Steve Sedlbauer, president of Cougar Shoes, found his dream job — joining his father in the family’s Canada-based shoe business more than 40 years ago. Today, he steers the business, which has now set its sights on building up its presence in the United States.
Here, the executive talks about creating original product, learning from the next generation and his favorite mentors.
My start in the shoe industry:
“I was born into it. The company started in 1948 by my father. My first summer job, at 12, was sorting leather in the stock room. After high school, I worked a short stint in an advertising agency, then came to Cougar in the advertising department. That was followed by positions in sales, product development, pricing. It’s been my life and I really love it.”
Most important lesson learned from my father:
“I had the privilege of sharing an office with him for a number of years, where I could watch and hear him. He taught me any business is about the people. How you handle them internally or externally is going to have a lot to do with your success. A big part of that was learning to be a good listener and understanding their wants and needs.”
Best business decision I ever made:
“When our factory closed in 1994, I went into business with my brother Ron as opposed to joining other companies. So, we bought the [family] trademark out of bankruptcy.”
Working in a family business:
“My brother had a career playing professional hockey [prior to joining Cougar], so I had a head start on him. The great thing is we don’t have to have long drawn out, complicated board meetings. Since we get along and are friends, we get together, make decisions and we look after each other. It’s been a positive experience.”
Hardest part of my job:
“One of the biggest challenges is being original. It seems trends come and go and everyone jumps on them. There’s a lot of sameness, and the consumer sees it as well. We’re engaged in a serious growth plan right now. Since we’re much more established in Canada and are a fairly new player in the U.S., there’s a focus on balance between being unique and fresh, and being commercial, understandable and filling a need.”
Five-year business plan:
“Our immediate focus is making Cougar an established brand in the American market. As we do that, people have taken note and we’ve been approached internationally. We’ve started selling in a few European countries and working on a deal in China and Russia. It’s starting to become a bit of a snowball effect and it’s great.”
Business leader I admire:
“Aldo Bensadoun, who has a branded division that buys Cougar. I’ve known him since he started out. He understands his customer and is a product lover. I’ve sat with him at meetings cross-legged on the floor where we throw shoes around and he’s in his glory. I respect what he’s been able to do with his talent and understanding.”
“Right now, we’re building a team who can run this business without my brother and I having to make every decision. We recently hired a COO, marketing VP and senior salesperson in the U.S. It’s about transitioning from being the manager to owner and taking on a mentoring role. However, it works two ways. We have a group of younger people who are aggressive and want to see things happen. They’ve got different approaches to things. I look to them as mentors as well.”
Most important advice I received:
“It was about 20 years ago during the SARS epidemic, and an order got screwed up. I remember calling the customer to give them the bad news. I was going on and on, saying how I had disappointed him and created a problem. He said, ‘Steve, it’s only shoes.’ Now, when we have a problem, I joke and say, ‘It’s a good thing we’re not making pacemakers.’”
Call It a Day
Steve Sedlbauer shares his daily routine.
Check weather and decide which black T-shirt to wear — either long-sleeve or short-sleeve.
Fire up the espresso machine in my office, put the news on my large-screen TV, check emails, and take calls with my team and Asia office.
Meet with design team. If my mother, 92, pops by, as she often does, this delays my start time. She loves to chat.
Sit in the staff lunchroom. It gives me the opportunity to talk with employees about nonwork stuff. It keeps it real.
My wife and I touch base and decide what our plans look like for the evening.
After dinner, my wife and I catch up some more. I also get updates from my daughter, Stephanie, home from college for the summer.
I turn on my pre-recorded late-night show until I nod off.
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