Bob Campbell, who rose from the hard-scrabble streets of Pittsburgh to become one of the most powerful players in the shoe business, has died. The BBC International founder, chairman and CEO was 82.
The footwear industry legend spent nearly 20 years rising through the ranks at Kinney Shoes and parent firm F.W. Woolworth Co., where he focused on women’s footwear. Campbell launched BBC in 1975, making the unexpected decision to specialize in children’s shoes, a category he knew little about.
Aware of heavy competition in the adult market and being the visionary that he was, Campbell saw an opportunity to carve out a niche in an underserved segment. He quickly had a few hot sellers on his hands, and after moving millions of pairs of shoes Campbell became the go-to guy for private-label kids’ footwear.
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 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.
In 1992, Campbell was contacted 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 some rough prototypes, he approached LA Gear. 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 told FN in December 2019 when the publication honored him for Lifetime Achievement as part of the FN Achievement Awards. “That idea was my first really big break.”
By the 2000s, identifying a growing appetite among consumers for branded goods, Campbell steered BBC into forging licensing partnerships to make kids’ shoes for big name companies such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Nine West. Later, 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.
A year later, his son, Seth, who had officially joined BBC, helped his father expand the company into the adult footwear market.
“My father has an incredible ability to see opportunities within challenges that others might not,” said Seth Campbell in an interview with FN in 2019. “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.”
While Bob Campbell’s decades-long career is filled with accomplishments, his philanthropy is arguably what has earned him the most praise and admiration. In May 2017, Campbell received an honorary doctorate degree from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla. Over the years, he donated generously with both his time and money to charitable causes, including local nonprofits in BBC’s hometown of Boca Raton and industry organizations such as Two Ten Footwear Foundation.
Campbell, who died on Feb. 17, is survived by his wife, Barbara Zangrilli, children Robert Campbell Jr., Dana Campbell and Seth Campbell, as well as five grandchildren.
A viewing will be held Friday, Feb. 21, at the Greenwich Village Funeral Home in New York City, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A funeral mass will follow on Saturday, Feb. 22, 10 a.m., at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, 980 Park Ave. at 84th Street, New York, NY 10028.
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