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Looking Back at the People-First Culture That Legendary Founder Paul Van Doren Created

The story of Vans started as — and continues to be — one of family.

Paul Van Doren launched the Van Doren Rubber Co. in 1966 on a $250,000 investment from Serge D’Elia, a materials supplier for the West Coast operation of Randolph Manufacturing Co., one year after he left the Randolph organization.

To get his nascent business off the ground, Van Doren leaned on his loved ones: He partnered with his brother, James, and friend Gordy Lee from Randolph Manufacturing, and then assembled a crew that included the parents and brother of his then-wife, Dolly, as well as his children, to get the Anaheim, Calif., factory and store running.

During his roughly 30-year journey, Van Doren expanded the brand’s retail footprint from one store at 704 East Broadway to a total of 70 in California by the end of the 1970s, with dealers also selling Vans nationally and internationally.

In the early years, the company delivered several iconic sneakers that remain fan favorites — most notably the Authentic, which was originally known as #44 and debuted in 1966. Vans also made inroads with skateboarders in the 1970s, and in 1976, skate icons Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta designed another classic look, the Era, then known as #95.

Vans Paul Van Doren Geoff Rowley
Vans founder Paul Van Doren (L) and skate legend Geoff Rowley.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Alex Baret

The sneaker industry pioneer also kept the brand alive when the outlook seemed grim. In 1984, three years after Van Doren stepped away from Vans, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with $12 million worth of debt. So the founder returned, and three years later, Vans had paid back all of the creditors.

Van Doren, who died on May 6 at the age of 90, walked away from positions of leadership at Vans for the final time in 1991. Since then, the brand he founded has transformed into an industry behemoth. In April 2004, it was acquired by VF Corp. for $396 million, and its shoes are now sold in 97 countries through more than 2,000 retail stores.

Despite the changes that have occurred at Vans through the decades, the culture he created has never waned.

“What I respect about Vans that Paul started is that they’ve been able to keep that authenticity. That’s one of the lead credentials for the brand,” said Dick Johnson, Foot Locker Inc. president, chairman and CEO. “They were a mom-and-pop shop, became a big cult business and then got acquired by a big corporation, but have stayed authentic through it all.”

Nordy Ying, co-owner of California- based Shoe City, told FN, “Considering they are a huge footwear company, they somehow make it seem casual and family-like, where everyone is included. Today, they reach everyone no matter the race, ethnicity or class with these Southern California lifestyle shoes that everyone can relate to.”

That family atmosphere at Vans makes sense: Two of Van Doren’s children still work for the company. Steve Van Doren is VP of events and promotions, and sister Cheryl Van Doren is VP of human resources.

The family lineage at Vans continues with Paul’s granddaughter, Kristy Van Doren-Batson, a director for brand activations and promotions for the Americas, and Steve’s niece, Jenny Battiest, who is a manager within its product merchandising team.

“We work best when Van Doren family members are involved, and we have a familial feel as a brand because of them,” Vans president Doug Palladini said. “We have a popular employee shirt that says, ‘We Are All Van Dorens.’ They’ve set the foundation for our culture. We call it Van Doren Spirit.”

And though Vans’ founder had been absent from the shoe business for decades, family members said his love for the brand never waned.

“When he heard something about his company that was global and when he saw people in other countries wearing his shoes, it just made him smile,” Steve Van Doren recalled. “He always said, ‘It’s magic.’”

Shortly before his passing, Paul Van Doren released his memoir, aptly titled “Authentic,” in late April. The book chronicled the entirety of his career, from his days as a service boy at Randolph Manufacturing in the 1940s to the powerhouse brand Vans is today, offering valuable lessons and insights — both personal and professional.

Beyond the storytelling, “Authentic” offered unique insights into his secrets to success. “As I went through the years, I determined that people were the answer. I had good people, we worked together and outdid the bad people. We made it work,” he told FN in April. “When I started my factory, I got my people together and said, ‘We are a people company that makes shoes, it’s way different than a company that makes shoes first. People are the key in everything we do.’”

He continued, “If you bring a bunch of really good people together and have a decent idea, it’s going to work.”

Indeed, the brand did work, and the success of Vans also has helped launch other shoe industry heavyweights, providing a blueprint for a people-first culture.

Mario Gallione, president of the Journeys retail chain, told FN, “We’re now in our 35th year, and Vans was in our very first store. The brand is part of our heritage, part of our DNA. It’s deep roots in skate, street culture, art and music is all about what Journeys is about. That heritage and legacy of the Van Doren family is woven through not only the Vans family, but also the Journeys family.”

Prior to his father’s passing, Steve Van Doren made sure he saw his memoir on bookstore shelves, taking him to Barnes & Noble in Corona Del Mar, Calif., where he signed about 20 copies.

Steve also helped arrange for one of his father’s favorite skate icons to read the book’s audio version. “Dad got to meet our athletes on different trips, and he really liked Tony Alva,” Steve said. “He asked me to get a hold of Tony when the audio idea came up to see if he would do the narration of the book, and Tony said absolutely. It reaches right back to the roots in skate and his passion for the company.”

Vans Paul Van Doren Tony Alva
Vans founder Paul Van Doren (L) and skate icon Tony Alva.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Ray Barbee

Beyond Vans, Paul Van Doren also was an avid horseman, and raised horses on a farm in Kentucky for more than 30 years. “He really enjoyed the races,” recalled his son, Steve. “He enjoyed seeing what a horse could do and how the trainers take care of the horses to make them better. He wasn’t a big better, but he enjoyed betting at the race track.”

Although Van Doren’s list of accomplishments is long, his son hopes he is remembered first as a canvas vulcanized footwear innovator — someone who offered custom shoes for people at a time when it was unheard of — and as the man who pioneered monobrand retail.

Most of all, Steve Van Doren said he wants people to know how carefree his father was.

“On the prayer card at his memorial, one side was a prayer his grandson, Philip Van Doren, wrote,” he said. “The other side has a picture of him in his red Hawaiian shirt with his thumb up, and underneath it says ‘S**t Happens.’”

In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations be made to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm, a 236-acre facility in Kentucky with more than 200 rescued and retired horses.

Meanwhile, Van Doren’s five children arranged their own tribute, reviving an old family tradition one last time.

Steve Van Doren recalled that his father bought a car every two years throughout his career in footwear. And on the weekends, the kids teamed up to wash it. “When dad got home, it meant grab the bucket and some towels,” Steve recalled. “Everybody had a certain thing that they did, and as a team, it’s done in 5 minutes. Then, he’d take us for ice cream.”

He continued, “Since everybody was in town [for the funeral] — and even though we’re all over 60 years old — we washed his car. It taught us lessons about working hard, to work as a team and also to have fun. That’s something that all my brothers and sisters, and everybody that works at Vans — including Doug Palladini at the top — preaches to this day.”

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