Walking Co. Picks Up Pace on Expansion

NEW YORK — Andrew Feshbach is not afraid of a recession.

The Walking Company CEO is forging ahead with a multipronged growth strategy that includes new acquisitions, joint ventures and product partnerships with footwear vendors. “I really believe that only the strong will survive the next few years,” Feshbach said, “and the bigger you are, the easier it is to be strong.”

Since Feshbach’s firm, Big Dog Holdings (now The Walking Company Holdings Inc.), bought the 72-store chain out of bankruptcy in 2004, it has made acquisitions a priority. “We’ve seen a 30 to 100 percent pickup in revenue in the [stores we’ve acquired] to date,” he said. The company bought smaller chains Footworks in 2005, Steve’s Shoes in 2006 and Natural Comfort Footworks earlier this year.

Now Feshbach says he is targeting retailers that operate outside the premium shopping centers already home to most of The Walking Company’s 200 stores. “Growing the business outside the malls requires more focused acquisitions,” he said. “It [would be hard for us] to build stores in neighborhoods and locations that are more community oriented.”

Feshbach sees a unique chance to court potential buyout targets during the flagging economy. “[Some retailers] don’t have too many options right now [except getting sold],” he said.

The company also has been rolling out flagship locations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Short Hills, N.J., during the past few months. Last Tuesday, The Walking Company announced plans to open a Manhattan location at 551 Madison Ave. by April 2009. “Manhattan is a very important market for us, as it is [in] one of the most important shopping cities,” Feshbach said.

Feshbach also emphasized the importance of maintaining the right product mix during challenging times. The Walking Company continues to develop the performance athletic category, which accounts for 10 percent of business. But what Feshbach is most focused on is maintaining his position in the comfort market. “I’m concerned that in a tough economy vendors slow down product development. I want to alert my comfort vendors, as well as noncomfort vendors, that I’m big enough to buy a line all by myself. If you’re an upscale shoe brand and you don’t do a comfort line, let’s make one.”

The Walking Company relaunched Spanish brand Pikolinos in the U.S. in spring ’05 and debuted Clarks’ Unstructured line last fall. This month, the chain plans to launch Planet Walkers by Simple, a new line of sustainable shoes, a month before it hits other retailers. “The bigger concept here is sustainability, and a lot of our vendors are doing their part,” Feshbach said.

In conjunction with the Simple launch, The Walking Company will head the “Think Smart, Be Planet Friendly” promotion in partnership with the Sierra Club and Smart USA. It will highlight the sustainable initiatives of several footwear vendors, in addition to giving away four Smart cars. “We’re a company that stays with the times, and being green is where people are going today. … We want them to know that we are with them on that.”

How big can The Walking Company grow? “Five hundred stores for a national chain is probably doable,” said Feshbach. “I’d like to grow internationally, but I’ve run stores in other countries and it’s a big headache. … I’d rather look to international partners for joint ventures, licensing deals, franchises or some other form of partnership.”

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