Hall of Fame: Sonny Shar

Even by his own estimation, Sonny Shar has never been a stereotypical shoe dog. But the banker and financier has made a clear mark on the shoe industry.

The executive led British footwear giant Pentland Group Plc’s U.S. operations for 20 years and saw the firm gain a strong foothold in the American market.

Shar’s strong business acumen — and kind, generous soul — will leave a lasting legacy, but the charismatic executive admitted that even he could never have predicted his career.

As a young man, Shar worked as a motor mechanic in his family’s Ford franchise in Windhoek, Namibia, but quickly realized that was not a lifelong endeavor. He became a chartered accountant and went into commercial banking.

Prompted, in part, by South Africa’s apartheid policies, Shar emigrated to the U.S. in 1974 and settled on Long Island, working for an Israeli bank out of New York City. Eventually, he formed his own export-import finance company before joining a Dutch outfit to consult on international trade for small businesses.

Accolades for his early work came when he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the White House Conference on Small Business. Then, in 1989, after a decade of work in import-export, he traveled to England to meet the head of Pentland, Stephen Rubin, and was hired as a senior executive in charge of domestic operations. Five short years later, he was named president of Pentland USA.

Shar said the footwear industry has treated him well. “It doesn’t mean we all agree with each other — let’s not be mistaken — but this industry has given me stability, and for that I am certainly very grateful to Stephen Rubin for affording me the opportunity,” he said. “Without it, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today. I have tremendous respect for him and his family, and I owe a lot to them for placing their trust in me.”

Rubin, who now serves as chairman of Pentland Group Plc, said that, along with being very well-liked, Shar was always “a very good and very reliable pair of hands.

“I have had a wonderful relationship with him for the last 25 years,” Rubin said. “He will always be most welcome in any of our offices around the world as someone who is known by, trusted by and friendly with everybody.”

Earlier this year, Shar effectively went into retirement but was retained as a consultant to Pentland as well as others in the industry.

But the 76-year-old is also making travel a priority — he and his wife are planning a trip to South Africa and Namibia after a nearly 15-year absence — and enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren.

“My wife and I have lived the American dream,” Shar said, “and the journey has certainly been a good one.”

In their words:

“Anytime I needed something, I gave him a call. He was like a big brother to me. He is a man of stature who has always been very generous with his time and talents.” — Bob Campbell, chairman and founder, BBC International

“There’s a level of honesty, trust and respect that I have for Sonny because he always tries to find a way so everybody he’s working with wins in any situation.” — Diane Sullivan, chairman, president & CEO, Brown Shoe Co.

“There are no surprises with Sonny. He’s very insightful and very good at analyzing the problem, getting it down to its most basic format, coming up with a practical solution and moving forward.” — Max M. Mizrachi, principal, Eastman Group

“He has always been available as a resource to me, and we’ve bounced a lot of ideas back and forth throughout the years.” — Fred Mossler, SVP of merchandising, Zappos.com

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