creative person.”

For his part, Jesse Edelman, national brand manager for the Caleres-owned brands Circus by Sam Edelman and Sam & Libby, said it is important for both parents and their children to know when to compromise.

“Being able to provide input and receive criticism is part of the process,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are all trying to create successful brands and messaging.”

According to father Sam Edelman, a sound business model with appropriate checks and balances has also made his son’s work with the company more fruitful.

“Having layers and structure within the organization provides Jesse with the freedom to make his own decisions while knowing we are always available for guidance along the way,” the elder Edelman said.

Still, working in a family business can be a balancing act. That’s certainly true when it comes to establishing boundaries for discussing work.

Most panelists, however, said they enjoy the constant discussion with their parents.

“We have a good mix. We don’t talk about it all the time but we do talk about it a lot,” said Jori Miller. “Sometimes I’ll say to my father,‘Take your CEO hat off and put your dad hat on.’”

“We talk about business 24/7,” added Jesse Edelman. “Sometimes we have to take a break [from it], but the exciting part is you have access to them and can always ask a question.”

[Editor’s Note: This story first ran in print 02/22/16]