In Person: Q&A With Sonny Shar

Holding a glass of wine in one hand and waving the other to emphasize a point, Sonny Shar stands against the bar with five younger professionals huddled around him.

The charismatic 74-year-old, who on April 1 became non-executive chairman of Pentland USA Inc., was listening to people’s business woes and doling out bits of advice, all while peppering the conversation with the finer details of his hour-long swim in the Atlantic Ocean earlier in the day.

Shar’s not merely riffing as the elder statesman at the night’s gathering inside Miami’s Fontainebleau hotel during the FN CEO Summit. He’s doing what he does best: engaging in a witty back-and-forth that ends with everyone walking away in a good mood and feeling far more informed.

Since he first entered the footwear business in the late 1980s as a finance expert, Shar has been one of the most popular figures in the industry. Charming and self-effacing — and vigorously upbeat — he has redefined what it means to be both a competitor and a comrade.

He’s been the stateside face of British powerhouse Pentland Group Plc for the last 25 years. Now Shar is taking on a new role, as part retiree and part corporate confidante to Carrie Rubin, who recently was charged with leading her family’s business in the U.S.

Shar, who will work two days a week in Pentland’s New Hyde Park, N.Y., offices until 2014, said it was the right moment to step back.

“The purpose of the new structure was timing,” he said. “I’m ready to smell the roses after 25 years, and it was time for a changing of the guard.”

By his own account, Shar has been working hard for five decades. He started as a motor mechanic in Namibia, the country in southwest Africa where he was born and his family ran a Ford dealership. He moved to South Africa in his late 20s, but eventually fled as the rules of apartheid were enforced and conditions turned violent. Shar emigrated to the U.S. in 1974 and eventually snagged the ultimate immigrant trophy: He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as a task force member for the White House Conference on Small Business. Then, after a decade of jobs in import-export financing in the U.S., he had the good fortune of meeting Pentland chief Stephen Rubin in 1989.

The two hit it off. Soon after, Shar was hired as a senior executive to head up domestic operations.

Since then, Shar and the Rubins have managed an evolving portfolio of brands, including Medallion, Maine Woods, L.J. Simone and Candie’s in the earlier years. Eventually it shifted to encompass Franco Sarto, Hunter, Lacoste, Ted Baker, Speedo and others.

“I couldn’t have had a better mentor over the years than Stephen,” said Shar. “He’s a great entrepreneur, a great humanitarian with the highest standards of ethics and he believes in what he does and what he’s built at Pentland. I’m very indebted to him for the opportunity he gave me.”

Here, one of the industry’s most beloved personalities sounds off on his lasting impact, love of language and the advice that proved his mother knew best.

You carry two cell phones for work and are still making the trade show rounds. Are you working just as much as before?
No. I’m now down to two days a week. I’m there to see that everything is going well and to deal with all our customers. In essence, I’ve been their point of contact at Pentland for 25 years, and people still call and want to talk, and I want to talk to them. The best answer is that it’s business as usual. Pentland is here and will do what it has always done very well.

Let’s talk retirement. What are you planning for the days you’re not in the office?
I’m going to school to learn to speak Hebrew, which I read fluently. And I’m also thinking of taking Italian as a language. At the moment, I speak Afrikaans, German and English. I really like languages. Also, now I can spend more time with my three children and two grandchildren. And I’m a beach and golf nut, so I will do more of those this summer.

What are you most proud of businesswise?
Seeing Pentland grow. Seeing brands like Lacoste and Hunter grow from when we made the initial investment. And I’m proud of our investments in companies such as Fuze, the beverage company. There is no single accomplishment — it’s the accomplishment [achieved] over a span of 25 years, seeing Pentland be a major player in the United States.

How much growth did the company experience in the U.S. in those 25 years?
It was not a small business back then; it was substantial. But today, it’s in excess of $100 million in the U.S.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the footwear business?
There have been many. To start, the retail introduction of stock replenishment programs was huge. On the manufacturing side, the big thing was China becoming a major player with supplies. And then you can’t help but notice the shoe departments of Saks Fifth Avenue or Macy’s — that focus has become a major change in the industry. And there are a lot more designers coming to the market today. And, of course, the Internet as a major force, but it’s not the end of brick-and-mortar. for sure changed the name of the game.

What’s your take on today’s economy?
Consumer sentiment is very nervous even though the stock market is high. I don’t think it reflects the story of middle America, where incomes are lower, the available cash for spending is less and people are much more price conscious about what they buy. Also, consumers have become trained to know they don’t have to buy a product at the retail price, that somewhere along the line that product is going to be marked down.

Does the political environment here hurt the situation further?
Absolutely. Listen, I am an old guy and I’m nervous for the future because the government is totally nonfunctional. I don’t think they can get any legislation out, and there are so many special-interest groups and political action committees that seem to control a lot of our lives, more so than the people we elect to make the laws. Now, this doesn’t mean America is not a great country, but it’s going to have to fight to maintain its position.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
My mother used to tell me that if there is a problem and you can solve it, don’t worry. If there’s a problem and you can’t solve it, it will happen, so don’t worry either. Think about how you will deal with it. That was her advice. I’m a worrier, but I try to be rational about things.

What motivates you?
To do well in what I’m doing and to make sure what I’m doing is going to give financial security to my wife, my children and my grandchildren. I believe in family. It’s a very important part of my life.

Describe your management style.
I’m tough but fair. And most important, I’m prepared to stand by my staff at all times — and that I’m concerned about them and their families.

What’s your best trait as a boss?
I’m kind to everybody I work with.

And your worst?
I want things done yesterday.

What is the state of relationships today between wholesalers and retailers?
Some good, some bad. The simple answer is that if your sell-throughs are good, your relationships are good with every vendor. That’s the truth. If your shoes are selling in the stores, why won’t they like you?

Is there something retailers should do differently in today’s economy?
They should work closer in relation to the amount of chargebacks that we, as vendors, are required to do for them to maintain their margins. It’s better to do this in the beginning rather than throughout the year because it puts a strain on our margins as well. And the current environment of sales and markdowns makes it tough for everybody.

Where do you hope Pentland’s business will be five years from now?
[I hope] it continues to be a force in the industry in America. With [the firm in] the guiding hands of CEO Andy Rubin and Carrie Rubin, I can only see Pentland growing from strength to strength. It’s so fortunate to have Andy at the helm, keeping the company all in the family, from generation to generation.

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