A light rain is falling on this April afternoon, bringing traffic to a standstill in midtown Manhattan. Briefly, a small window opens up between bumpers. “Go now,” Bob Campbell instructs his driver, Sal, who expertly steers through the jam and soon has the SUV speeding along the FDR Drive.
Campbell, BBC International’s chairman and CEO, is known in the industry for his charm, generosity and, most important, his ability to identify and overcome any obstacle, even gridlock.
The car is heading to Campbell’s Upper East Side apartment for an impromptu photo shoot. Also with us is another powerful footwear personality: Sonny Shar, a longtime friend of Campbell’s. At the moment, the two are reminiscing about memorable trips they’ve taken, both together and apart. Between them, they have traversed much of the globe, from downtown Shanghai to the glaciers of Alaska.
In some sense, both have come a long way to reach this point. For Shar, who is from Namibia by way of South Africa, the distance is quite literal. For Campbell, it is more symbolic.
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Raised in the hardscrabble streets of Pittsburgh by a single mother, the shoe titan started working at 9 years old, for his family’s bakery. Several years later, after a move to Detroit, Campbell’s after-school job in the stockroom at Kinney Shoes set him on his career path, leading to influential roles with Kinney and parent company F.W. Woolworth.
And then, eventually, came BBC, a company he founded in 1975 that is now a multimillion-dollar global footwear powerhouse, producing some of the most coveted fashion and character shoes in the children’s category.
Having never attended college, Campbell exhibits great pride in his accomplishments, describing himself as “a doctor of experience.” Last week, however, that moniker changed somewhat, as Campbell received an honorary doctorate degree from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla.
“Bobby Campbell’s record of achievements in business, and his significant contributions in the community and to so many charitable causes, provide a great example to our students of what they can aspire to accomplish in their business careers,” wrote Daniel Gropper, dean of the College of Business, in a nominating letter for the honor.
Shar has equal praise for Campbell. “In all the years that I’ve known him, the one thing that has always stood out about him is his heart — the way he treats people [in this business] and in the outside world,” he said.
What follows is an edited version of a conversation between these two shoe icons, about humble origins, giving back to the community and why the footwear business today is tougher than ever.
Sonny Shar: Looking back 37 years, to when I walked into your office for the first time as a consultant, did you ever believe that I’d be interviewing you or that you’d be getting a doctorate from a university?
Bob Campbell: No, of course not. Also, 37 years ago, no way did I have [any expectations] — except that, I thought, you have to have a dream. And I always had a dream to be successful, but I never looked at where I’d be [in the future].
SS: That goes for both of us, because when I walked into your office, I was a rookie in America.
BC: And I didn’t even know what a consultant was in those days.
SS: Let me ask you a few questions. From earlier in your career, who was the most influential person who gave you a direction?
BC: It was a gentleman who passed away some time ago named Cam Anderson. He was president of Kinney Shoes and my idol. I worked with him and I was his assistant. He was the guy I always looked up to, and he was the guy who was my mentor.
SS: Obviously, we all have milestones in our careers. What do you think have been the key milestones for you?
BC: That’s a tough question. From the very beginning, I just never looked back. I never thought that whatever I did could fail, because I started out very, very poor — so I thought, “What am I going to do? I can’t go back to that.” So my thing is that I just kept working. I knew with luck it’d be OK. I came from a family that only had a mother — never had a father — and she taught me good things. A very religious woman, she taught me to be a good person, to respect people.
SS: There’s no question, Bob, that having come from a background like that, your education has been on the street, learning the business.
BC: Absolutely. I learned it all from the streets. I learned it from working on a bakery truck at 9 years old, and on a fruit truck. I worked every kind of job you could think of [because it] put money in your pocket. My mother [worked hard just to put] food on the table, and that’s why my sisters and I were very lucky, because we never starved and we would find places to live. We lived in my grandmother’s house until I was 6 years old, and all five of us lived in one room.
SS: That says a lot. Going back to when you started BBC, can you pick two or three exciting happenings?
BC: One of the most exciting things I remember is, I was in business a couple of years, and a guy named Bobby Greenberg called me and said he wanted to go into business. So I started working on LA Gear with him. And probably the second most important thing that happened was when business was down and I thought I was going to go broke. I was right there, about to lose everything, including my house. And then luck came along.
This guy in Canada had a patent [for putting a light in a shoe], and he showed it to me, and I thought, “Oh my god, this is something. But what the hell am I going to do with it?” I knew if I went to Kmart, I could get one big order, because at that time, Kmart was bigger than Walmart. But the guy said, “No, that’s not good.” So I got some cardboard, put the light on the cardboard and drew a picture of a shoe on the board. I took it to Bobby Greenberg, and he said, “What the hell is this?” And I said, “You’re too stupid to understand it.” So I went and had the shoes made, and by the time I came back, a new guy was in charge of LA Gear. I didn’t know him from Adam, but he says, “Wow, this is just great.” And frankly, he did incredible marketing. We sold 10 million pairs that next year. That turned me right around — paid my bills, paid my losses, and I was in good shape.
SS: If you had a choice, would you change anything?
BC: No. I was fortunate. I grew up on tough streets in Pittsburgh. No question, it wasn’t easy. But no, I wouldn’t change a thing.
SS: In the early days of your career, what were the things that gave you strength?
BC: I think the most important thing is attitude. I never would look down or feel sorry — I mean, I had a tough road, but I never felt sorry for myself. I feel that attitude was my best asset.
SS: Is it fair to say that the business today is much harder than 20 or 30 years ago?
BC: Yes. Making children’s shoes 20 years ago was a pleasure. Today it is very, very difficult, with all the compliances you have to deal with and the government regulations. It’s not fun being in shoes — it’s especially not fun being in children’s shoes. We have to go through every single type of testing there is, and not just in the U.S. Our company is very big internationally, and the rules in Europe and everywhere else are very, very tough.
SS: Let’s go back to the days of Ted Poland and Jonas Senter, [two pioneers of manufacturing in Asia]. What’s happened in the region from then to today?
BC: I’d call both Teddy and Jonas two of the geniuses of the shoe business. Jonas ran a business bigger than Nike. He was the biggest there is. The important thing is, it was a different business back in those days. I’ve been going to China for 40 years — more than 40 years, because I went there as a buyer. Jonas had built the foundation of what international business was. He had a big company — Mitsubishi was behind him — but he was a true genius. Teddy was a genius, too. Those two guys, they’re my idols. I worked with both of them.
SS: Do you think that we could ever go back to Made in America and add higher tariffs to products coming in from other countries?
BC: There is no way we can make children’s shoes in America. We cannot do robotics, because they’re too expensive. We cannot do injection, because machines can’t handle that and they don’t look right. We cannot do things by computer, like 3-D printing. We can’t do the things here that can be done in Asia for children’s shoes.
SS: Well, that’s a pretty clear answer. It certainly tells us what’s going on. So now for the next question: How does it feel seeing your son, Seth, so involved in the business?
BC: In the past three years, he has become an incredible person. I won’t tell him that usually, but he’s become an incredible executive. He has learned an awful lot. He’s in Europe right now and often travels around the world. He doesn’t mind the traveling, and he gets a lot done. I head up all the sales of the company, and that’s what he wants to do. And he’s the perfect person — he will be the person to run the sales one day.
SS: Well, the bad news is that after this interview, he’s going to hear the nice things you said.
BC: He cannot read this! [laughs] I’m tough on him on purpose, because there are a lot of silver-spoon guys in this business, and there are a lot who’ve failed in this business. I don’t want him to be a silver-spoon person. People ask me a lot when I’m going to retire, and I say, “Never, because that’s death.” I don’t have any plans of retiring, but he will eventually be working with me in sales in a much bigger way at the company. I know his vision is to replace me, but I’m not ready for that yet.
SS: Your staff has such love for you, and one of the reasons, I think, is that you’ve always been magnanimous. Would you agree with that statement?
BC: Well, I don’t exactly agree with it. But I believe the two big words in business and my personal life are “communication” and “respect.” My door is open every day, and the newest person in the company can walk in and say, “Hey, how ya doin’, Mr. Campbell?” It’s an open door because I really believe [that at BBC], we are a family. Most of our middle management have been with us more than 15 years, and I think [that’s because of] good communication and respect of each other. They’re all my friends. I can go drinking with them. I don’t treat people any different than I want to be treated, and I really feel that it’s easy to be nice to people. I always look straight at a person, I never look down at a person. I think it’s really good that we have built the company we have built.
SS: Yes, it doesn’t matter where — at a party, at shoe shows, whatever — you treat everybody as an equal.
BC: Except the competition.
SS: The competition, we’re not talking about.
BC: I’m just kidding. When we first moved the company to Boca Raton, 20 years ago, the first thing I said was, “I want to join some kind of charity.” And fortunately, I got involved with The Arc, for children who needed special help. And I fell in love with that. And ever since, I think I’m on five different boards of charities — I’m on the board of the hospital, the historical society, and I’m very much involved in Lynn University and, of course, FAU. I believe in one thing: If you are successful, you’ve got to give back to the community, you’ve got to give back to the people who need it. As you know, I’m very much involved with the Two Ten Footwear Foundation, and I give as much as anyone in that association. I just feel good about doing that.
SS: That’s one of your best traits: You are humble. And if you’re humble, then the rest of life is good.
BC: I try to teach my son that. I try to tell him, “If you’re going to be successful, you better learn to give back.” It’s very, very important that you do. Listen, there are a lot people [who are in need]. At the Florence Fuller [childcare center], behind our office in Boca, you’ll see these kids — the mothers come by bicycle or by bus to pick up their kids. And we support them. We give a scholarship every year to them. It’s important to help single mothers and people who are having hard times. People have so many problems. It’s terrible.
SS: We’re coming close to the end of this interview. But looking back, when you were a stock boy at Kinney Shoes, did you ever envision the success you have had?
BC: Did I? No! When I was a stock boy at Kinney Shoes and I made $35 that first week, I thought I was rich. But my dream was to make $100. That was always my dream, so I worked at it. They made me a stock boy, but I hated it; I wanted to sell, so they let me, and I did some crazy things in the shoe store to get the sale. Within a year, before I’d even graduated high school, I’d made enough money to buy an old Dodge for $600. It made me very proud. When I graduated, I had a tuition scholarship to Michigan State, but I couldn’t afford to go away, so I decided to stay with Kinney full time. I started selling shoes when I was 15, and here I am a damn shoe dog.
SS: Well, I’m going to end this by saying one thing: Having known you so long, you deserve every honor, because of the impact you’ve had on our industry, because of your philanthropy, but most of all — and to me this says it all — because you’re a mensch. It’s been a bloody privilege to interview you, even in my strange accent.
BC: Am I suddenly Jewish? Thank you so much, Sonny. You’ve always been one of my best friends in this industry. There are a lot of guys I really respect in this industry, and you’re one of the few people I really love. You’re like a brother.