Gary Champion is happy to be home.
After exiting Clarks Americas in 2008, the 25-year veteran of the brand is back again — this time as president.
The management team at the U.K.-based parent company C&J Clark Limited came knocking on Champion’s door after its U.S. business began losing market share due to executive turnover, delivery issues and a lack of fresh product.
“Clarks Americas has struggled over the past three years,” said Champion, who has made rebuilding relationships with independent retailers a top priority. “The company did a nice job with [bigger accounts] but forgot about the independents, the guys that had set the brand’s image with premium product and [embody] what Clarks is really about.”
Champion, who most recently served as president of Earth Inc., replaced Geralyn Breig, who left the company early this year. In the U.K., a search is underway for a CEO to replace
Melissa Potter, who departed last September. Until then, board chairman Thomas O’Neill is serving in an executive capacity.
“Clarks Americas is a significant portion of the global Clarks business, and we have high expectations for the near and long-term development of the region,” said O’Neill. “We are very excited that his leadership will guide the Americas region to its next stage of growth.”
Retailers cheered the news of Champion’s return. David Astobiza, president of the Sole Desire chain in Santa Rosa, Calif., said he is looking forward to Champion getting the brand back on track. “Clarks had built a business on independents, relationships and great product, but got away from it a bit,” Astobiza said. “Gary will bring excitement back to the culture of the company.”
Rick Ravel, owner of Karavel Shoes in Austin, Texas, said that Champion should take a hard look at product. “Clarks recognized that what sells around the world isn’t what necessarily sells in the U.S.,” he said. “Going forward, product needs to be fresh for the American market.”
Here, Champion talks about reconnecting with the Clarks team and the road ahead.
There’s been a lot of industry chatter regarding the turnover in Clarks’ management team. How has that affected company morale?
GC: It’s had an effect. Constant change will do that to anybody. [Going forward], it’s about rebuilding excitement and trust. Employees know me, and how I treat and respect people. And it doesn’t stop inside the company. That’s why I got the reception I did [when I returned]. When we were [originally] building the business, it was [exciting].
Everybody shared the vision and understood the strategy. Now it’s about everybody understanding what we’re trying to accomplish and working toward that goal. It’s about taking advantage of what the global team can offer the Americas in marketing, sourcing and planning. The people [to do this] are now in place and can make it happen.
What did you miss most about Clarks while you were away?
GC: The people. We went from a 20-person office to a 400-person office, with thousands in the field in retail stores. We built that team. It was fun to have a successful business with a great culture. However, I learned from my last eight years at Earth Inc. about building a brand [Earthies] from zero — getting your hands around it, [developing] great product and thinking about all the avenues for it to be successful.
What are among you first initiatives?
GC: We have to fix shipping, which caused havoc on our delivery time to retailers. Next is rebuilding the culture. When we were [originally] building the business, it was about everybody sharing the vision and understanding the strategy. Some of that was lost in the [recent] organizational transition from the U.S. working alone to England running things, to it now coming back to the middle.
How important is it for the brand to have a global identity?
GC: We should look at synergies like pulling our sourcing, supply chain and planning together to get the best you can out of economy of scale. We need to start making stores look alike globally. When tourists come to America or shop a Clarks store in Germany, the DNA should be the same. That’s where we missed the boat during my first tenure.
What role will the Americas now play in product?
GC: The region [North America and Latin America] is about 70 percent of the company’s wholesale business. The global team [decided] since the region is so strong, it should be the epicenter for building a wholesale product line. So our development people, designers [and] line managers all reside in the States. Now, the Asia-Pacific and European team will be buying out of our wholesale line. We [therefore] have to be sensitive to the needs of their markets as well.
Tell us the plan for company-owned retail.
GC: These stores are less than one-third of the business, and we’re not after any major expansion. There are some opportunities, however, such as franchised stores, where we work with independents. They run the store and benefit from the products. There won’t be any difference to consumers walking into a franchised store or company store. We may open a flagship in [situations] where an independent could not get into a certain mall and we can afford to.
Clarks is a prominent brand on home-shopping channel QVC. How does that play into the brand’s sales strategy?
GC: It’s a tremendous marketing tool and exposes the brand to millions. QVC helps market and drive consumers into their local markets. They [often] tell independents they just saw a particular shoe on QVC, would like to see it in other colors, and then buy it from the [store].
The company is known for its Originals product. What’s been its impact on the U.S. business?
GC: Sales in the Americas are phenomenal. We lead the global business in the Wallabee and Desert Boot. At the moment, we’re attracting kids with Originals. There’s now an opportunity to expand. We just introduced the Trigenic, a style with a three-piece sole that moves with the foot. It has an Originals look and feel. [In the future], we could open Originals stores in cities, college towns or pop-up shops.
The term “comfort” is used freely by many brands today. How important is it to the marketing of Clarks?
GC: We’re a trusted brand, so I don’t think we have to use the word as often as we had. We do, however, need to contemporize the product. Men and women have lots of options right now. We have to incorporate [key] trends into our core products by making sure the lasts and heels are right and the upper patterns are updated.
Do you have any advice for someone starting out in shoes?
GC: People often fall back on technology when they should be getting on the road and going face to face with a retailer, whether they’re going to have a difficult [conversation] or a great discussion. You need to meet [retailers] and figure a way through an issue. You can’t get too far away from that — it’s still a people business.