Dansko’s CEO on How to Build a Brand and Connecting With Consumers

Each day in June, FN is highlighting female forces in the industry as part of our Women in Power series.  

Mandy Cabot, CEO of Dansko, co-founded the company with her husband, Peter Kjellerup, after the two happened upon a classic clog while on a trip to Europe more than 25 years ago. Together, they saw the comfort potential of the simple design and introduced it to the U.S. market. Their hunch proved right, and since then they’ve turned their former item business into a lifestyle collection for men and women that includes casuals, dress looks and even shoes for chefs.

Here, Cabot talks about taking business risks, balancing the roles of men and women in the workplace and putting the customer first.

What was the biggest breakthrough moment in your career?

Since I never intentionally embarked on a career in footwear, it was the serendipitous discovery of [our iconic] clog on a trip to Denmark. Deciding these were too good not to share with people back in the States, we created a platform from which we could perfect, import and distribute them. Several months later [in 1990] I received a legitimate offer from a footwear industry veteran to buy the entire inventory and take over all future distribution. Declining that offer was a watershed moment for me. I was never presumptuous enough to think that I could do a better job than the experienced potential buyer, but this would be my baby, for better or worse, and I would figure it out for myself.

dansko sandals
Dansko sandals.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

Dansko Daniela sandal, $150; dankso.com

Is there anything you would have done differently? 

If we’d taken a different path — not made the choices we’ve made or learned the lessons we learned — we wouldn’t be where we are today. So in hindsight, I’m pretty happy with the path we’ve taken.

Do you think women do enough to support other women in the workplace? Why or why not?

I can honestly say I’ve never seen any gender bias at Dansko. Allowing for individual differences, of course, women support each other and their male counterparts equally, and the reverse is true of men. In terms of overall numbers, we do employ more women than men (62% women to 38% men) with the same proportion in leadership roles. But in terms of respect, leadership and economic opportunity, we’re as balanced as any company I know.

What is the biggest challenge you faced in the last year, and how did you overcome it? 

On a personal level, I would say that the uncertainty and, frankly, the incivility up to, during, and since the election has been mentally exhausting. With so many issues affecting so many people, it’s not an option to shut out the news on either a national or a global level, so that’s not a challenge we can overcome. But we carry on as we’ve always done, staying as agile, as informed and as attuned to our stakeholders as possible. On the industry level, the biggest challenge is staying ahead of that elusive consumer. How can we better support our retailers? How can we help drive traffic? How can we give our consumers exactly what they’re looking for, exactly when they want it?

Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Never, ever lose sight of your values, be true to your word, mean what you say, and if you can’t add value to the lives of the people your business touches, go back and try another approach. You will never be all things to all people, but try to leave a mark that you can be proud of.

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