Anyone who’s sat in a meeting with Ron Fromm has likely heard the footwear veteran share one of his favorite quotes: “The future is something that is created, not found. It’s first created in the mind, and then it’s created in action.”
It’s a saying to which he has subscribed throughout his venerable career in fashion footwear, a business he often likens to a roller coaster. During his own 30-year ride, Fromm, who will retire at the end of this month after four years as president and CEO of the Fashion Footwear Association of New York, has succeeded through resilience and a commitment to product.
“One of the learnings in my career is that change is forever. If you embrace it, that challenge is always there. But I think that it allows you the ability to see forward,” Fromm said during a recent interview. “If you keep looking forward … you can seize that day, and you can find your way.”
Armed with that mantra, the executive can count numerous accomplishments. Earlier in his career, during a long tenure at Brown Shoe Co. (now Caleres Inc.), he nurtured new talent and a professional culture. He also helped build Famous Footwear into a retail powerhouse and along the way has maintained a commitment to fundraising.
Indeed, Fromm said he considers his involvement with the QVC Presents “FFANY Shoes on Sale” breast cancer fundraiser to be one of his defining career commitments. Over the past 25 years, Shoes on Sale has raised more than $55 million for “first-step” breast cancer research.
“If somebody said to me in the ’80s, when I first put my toe in the footwear world, that Shoes on Sale would be a driving force in the road to the cure for breast cancer and would bring so much joy and energy to my life, who would predict that?” Fromm said. “To me, the memory of my career is that opportunity: Shoes on Sale.”
He further considers it “a gift” to have served as chairman of the Two Ten Footwear Foundation and the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America, and to be involved with the United Way of Greater St. Louis and other professional and philanthropic organizations.
Fromm credits many of the successes in his professional and philanthropic arenas to his early family life. Fromm’s mother and father owned a Milwaukee service garage, a business that brought the family of five together.
“My brothers were always better than I was on the mechanical side. My mom was the bookkeeper, and I spent a little time on the business side,” he recalled.
Fromm worked for his father while attending the University of Wisconsin, where he studied finance and accounting. But taking over the garage was not an option. “The three sons always joked [that] Dad said the business was too tough,” he said.
Nevertheless, Fromm said that experience cemented for him the importance of both customer service and managing money. He contends that monetary gain actually comes second to having great working relationships with clients and co-workers — knowledge furthered for him as he shifted into the footwear world following college.
Fromm also learned from his parents the importance of contributing to charity. “We were a family where you got an allowance and you put 10 percent of that into a milk carton and you gave that to different causes throughout the year: the March of Dimes or the church or the Boy Scouts,” he said.
After college, in the mid 1970s to mid-’80s, Fromm was hired by a St. Louis management consultancy called The Heath Corp. There, he began working with a client called Famous Footwear, which had recently been acquired by Brown. In 1986, he signed on as financial director at Famous Footwear and was appointed CFO of the chain in 1988. Then, in 1999, Fromm became Brown’s chairman, president and CEO.
One of the first people he met at Brown was Brian Cook, head of Famous Footwear, who became his business partner and mentor until he retired in 2001.
“Brian did the beautiful stuff, and I did anything else,” Fromm joked. The “anything else” refers to expanding Famous Footwear to 800 stores, from 80, along with an increase in distribution centers and investments in enterprise technology. In addition, Fromm fondly recalls Brown’s acquisitions of Bennett Footwear Group in 2005 and the Sam Edelman brand in 2010.
As CEO of Brown, Fromm pushed the company to become a benefactor of the Shoes on Sale event. “Service to the industry was something that was very important to the character and culture of Brown Shoe,” he said.
Along the way, he recalls spending time learning important HR lessons, eventually coming to the conclusion that mentoring young talent is key to growing a business. He said, “I believe that you can never be too generous with your time, talent or treasure, as the more you give, the more that is returned.” And Fromm told FN he’s particularly happy that, after fully retiring from Brown, he was able to pass the mantle to Diane Sullivan, with whom he worked for 10 years prior to the succession.
Now he is on the threshold of another transition. The executive’s last scheduled day at FFANY is Oct. 31, though he will continue to work on the annual Shoes on Sale gala and serve as chairman of the Fashion Footwear Charitable Foundation.
Looking to retirement, Fromm said he is excited to get back to some of the things he’s missed out on. He and his wife of 45 years, Cheri, have a bucket list of places where they’d like to travel. The two also own a mountain house and a dock in Florida that respectively foster their love of downhill skiing and sailing.
But Fromm acknowledged he’s done his fair share of travel already, having lived in New York and visited the Far East, Europe and Brazil for sourcing trips during his time at Brown. In fact, he said, he’s quite ready to retire the “vagabond life” for a bit, though the pair recently returned from trips to Portugal, Spain, Italy and Hawaii. “I’ve never been able to sit still,” he admitted.
Another hobby, as Fromm calls it, is “grandparenting.” He has four grandchildren and one on the way, and is looking forward to more family time. “Anyone who has been in footwear in a leadership position knows it is impossible to succeed without the sacrifice of your time,” he said.
But don’t expect him to cease working altogether. The shoe veteran continues to embrace uncertainty by supporting young startups in all types of industries. “I have fun investing in new ventures that are interesting to me — and that I know nothing about,” he said.
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