Black History Month Spotlight: Shoe Industry Veteran Noel Hord

In honor of Black History Month, FN is recognizing African-American movers and shakers in the shoe industry. From rising stars to accomplished executives, here’s how they’re making waves and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Noel Hord calls himself the Jackie Robinson of retail.

In many ways, he could very well be. Hord, a minister’s son who remembers his segregated school and the restaurants that wouldn’t serve him, rose from backroom stock boy in the 1960s to the top of the corporate world of suspenders and pinstripes as president of Nine West in the early 1990s. (He also nabbed FN’s Man of the Year award in 1994).

“I was the first black sales person in downtown Terre Haute, Ind.,” Hord said. “When I started there, they placed me in men’s shoes because they were more comfortable with me there than in the women’s and children’s departments.”

Now 70, Hord, a board member of Donald J Pliner/Castanea Partners, said the fashion industry offers many more career paths for minorities.

“The challenges I faced 50 years ago are very different from the challenges people face today,” he said. “But what made someone great then are still the same things that would make them great today: being curious, setting goals, having strong people skills and working really hard.”

What made you want to pursue a career in the shoe industry?

“I started in this industry in the late 1960s. At the time, my father was a minister and a leader in the community. He also served on the board of the local hospital with Herman Becker, who owned Ben Becker Shoe Co. Herman was progressive — in 1967, he wanted to hire a black person, and he knew my father. I was the first black sales person in downtown Terre Haute, Ind. When I started there, they placed me in men’s shoes because they were more comfortable with me there than in the women’s and children’s departments. I enjoyed the elements of selling. And I loved working with people. I also loved that there was also a regular scorecard. There was the people side of it, and you were also able to measure your own success. It was commission-driven, and you could impact your own paycheck.”

What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along the way?

“In the early years, there weren’t a lot of black men or women in the industry. There was a lack of diversity in retail and a lack of African-Americans in the fashion industry. From that standpoint, I didn’t have a resource to educate or school me. I didn’t have other experiences to compare against. In many ways, I was the Jackie Robinson of retail. I was the first. I always felt that I needed to prove that I was the best at what I was doing. I needed to work harder and perform better to make it a level playing field. At the time, black people that were going on to school weren’t looking at retail or fashion as careers. They were looking at the education, legal and medical fields. Fashion wasn’t an arena a lot of blacks were in. When I was growing up, fashion didn’t even hit the radar. I kind of bumped into it through my dad. So the obstacle early on was that I was different. There was not a role model for me. There weren’t people of color that I could sit with and say, here’s the problem that I am having. But there were great leaders to teach me. I was very blessed to work with some great leaders and learn the business from them, like Vince Camuto and Wayne Weaver.”

How did you overcome it?

“I used what I was taught. I am one of five children. My father always told us, ‘You can do anything you want to do. You may have to be better and work harder, but don’t let anyone limit you.’ Even though I was a person of color, at a time segregation was going on, I never put barriers or lines around what I wanted to do. I knew, in terms of performance, that I had to stand out.”

What advice would you give to your younger self?

“As any young person, I made my share of mistakes. But I looked at the early opportunities as a challenge, an opportunity to prove what I was capable of doing. My goal was to one day be in a corporate headquarters. I knew to achieve that, I had to work hard, use my people skills and understand strategies and merchandising. I’m not sure I would have approached anything differently. I give my parents credit for teaching the five of us that we can do anything we set our minds to.”

Best advice for other African-Americans looking to enter the shoe industry and/or fashion?

“First of all, it’s a very different world today. There is so much more opportunity to excel and grow. I think it’s important for blacks to maintain some level of edge about their standards — how high their standards are. But most critical in today’s fast pace of change is that you remain a student. I’ve always said that I am forever a student. That is more important today than it ever was. For a young black person, you have to completely engage with your business — don’t stand on the outside looking in. Make sure you understand the values, the company culture, the strategies, use a hard work ethic and be able to quickly adapt. Change is happening faster than it ever has. To be successful in any era, you have to be in touch with the key things going on in that era — from technology’s impact and globalization to new ways people think. Yes, it was harder when I was growing up because we were more segregated, but that doesn’t exist the same way today as it did back then. Make sure your work ethic is undeniably high, realize your ability to work with people, to get along — because your people skills are critical to your success.”

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