Euro-Comfort Brands Shuffle Execs

NEW YORK — The euro-comfort market has seen a spate of recent executive changes in the U.S.

Mephisto, Birkenstock and Sanita have all appointed new leadership in the past few months — and the new execs have been busy formulating new strategies.

Below, Footwear News catches up with Mephisto USA President and CEO Mike Crosno, Birkenstock USA chief Dan Bazinet and Sanita Clogs Inc. President Gene Kunde.

Mephisto Eyes Growth With Wellness Launch

When Mike Crosno was recently appointed president and CEO of Mephisto USA, his agenda was clear.

His big priority for the first half of 2009 has been the launch of Sano, a collection of wellness footwear set to bow in April. “It’s my prime initiative so far,” said Crosno, who replaced Ron Martin.

Although Mephisto will be up against category leaders such as MBT, Crosno said the brand’s walking-shoe roots give credibility to the rocker-bottom collection, set to retail from $250 to $300.

“There is room for Mephisto, based on its history and heritage,” said Crosno, adding that Sano will help the brand expand into high-end running stores, a new distribution channel. In addition to bringing new customers into the fold, Crosno expects Sano to resonate with consumers already wearing Mephisto walking shoes.

Crosno also said he believes his extensive experience will help bolster relationships with retailers. Most recently, he was SVP and brand manager for Phoenix Footwear’s Trotter and SoftWalk divisions, and prior to that, he was in sales at Munro. “Mephisto’s retail partners all know me,” said Crosno, which is an advantage in a tough economic climate.

Despite the challenges ahead, Crosno said he is confident Mephisto will continue to grow steadily in the U.S. He acknowledged that the high euro was an issue for every footwear company, but that Mephisto only had to implement “modest” price increases on 2008.

“It’s evident that the luxury segment for the fi rst time in a long time is being impacted,” said Crosno. “But our loyal consumers appreciate, recognize and are willing to pay for quality. They’re intelligent in their purchasing decisions. [Mephisto] is not as much an emotional purchase as an investment.”

Bazinet: “New Day” Rises at Birkenstock USA

Birkenstock USA is hitting the reset button.

This fall, the Kettelschoss, Germanybased company brought Dan Bazinet aboard as CEO and unveiled a new ownership consolidation when co-owner Alex Birkenstock stepped away from operational business. (Stefan and Christian Birkenstock still have active roles in the business.)

The result is a clean slate for the American exec. “This is a new day,” Bazinet said, noting that brand differentiation will be central to his strategy.

For some time, the fl agship brand and its subsidiaries struggled to maintain unique identities and market share, Bazinet said. “What you will see going forward is brand planning, so that Papillio occupies a place separate from what Birkis will occupy, with the Birkenstock brand being the mothership,” he said. “You’ll find different levels of sophistication with the brands, so internally, we won’t be competitive with ourselves.”

In his new role, Bazinet also plans to beef up marketing, with new print campaigns for spring ’09. “You will fi nd us turning around and being more aggressive from a marketing standpoint,” he said. On the retail front, the U.S. arm will be targeting department stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Macy’s East. “Our focus is building that better-grade channel of distribution, as well as our independent channel,” Bazinet said.

He admits the company had been “difficult to deal with in the past” due to chronic supply-chain problems. But Bazinet insists the issues have been remedied. “The pipeline is completely full and operating. We have the shoes, we are filling in, and that part of the business has been going great.”

On the product front, Bazinet wants to continue to emphasize Birkenstock’s traditional styles while refreshing fashion details.

“You’ll fi nd us playing up our classics business and being more playful with the colors and materials.” He also hopes to capitalize on the exercise sandal trend, with a strong push behind Birkenstock’s Madrid style, which has been successful in Europe but has yet to take off in the U.S. “We just need to pull it out of our regular line and shout it out,” Bazinet said of the style.

The CEO added that he is in a great position to move the company in a better direction. “There’s very little for me to clean up anymore. It’s really about how do we move forward. … If there were perfect storms that hit before, they’ve all calmed down now. I’m just hoping I can take the ship through different waters.”

Sanita Looks to Build U.S. With Product Launches

After terminating a long-term licensing agreement with Dansko last year, Sanita is now moving fast to become a more serious clog contender.

The brand recently tapped Gene Kunde as the new president and CEO of its U.S. subsidiary, Sanita Clogs Inc. He replaced Klaus Jeppesen.

His first order of business is recouping the lost Dansko business.

“The Sanita organization enjoyed a healthy, strong relationship with Dansko over the years as a developer and manufacturer of product for the U.S.,” said Kunde, who most recently served as president of Birkenstock USA. “Sanita is looking for ways to replace that and build the business here.”

Kunde is hoping to double the firm’s U.S. business in 2009. To do that, the firm is introducing new products, such as woodbased and fashion-driven looks, as well as clogs on lighter bottoms. In addition, Kunde said there will be a stronger emphasis on kids’ products, as well as an expansion of the duty category.

Kunde acknowledged that Dansko’s strong brand recognition in the U.S. will prove challenging in acquainting them with similar product under the Sanita label.

“Millions of people in the U.S. are wearing comfortable shoes on their feet they know as Dansko, but [Sanita] developed and produced [them],” said Kunde. However, he added, “we’ve been building clog products for 100 years and have the craftsmanship and full assortment. [We deserve consumers’] consideration.”

Kunde admits that while the initiative may be challenging, Sanita’s presence in the States over the past seven years will help lay the groundwork. “[Sanita] had a basic infrastructure and retail network in place,” said Kunde. “Our growth going [forward will be] from a small operation to something we hope to build into one of the sounder brands in the euro-comfort space.”

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