In Person: Q&A With Bob Campbell

Call it serendipity, call it destiny.

As a scrappy kid growing up in working-class towns such as Pittsburgh and Detroit, Bob Campbell never imagined that a part-time job in a shoe store stockroom would set him on a course to one day sit atop a multimillion-dollar footwear empire.

“I didn’t have any interest in the shoe business. I was just a kid looking to earn some money,” said the charismatic BBC International chairman and CEO, who at 15 was hired as a stock boy at a local Kinney Shoes store. “But then I got a chance to sell and I made $35 the first week, which felt like a fortune to a poor kid like me. It was very exciting.”

Unable to afford college, Campbell stayed on at Kinney after high school, steadily rising in the ranks before eventually moving to the parent firm, F.W. Woolworth Co.

But after 20 years in the retail trenches, Campbell, known for his fierce entrepreneurial spirit, was itching to strike out on his own. He jumped into the crowded import business, launching BBC in 1975.

His namesake company quickly found a niche in kids’ footwear, and Campbell wasted no time shaking up the sleepy category with hot entertainment licenses, designer brands and groundbreaking product innovations such as lighted shoes.

Today, BBC is an industry giant, juggling an ever-expanding stable of prestigious brands and licenses — from Polo Ralph Lauren and DKNY to Disney and Marvel — as well as a booming private-label business.

The Boca Raton, Fla.-based firm each year ships a staggering 40 million pairs of shoes to more than 70 countries.

But Campbell is hardly resting on his laurels. At 75, his enthusiasm and passion for the industry remain undiminished, and he continues to set even loftier goals for the company he built.

“I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching our full potential,” Campbell said. “We keep pushing to be better at what we do.”

Ever humble and grateful for the opportunities he has had, Campbell always seeks to share his success through mentoring up-and-coming executives.

“There’s a common misconception among my generation that a mentor is someone who holds your hand through life. My dad has been more of a trusted guide than a caregiver — one who’s advised, instructed and taught me,” said son Seth Campbell, who serves as VP of business development at the strategy firm Precision Design Studios. “However, his greatest contribution has been his philanthropy. He’s shown the younger generation how important it is to give back.”

Despite years of hard work, Bob Campbell said retirement remains a distant thought, especially when there is still so much work to be done. “One day I’ll slow down a bit, and I’ll take my boat out and just relax,” he said. “But I am enjoying doing what I’m doing now. I’m not ready to step away.”

Here, the king of the kids’ business reflects on his rise to the top, his big breaks and the people who inspired him along the way.

How did your upbringing shape you as a person and help lay the foundation for your later success?
I was raised by a single mother. I never had a father around. We lived with my grandmother and three sisters and we were very poor. I didn’t have much growing up. My mother was a very religious woman and she guided us and instilled good values in us. She taught us the importance of a strong work ethic. She always said, “If you don’t work, you don’t get paid,” so I’ve always been a hard worker. I had my first job when I was 9, working a bakery route. When I was 15, I was hired as a stock boy in a Kinney Shoes store. That was where it all began.

When did you start to think the shoe industry could be a real career?
When I graduated high school, I didn’t have the money to go away to college. We just couldn’t afford it. So I decided to go full time at Kinney. I started as a salesman, then assistant manager, then manager and I kept moving up the ranks. I found the business very exciting and challenging.

How did you come to the decision to start BBC?
After 20 years, I was getting very bored of working in retail. I wanted to do something different. I had a little money saved — in those days you didn’t need much to start up. I had some other big job offers [at the time] but I just thought, “Let me take a shot at this. I came from nothing, so I have nothing to lose. And if I don’t do this now, I never will.” I started in the business like every other importer. I went overseas, put some shoes together and knocked on doors. I had been doing women’s shoes, but I came across these unusual kids’ sandals in Italy and I did well with them. Then, I found this great children’s boot in Europe and had it made in Taiwan. I took a gamble and told everybody they should buy this boot and they did. The next year I must have sold a million pairs. After that, I realized I really loved the kids’ business.

Looking back, what was BBC’s biggest break along the way?
Discovering the lights technology. [In 1991], an inventor in Canada, [Nicholas Rodgers], was working on a patent for lighted shoes and he came to visit me and we put together a licensing agreement. I then called Robert Greenberg at LA Gear and said, “I’ve got something for you.” One thing led to another and the LA Gear Lights line was launched [in 1992]. They were the first shoes with lights anywhere in the world, and they did phenomenal at retail. It was a huge break for BBC, and it came at an ideal moment. At the time, the company was having some struggles. I had purchased a domestic factory and it turned out to be a disaster. So the lights really helped turn things around.

What were other big milestones?
Signing the Polo license [in 2000] was another big one. It taught us so much about building a brand and making it international. We have Polo in more than 60 countries now. It’s very difficult to take a brand global in children’s footwear, but we succeeded in doing it simply on the strength of our product.

How would you describe your style of management?
I’m very open to everybody. There are two words I use in this business: communication and respect, from the bottom up. You can’t run a company without those two things. I don’t need to constantly remind people I’m the chairman, the boss. They know that. I try to be their friend and I teach them whatever I can. My door is always open to everyone.

You’re a very public face behind the company. Why is keeping a high profile in the industry so important?
The fact that I am so visible and hands-on brings confidence to our partners. I am constantly traveling and getting out to trade shows, visiting with customers in their stores and checking in at our factories. Everyone knows who I am. I don’t hide away. I make myself very accessible and I am closely involved in everything.

Who were some of the important mentors for you in your career?
My mother was a big one, obviously. She always gave me good advice and guidance, but she never told me what to do. She encouraged me to make my own decisions. I had an offer at one point to go into my uncle’s bakery business, but she didn’t push me. She just said, “Do what you think is right.” It gave me a lot of confidence in myself. Another important mentor was Cameron Anderson, [who passed away in 2011]. He was the head of Kinney while I was there and he then went on to help launch Foot Locker. He taught me so much about the business and inspired me in everything I did.

Do you find time to mentor others?
Absolutely. I love to mentor people. I mentor a lot of my employees here. At least five of my [former] employees have left BBC to start their own businesses, and I am proud of that. I’ve also had a big influence on my son Seth, [who founded Upper Echelon Shoes]. He’s a talented guy and very connected with this business. I see a big future for him. I just don’t know that he has any desire to come work for BBC. He’s like me — he wants more of a challenge. He wants to build something on his own.

What is it about the children’s business that you love so much?
There is no other business like it. It’s a very challenging business: You have to create product from baby to juniors’ sizes — a total of 34 unique sizes — but I like that. What’s exciting about it is that when you really specialize in it, you are more recognized. We are recognized in this industry by retailers from every single tier of distribution for being experts at what we do.

What is the biggest challenge facing the kids’ shoe industry today?
The major challenge is all the governmental regulations, from safety to environmental. The regulations are getting worse and worse, state by state. Individual states are demanding we test hundreds of different components. And the environmentalists are taking things a little too far, in my opinion. It’s making production extremely complicated and costly. It’s not like making shoes 10 years ago. We respect the need for regulations — nobody wants to have harmful chemicals in children’s shoes — but it’s a real challenge. We have to work very hard at it and be constantly vigilant. We have a whole team here in Florida and a team overseas dedicated to this, and we talk every single morning about any new problems. We just tied up a contract with one of the major testing labs in Asia to work with them to create [an even better] system. But I don’t think it’s a challenge we’ll ever overcome because the regulations are only going to get stricter.

Looking ahead, where do you see growth opportunities with your new licenses, as well as with your existing brands?
There is still a lot of growth potential for us in the branded area. Every adult brand wants to be in the kids’ business, and they seek out companies like BBC that specialize in it. I’m looking at three brands now that I would love to have in our portfolio. We’re also very bullish about the Heelys business. It gives us an entrée into the sporting goods category, which we’re not in. We’ve developed a whole new line that will hit for holiday and we’re out selling it now. We’ve signed with new distributors around the world, and we’re already in about 50 countries. We think the brand is going to come back very strong because our product is going to be very different. Right now, we’re focusing on the wheeled shoes, but we plan to move into some more lifestyle-driven shoes down the road.

What are your hopes for BBC as you look toward the future?
We want to keep getting bigger and better, but really more better than bigger. We’d love to continue to get stronger in the branded market because it trickles down. With our strengths in building brands, we can service the mass market better. When mass retailers see our ability to make great shoes and that we work with such prestigious labels, they know they can expect top quality from us.

Could you see BBC moving into the adult business in a serious way?
We own Charles Jourdan and Robert Wayne, so we are in the women’s and men’s markets. But we don’t operate these businesses in-house. We really want to continue to focus on what we do best, and that is children’s footwear.

Have you given any more thought to your succession plans?
You know, I’m not stepping down anytime soon, but succession is something we do talk about. We’re ready for any kind of changes. We know the key people within the company who can move up to higher positions. We’re not looking outside the company at all.

And still no plans to slow down?
Nope. I really believe that retirement is death. I love what I do. I wake up in the morning, I’m healthy and happy, and that’s what matters most.


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