5 Questions for Wayne Elsey

Wayne Elsey spent the last year traveling to poverty-stricken cities and disaster-destroyed countries doling out free shoes to the needy.

By most accounts, it was a good year for the Soles4Souls founder and CEO. But he’s also spent many of those months responding to criticism, thanks to a story in a local newspaper questioning the charity’s business practices. And a forthcoming deal with Skechers has been dissected by bloggers.

But Elsey is undaunted by recent events. If anything, he said, they have taught him a hard lesson.

“Don’t assume anything. You have to continue to make sure you are 110 percent buttoned up,” he said. “If there’s a missing link in operations or a missing link in marketing or distribution, just fine-tune your operation so that there is no bump in the road.”

To that end, Elsey is adjusting the infrastructure at his Nashville, Tenn.-based nonprofit with new hires, a larger focus on brand partnerships, the addition of Hope4Souls and the recent purchase of a bigger warehouse in Alabama.

“Soles4Souls has gone through a major growth expansion and we are making an aggressive stand in the market,” said Elsey, who noted the charity is aiming to hit $100 million in collected goods in fiscal 2012. “We’re planning to double our size in the next two years.”

To help reach that goal and spread public awareness, the group’s Travel4Souls unit will be a larger part of the business. Elsey said there will be more trips for consumers and footwear industry professionals to hand out shoes in Costa Rica, Tanzania and Haiti in the coming months.

“If I can show people firsthand where the donations are going, it’s a big win,” said Elsey.

Here, the executive opens up about his future plans and moving past the challenges of late.

Your organization is growing fast. Do you worry about it becoming too big?
What’s on my mind is continuing to button up our operations. That’s why I brought in our own house council and I brought in a financial person just to make sure we are 100 percent [covered], because there is a concern about a charity growing too fast, and all types of issues can [arise].

What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
Handling the rapid growth from day one. But we have tweaked the organization so much that if a natural disaster happens tomorrow, within 24 hours we’ll have a plan in place. We’ve learned to be ready and to have systems ready, so if something happens, we can move product quickly.

You had a high-profile tussle with The Tennessean over their story. What’s the latest development on that front?
We are continuing to assess our damages and we are continuing to look at litigation options. We are in a strong position, and in the short and long term, it hasn’t affected the company. We have tightened up some things we might have been a little loose on, and we’ve made some additional changes to the board.

Soles4Souls plans to give out donated shoes from Skechers’ Bobs line. Are you worried about comparisons to Toms?
No. Our competition is not Toms. Blake [Mycoskie] has developed a great one-for-one model, but our competition is the 300 million children in the world who don’t have shoes. We are 100 percent on board with Skechers, and they are completely supporting our efforts. They committed to 1 million pairs. Half the shipment should be ready in the next couple of months, and we will have the rest by early 2012.

Unique partnerships, such as with FlipFlop wines, seem to be a new focus. Is everything fair game?
There’s nothing off limits, providing it makes sense and resonates with our brand DNA. FlipFlop wines is a way to get our brand out in incremental ways. While we’re known in the footwear and clothing industry, I want to get the average joe engaged in what Soles4Souls is doing. We’re working on a car deal, we’re talking to an insurance company and a major bank. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trucking company or a wine [brand], if we can build consumer awareness, it [adds] a social responsibility aspect.

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