How BBC International CEO Bob Campbell Built a Shoe Empire With Heart & Determination

On Dec. 3, Bob Campbell will be honored for Lifetime Achievement at the FN Achievement Awards. Below is an article from the magazine’s Dec. 2 print issue about the footwear legend and his path to tremendous success.

Growing up on the tough streets of Pittsburgh, Bob Campbell didn’t have much. By the age of 9, he was already working his first job on a bakery delivery truck to help his single mother put food on the table.

But what Campbell did have was a scrappy optimism and a belief that with a lot of hard work — and maybe a little luck — he could rise above his circumstances and make something of himself.

It’s a mindset that would carry him all the way from the stockroom of his local Kinney Shoes store, where he worked an after-school shift at 15, to the helm of a multimillion-dollar footwear empire.

While the BBC International chairman and CEO enjoyed a few strokes of luck early in his career, the remarkable rise of Campbell was undoubtedly driven by his famously brash confidence and risk-taking spirit. Many of his biggest successes were born of gutsy gambles.

“In those early days, I took a lot of chances,” he told FN recently. “When I made mistakes, I learned from them, and I was able to translate that knowledge into the company we know today.”

After spending nearly 20 years rising through the ranks at Kinney and parent firm F.W. Woolworth Co., where he focused on women’s footwear, Campbell launched BBC in 1975, making the surprising decision to specialize in children’s shoes, a category he knew very little about.

Bob Campbell in 1995
Bob Campbell in 1995.
CREDIT: FN Archives

As competition grew in the adult market, he saw an opportunity to carve out a niche in an underserved space. He broke in with a few hot sellers and was soon moving millions of pairs and garnering a reputation as the go-to guy for private-label kids’ shoes.

Five years later, Campbell made another bold move, taking a chance on a shoe deal for a quirky Belgian cartoon property called The Smurfs, which had yet to even reach American TVs. The series became a ratings smash, kicking off a merchandising frenzy. It also put Campbell’s firm on the map in the licensing business, paving the way for lucrative partnerships with such entertainment giants as Disney and Marvel.

But there have been bumps along the way. For instance, after spending freely on the purchase of a factory in the U.S., Campbell soon realized he had bitten off more than he could chew with the venture and found his company on the brink of collapse. “I thought I was going to go broke. I was right there, about to lose everything, including my house,” Campbell recalled in a 2017 interview.

Bob Campbell BBC
Bob Campbell, photographed in his New York apartment in 2017.
CREDIT: Joshua Scott

His luck — and fortunes — changed dramatically when he was contacted in 1992 by an inventor working on a patent for shoes with little lights. Campbell recalled that the technology set his mind buzzing with possibilities, so, armed with a handful of rough prototypes, he approached LA Gear about bringing it to market. The resulting LA Lights franchise took the sneaker scene by storm, with 10 million pairs sold in the first year alone, and it pioneered a concept that remains a staple in kids’ shoes.

“When I look back at the things that really set BBC on a path for success, lighted shoes is one of them,” he noted. “That idea was my first really big break.”

By 2000, Campbell — never one to get complacent — sensed the winds changing in the market. Consumer demand for brand names was growing, and the BBC chief identified an opportunity to diversify and capitalize on his company’s expertise in children’s footwear by working with labels looking to get into the category. BBC forged a licensing partnership with Polo Ralph Lauren, followed over the years by other big names including Tommy Hilfiger and Nine West.

The company also took on Heelys, a struggling brand that many considered unfixable, and reignited the business in 2013 with fresh product and tighter distribution. “My father has an incredible ability to see opportunities within challenges that others might not,” said son Seth Campbell, who joined BBC in 2014. “He’s an eternal optimist, and it’s contagious. In sales meetings, he’ll push everyone to constantly increase their numbers, refusing to hear anything negative. And people will step up because everyone wants to do well for him.”

Indeed, among his industry peers, Campbell is something of a legend, fiercely admired for his self-made success and tireless work ethic. “Bob is a tremendous operator. When you have a guy who starts at the very bottom and ends up so high, that tells you the credit he deserves,” noted longtime friend Joe Ouaknine, chairman of Titan Industries.

Bob Campbell
BBC CEO Bob Campbell, photographed for FN in 2017.
CREDIT: Joshua Scott

Yet for all of Campbell’s accomplishments in business, it’s his generosity that earns him the highest praise. Despite a demanding schedule, he has always made philanthropy a priority. It’s his way of honoring his humble beginnings and paying his success forward. He gives lavishly of his time and money to charitable causes, from local nonprofits in BBC’s hometown of Boca Raton, Fla., to industry organizations such as Two Ten Footwear Foundation.

“Bob’s greatest legacy — one he’s still creating — is certainly his history of charitable giving,” said Jim Issler, president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Shoe Holdings. “His immensely big heart has made a profound difference in the lives of the young and the old, from so many walks of life both within our industry and without.”

“Bob is a unique mix of tenacity and compassion,” agreed Foot Locker CEO Dick Johnson. “He aggressively pursues opportunities in business yet understands how important it is to give back to the community. He’s [a testament] to the idea that you can work hard, play hard and leave a positive impact on an entire industry.”

Today, as BBC approaches its 45th anniversary, Campbell and his team are busy tackling yet another new frontier: the adult market. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as just a kids’ resource, BBC has broken into the casual athletic space, led by a 2018 deal with Champion and a 50% stake in skate label Straye, announced last month.

Bob Campbell Seth Campbell
Bob Campbell and his son, Seth Campbell, photographed at Campbell Stables in 2015.
CREDIT: Steve Eichner

The expansion has come at the prodding of Seth, who is increasingly taking on a larger role in the business. So it would seem a natural time for the patriarch, now 82, to step back and enjoy the fruits of his labors.

But true to form, the shoe titan refuses to entertain any thought of retirement or slowing down, even after a serious health setback two years ago that resulted in a partial amputation of his leg. “I’m not going to retire — retirement is death,” Campbell said. “But when I’m ready, I will slow down and let Seth and [President and COO] Josue Solano lead our executive team. I know they will continue to carry my vision forward and drive BBC to be the best it can be.”

The 33rd annual FNAA ceremony will be held at the IAC Building in New York. Sponsors for the event include Klarna, Geox, The Style Room Powered by Zappos, FDRA, Micam Milano and Buchanan’s Scotch Whisky.

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