Hi-Tec On the Expansion Trail

NEW YORK — It’s a new era at Hi-Tec Sports Plc.

Under freshly minted CEO Ed van Wezel, the outdoor and athletic brand is looking to ramp up its U.S. business, tweak distribution and unveil more-innovative products to set the label apart in a competitive environment.

“The industry is no longer just outdoor; it’s athletically inspired,” van Wezel said. “We are by nature an athletic brand … and we see the market coming toward us.”

In May, the family-owned company announced that 33-year-old van Wezel — son of founder Frank van Wezel — would take over the CEO position as his father transitioned to the chairman role. At the same time, Hi-Tec relocated its global headquarters to Amsterdam from England to take advantage of industry talent in the Netherlands, and similarly moved the U.S. headquarters to Portland, Ore., from Modesto, Calif.

The changes were part of van Wezel’s plan to grow sales at the brand, and also helped to put his stamp on the business.

“It’s [my father’s] baby, but if I try to run the business the same way he did, I’ll fail. I’ll do it my way,” he said.

A cornerstone of his strategy is growing in the U.S. market.

“The U.S. is undoubtedly the biggest short-term opportunity,” he said, adding that the market represents 23 percent of the firm’s overall revenue, which he characterized as “not good enough.”

Key to the expansion effort will be refreshed product, which, for the first time, will be consistent across all 80 countries where Hi-Tec sells. “The line will look faster, sleeker, more athletic,” van Wezel said.

For spring ’12, the focus will be on relaunching the brand’s classic Sierra boot as a seven-style men’s collection, as well as debuting a women’s-specific multisport offering.

And van Wezel noted that the new product is just the beginning. “Spring ’12 is the breakout season, where we start doing things differently,” he said. “Retailers might not buy it the first season, but with the winter collection, they’ll see [we’ve] come back and done it again. I see this as a five-year plan, with three seasons of building.”

According to Kevin Montanye, footwear buyer for Paramus, N.J.-based Campmor, that new direction is apparent. “Hi-Tec has always had a good selection of relevant styles, but spring ’12 looks fresher, faster and younger than it ever has,” he said.

Van Wezel said it has been critical to carve out more space in key independents and specialty stores, while continuing to shift distribution away from value-priced retailers.

But maintaining the brand’s position as a competitively priced player will be key, said the exec.

“We always want to offer the consumer added value at a price point below the top guys, but with added features,” van Wezel said, pointing to full-leather uppers and Vibram soles as product elements he will continue to emphasize. “In this market environment, the rational consumer demands more for their product.”

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