Footwear Industry Veteran Finds New Success, Thanks to E-Commerce

Bruce Katz can’t seem to shake the shoe business. The co-founder of The Rockport Co., who sold the business to Reebok in 1986, is finding success again, this time with Samuel Hubbard, a comfort brand he launched five years ago. While Katz was armed with plenty of product expertise for the venture, he found himself facing a changed retail frontier dominated by e-commerce, so he chose to embrace new channels by balancing the business between direct-to-consumer and wholesale. Here, Katz shares his passion for the comfort category and connecting with a multigenerational audience.

After decades away from the industry, why the decision to start over with Samuel Hubbard?

“[After] Rockport, I was in the [technology] business, invested in internet startups and was in fish farming, rebuilt a hotel and had a trash recycling company. I was tired and stopped for a couple of years. I had [my first] kid at 58, which changed my life. Shortly before my father, Saul Katz, co-founder of Rockport, died, I had a flashback about the shoe business. I asked him what he thought about my taking his [father’s] former Samuel Hubbard shoe factory name and turning it into a brand. It put a huge smile on his face.”

What’s the most important advice your father passed down?

“Business relationships have to be a win-win. When Rockport was growing and we had a little money in the bank, Dad said we had to send an order to a Brazilian factory for 3,000 pairs. I thought] we had enough shoes, but he said it needed the order. He made me understand you have to make sure you’re winning, the factory’s winning and the customer gets what they want.”

Lots of brands tout comfort. How is Samuel Hubbard breaking through the clutter?

“We go to extremes and probably have one of the most expensive insoles. It’s contoured, has Poron and EVA, and is leather-lined. We use Vibram soles, making the shoes light. Next it’s [our] stitchdown construction. Then we take forever to get the fit right. We have [styles] that have taken a year and a half to [design]. If it’s not right, we change it, and if there’s a problem,  we call the retailer and say, ‘Send them back.’”

How are you tackling the popularity of sneakers today?

“Our first Samuel Hubbard ad [promoted] the Un-Sneaker. There are lots of benefits to shoes that look appropriate in [multiple] situations. You don’t have to look like you came from the gym all the time. It was a [concept] I worked on years ago when the first New Balance and Nike running shoes came out. I had to find a way to make Rockport shoes [as comfortable]. I know a lot of tricks to do it and developed Samuel Hubbard shoes from that point of view: very classical but in unusual colors.”

Why has advertising been so important to your brand?

“I took out the first ad in The New York Times as an experiment, using my personal savings. It was July 2015, a year after the first shoes [launched online]. For the first six months, there was still no business. Then, within 18 to 24 months, the ads paid for themselves. We grew to [ads that generated] over a billion print impressions within a year. We never looked back. We’ve been in 28 newspapers, 30 magazines and are spending about $15 [million] to $20 million.”

Is it possible for the brand to attract multiple generations of consumers?

“I didn’t start with a clear notion of the [customer]. I knew the kinds of shoes we made at [Rockport] that had broad appeal. Since we [advertise] in newspapers, we ended up with customers 50 and up. Then stories started coming back, including an 18-year-old coming home from school and saying, ‘Dad, those shoes are cool,’ then taking them. We’re constantly developing product for a younger audience.”

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