How a 100-Year-Old Shoe Retailer Stays Current in Silicon Valley

Cousins Adam Beck and Julia Beck-Gomez have literally grown up in the footwear industry. Both got their start in the family business, Beck’s Shoes, before they were 10 years old.

“I was raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains in a pretty rural town [in Northern California], so any chance I had to go work with dad I jumped at. I just wanted to get out of the house,” joked Beck, who is now CEO for the 100-year-old chain, which specializes in industrial and family lifestyle footwear.

Beck-Gomez, meanwhile, who serves as COO, began by helping out with marketing: “We spent our summers putting all of the address labels on the mailers — we got a penny a label,” she recalled. “After a few summers, I started going to the office with my dad.”

Today, the fifth-generation retailers are partners united in leading Beck’s Shoes through one of the most turbulent eras in retail history, using a modern approach to leadership and sales that’s based on strategic planning, analytics and team building.

After 100 years in business, Beck’s Shoes, based in Campbell, Calif., has come a long way from its beginnings. The chain was founded in 1919 by Ole Beck (the great-grandfather of the current execs). He emigrated from Denmark to escape his family’s cobbler trade and become a farmer, but a stint in the military led him back to his roots.

“The story is, he complained to his commanding officer about how shoddy the shoe repair was [on base], and the commanding officer said, ‘If you think you can do better, then feel free.’ So he was put in charge of the shoe repair,” said Adam Beck.

After his discharge, Ole Beck moved to Salinas, Calif., where he put up his own shingle. Since that time, the company has continuously been operated by family members. Ole’s son Bill Beck relocated the business to the Bay Area in the 1950s, where he and his own sons built it into a staple of the community. “One of our stores has been in the same location since 1969,” noted Beck-Gomez.

Today, the retailer has 11 brick-and-mortar stores in Northern California and Nevada, as well as three mobile trucks that travel to major industrial firms. The company acquired its newest location, in Modesto, on July 1.

Beck's Shoes Salinas California 1955
The Beck’s Shoes store in Salinas, Calif., drew a crowd in 1955 with its annual 1-penny sale for shoe reheeling.
CREDIT: Beck's Shoes

An Evolutionary Process

Aside from expanding its door count, Beck’s has undergone other changes over the years, in part due to the evolution of its surrounding community.

The retailer is based in the middle of Silicon Valley, but the region wasn’t always a booming, wealth-filled tech hub.

“Up until the late 1990s and 2000s, a lot of our business came from blue-collar and working men and women,” said Adam Beck. “But when the dot-com boom happened, there was a huge transition of wealth and people started getting pushed out of the area. So that was a big transition for us because, with the products we carried, we had to start catering to more of the white-collar customers to pick up some of that lost revenue.”

Beck's Shoes Bill Beck 1958
Bill Beck (far right, kneeling) and his brothers assist customers during the late 1950s.
CREDIT: Beck's Shoes

In response, Beck’s Shoes expanded beyond work footwear to incorporate more casual lifestyle offerings. Today, the industrial division still makes up about half of sales and counts some of Silicon Valley’s biggest corporations as clients. Meanwhile, the lifestyle category brings in 18% of revenue and athleisure about 12%. The remainder comes from accessories such as socks and insoles. In total, Beck’s carries around 75 footwear brands.

The chain also has spent the last four years updating the look of all its stores — a task that Beck and Beck-Gomez admitted was bigger than they anticipated. “We said it was going to take two years and cost half a million dollars. But it ended up taking double the time and double the money,” said the CEO, who quickly added that the change was vital.

“I don’t think Beck’s Shoes would be relevant in the market without those remodels,” he said. “It’s scary: We know other retailers throughout the country that haven’t reinvested as much as they should have in terms of their remodels and culture and their processes, and unfortunately that’s affecting them.”

Beck's Shoes Store California
Beck’s Shoes has spent the past four years updating the look of all its stores.
CREDIT: Jason Henry

The Business Plan

Indeed, the store’s leaders have been assertive in modernizing their family business.

Beck-Gomez noted that the store retrofits provided an opportunity to reexamine and evolve every aspect of the firm’s operations to improve their culture, processes and product.

In regard to culture, Beck said the company established a set of core values that now guide all its hiring and training for new employees. “Our mission is to exceed the expectations of everyone we encounter, whether that be a customer walking through the door, a coworker or the UPS guy dropping off a shipment,” he said.

And to create more efficient processes, it built a robust internal website that is updated daily and is accessible to all team members.

“One thing I would attribute our success to is our transparency,” said Beck-Gomez. “We are constantly trying to give our team the why behind what we do. Because when someone understands the way, they’re so much more willing to commit to something, rather than just following instructions.”

Beck's Shoes Store Employees
Beck’s Shoes employees are trained on old-school Brannock measuring devices and modern foot scanners to help customers find the right fit.
CREDIT: Jason Henry

The Road Ahead

In the coming months and years, Beck’s Shoes has even more growth in the works.

The retailer is revamping its e-commerce site and online client portal to match its new branding, with the debut set for this fall. And Adam Beck predicted the brick-and-mortar footprint could expand as well: “We’d like to open one or two more doors in the next five years.”

While he acknowledged that today’s retail environment is challenging, Beck is optimistic for full-service operators. “The run specialty retail model has been extremely successful in the last five years,” he said. “So we’re going to have that run specialty mentality, but with 100-plus brands and 10 different categories of footwear. It’s going to be your one-stop shoe shop but highly specialized.”

Beck-Gomez also pointed out that there is opportunity in offering specialized information and old-fashioned fitting services for wellness-minded customers. “With the health in our nation, foot problems will become more challenging, so people are going to ultimately understand the benefit of coming to a store like ours,” she said.

And to ensure another century of success for Beck’s, the two execs said they will rely heavily on their decades of experience and strong partnership. “We feed off each other and have different strengths and weaknesses,” said Beck. “We know that either one of us could do it without the other, but I don’t think either of us would want to.”

“We’re better together,” added Beck-Gomez.

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