Independent Retailer of the Year: Ron White Shoes

Keeping up with Ron White these days isn’t easy. After nearly two decades at the helm of his eponymous firm, the Canadian retailer this year bowed his sixth location, took his namesake lines wholesale and launched a new website. These initiatives have led to double-digit growth for the company in 2011, with further expansion planned for the wholesale business stateside.

“I wear multiple hats,” said White. Since February, he’s juggled the opening of a long-awaited 3,000-sq.-ft. flagship in Toronto’s tony Yorkdale Shopping Centre, relocated his Oakville, Ontario, store and expanded his own brand lineup with a high-end Signature collection retailing from $495 to $955. The new website, timed for his move into the U.S. market, relaunched with a more informational and user-friendly format, as well as a global dot-com address.

Although White has recently put his energy into spreading the word about his own All Day Heels and Signature collections — both top-selling brands in his stores — he remains committed to the vendors that helped turn his chain into a destination for fashion and comfort in Canada. “Ron is passionate when he believes in a product, category or brand philosophy,” said Greg Nicoghosian, president of Mephisto Canada, which has sold in White’s stores for 15 years. “He was a pioneer for Mephisto. It helped him launch his business and [helped] Mephisto establish its own name.”

Other vendors, which include Stuart Weitzman, Thierry Rabotin, Cole Haan, Frye and Donald J. Pliner, praised White for the exposure he provides. “For many years, Ron has been interested in and had confidence in Frye’s efforts to sell in Canada,” said Larry Tarica, co-president of Frye’s parent company, Jimlar Corp. “He’s the type of person who not only understands our product and brand but also puts significant presentations in his stores. His approach to selling resonates with his vendors and customers.”

White’s store clientele includes high-profile Canadians such as Laureen Harper, wife of the prime minister. But he also counts American celebs such as Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell among his customers, along with Matt Damon and Kevin Spacey.

In the States, White remains connected to Hollywood insiders: He was invited to be part of this year’s Golden Globes gifting suite after show organizers spotted him at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, where he participated in a similar event. “The Golden Globes have been life-changing,” said White. “I met the casts of ‘Glee’ and ‘Modern Family,’ as well as Dennis Quaid and La Toya Jackson.”

Following the Golden Globes, White was part of the gifting lounge at the Primetime Emmy Awards, where he shod cast members of “Entourage,” and several of them wore his shoes onstage. “This was all about raising awareness with American buyers and fashion magazines,” said White. “[The event] added credence and weight while I’m trying to get peoples’ time and attention. It was part of my plan for coming to the States.”

White has been just as successful in connecting with the retail community in the U.S. Wholesale sales for fall ’11, he said, totaled $1 million, with stores such as Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, Arthur Beren Shoes in San Francisco, Hanig’s Footwear in Chicago and Harry’s Shoes in New York all coming on board. (In Canada, the lines are available at Hudson’s Bay Co.)

According to White, the All Day Heels line bowed in his own stores in 2009, but he waited before taking the product wholesale. “I wanted to perfect it first,” said the retailer. “I wanted to have all the misses on my own turf [and] to test for fit and comfort.”

Arthur Beren Shoes was the first to debut White’s shoes, bringing in All Day Heels for spring ’11. “We became acquainted, and [I] saw [the lines] would fit into our mix in a positive way,” said buyer Sid Berger. “We see [it] as a category in luxury comfort — contemporary classic footwear that’s growing. He fits in with [our] other vendors in that category.”

“I view him as one of the most exciting retailers in the industry,” said Peter Hanig, president of Hanig’s Footwear, who first met White 15 years ago. “He has an overall grasp of how to operate a business in changing times better than most. He’s one of the best self-marketers I have ever seen. He uses every opportunity to make himself known and become part of his community.”

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