Bob Campbell, the hard-charging footwear impresario who died last month at the age of 82, was responsible for some of the most popular and enduring breakthroughs in children’s shoes.
The executive had an extraordinarily successful run in footwear, as a pioneer of manufacturing in China and an early embracer of lighted kids’ shoes. Campbell also was willing to take risks — he signed licenses with unproven foreign cartoons.
But his rise to the top had a humble start.
Raised by a single mother in working-class towns such as Pittsburgh and Detroit, Campbell first gained exposure to the footwear business through a part-time job in a Kinney Shoes stockroom. Unable to afford college, he steadily rose through Kinney’s ranks before eventually moving to the parent firm, F.W. Woolworth Co.
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But after 20 years in the retail trenches, Campbell, known for his fierce entrepreneurial spirit, wanted to venture out on his own. With a bit of saved money, he founded BBC International in 1975 and seized on an opportunity in the children’s market.
“I didn’t know anything about the kids’ business, but I became known for certain constructions,” he told FN in 2010. “I found a niche, and I guess it worked out pretty well.”
Indeed it did.
His namesake company wasted no time shaking up the sleepy kids’ category with hot entertainment licenses, designer brands and groundbreaking product innovations.
In the early 1980s, Campbell struck gold for the first time. He made a bold move by 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 additional lucrative partnerships with such entertainment giants as Disney and Marvel.
A few years later, in 1992, he hit it big again.
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.
“I had the fortunate opportunity to spend time with him during the decade I was at Ralph Lauren,” said Joel Oblonsky, now president of Anne Klein and Blondo. “We spent a lot of time together as I ran footwear and accessories and he was our children’s licensee. We grew the business to the level that was unheard of and, frankly, that hasn’t been experienced since.”
As BBC grew into a multimillion-dollar global powerhouse at the top of the kids’ business, Campbell had even bigger plans: the adult market. BBC acquired Charles Jourdan, Robert Wayne and Feiyue, capitalizing on its product-development expertise and well-oiled sourcing operations. And in 2013, the company also took on Heelys, a struggling brand that many considered unfixable, and reignited the business with fresh product and tighter distribution.
In 2014 Campbell’s youngest son, Seth, who had officially joined BBC, helped his father expand the company even more into the adult footwear market.
The father-son alliance was the unofficial start to the eventual succession plan for BBC.
“Because we worked together and we were father and son, it had a very unique dynamic,” said Seth Campbell. “I came in and he allowed me to focus on business development, and that allowed us to go more towards the adult market. I brought a different spin to the business.”
To that end, Campbell saw what his son could do, and he soon began crafting a succession plan that included Seth and longtime executive Josue Solano.
While Campbell’s decades-long career is filled with accomplishments, his philanthropy is arguably what has earned him the most praise and admiration from peers and outside organizations.
In May 2017, he 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.
“Bobby was extremely affable, energetic, passionate, and a sharing person. What I respected more than anything else was his compassion, which led to his charitable endeavors. I don’t know anybody [who] was more giving than Bobby,” said Jim Issler, president and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Shoe Holdings. “His charity [came] in all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds. He had no particular bent on any one thing. He was a giving person across the board. The charity I started in China — Fashion Association Charity Event — frankly, if it weren’t for Bobby and a couple of others, it never would have happened. It affected the lives of so many children in China over the last 15 years. He was a trusted friend of mine and a confidant, and it went both ways.”
Another friend of 40 years, Rick Mina, agreed.
“Bobby was one of the most amazing men I have ever known,” said the president of WSS. “He loved and lived life to the fullest. He was a great family man, businessman and, most of all, always there when you called or needed him.”
On February 22, days after Campbell’s death, family, friends and colleagues gathered at the St. Ignatius Loyola Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to celebrate his life.
“Today is a celebration,” said Seth Campbell. “A celebration of an amazing man who lived life to the fullest and overcame adversity at every turn and always came out on top. Dad, you did it. You really, really did it. You beat the odds. You’re the definition of the American dream — from rags to riches — and nobody can take that away from you.” — With contributions from FN Staff
How BBC International CEO Bob Campbell Built a Shoe Empire With Heart & Determination