Bearpaw Founder Talks Launching a New Shoe Brand & Expanding Flip Flop Shops

Bearpaw is celebrating 20 years in business, and founder and president Tom Romeo has no plans on slowing down.

To celebrate the anniversary, Bearpaw has relaunched its very first boot, the Eva sheepskin style. In addition, the brand will donate $20,000 to Tahoe Fund’s Smartest Forest Fund project. For Romeo, Lake Tahoe represents a special place personally and professionally as it was where the Bearpaw journey started. The founder had an actual run-in with a bear there, and that pivotal moment pushed him to start the business back in 2001. Now, Romeo is aiming to launch a Bearpaw storefront in Lake Tahoe in the next year.

But there is much more in the works. Bearpaw parent company Romeo & Juliette, Inc. is readying to launch a new footwear brand that’s been in the works. Called Strole, the line is centered on health and wellness and aims at filling a void in the market for a shoe that can help conquer plantar fasciitis. To start, the brand will launch with QVC, Nordstrom and Zappos in March.

“We are just hitting our stride,” Romeo told FN, adding that he also continues to build the Flip Flop Shops retail chain, which he acquired in June 2018. By the end of the year, he is looking to have 100 outposts, up from 59 in 2018.

Here, Romeo expands on his 20 years in the footwear business, where the industry is now and where the greatest opportunity lies.

When you look back at your career, where does the COVID-19 pandemic land in terms of challenges?

“This has been the biggest challenge of all, by far. It’s been the toughest when it comes to supply chain. The supply chain has been just totally wrecked. It’s nothing I’ve ever seen in my career. To see what it’s done with everything that touches — your raw materials to your factory workers, to your vessels, to every aspect, your trucking. Everything has been impacted by COVID-19. I call it the cosmic two-by-four that hit us and woke us all up. And then it just basically took the shoe industry and sped it five years ahead, with e-commerce becoming more and more important.”

When it comes e-commerce, how important is that to your retail strategy?

“We’ve always been focused on e-commerce. I’ll never forget the first time I was fortunate to meet Tony Hsieh at Zappos, and he asked me, ‘Why do I want to buy Bearpaw?’ And I said, ‘Simple, you have 33% returns. I can cut that in half because we don’t do half sizes, we only do full. And then I did business with was Amazon. Amazon was our third customer. That’s when I realized the Internet is there. But it’s a balance with brick-and-mortar. We have some amazing customers, from Famous Footwear to Nordstrom to Macy’s to DSW to Rack Room. Until I’m not running this company, I believe that both can exist and both will exist.”

As a leader, how have you changed during this time?

“I’m a sponge, and you absorb all your employees’ and customers’ thoughts, and you change by adapting constantly. That’s one thing that I pride myself and the company on is constantly changing, constantly looking at what is next.”

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs starting their own companies?

“This is the toughest environment I’ve ever seen because of the supply chain. So those challenges, you’ve got to understand them and you’ve got to recognize them as you start a new brand or start a new company. And e-comm is the way of the future. If you’re affiliated with Amazon, hang on. You’ve got a good ride. It’s a balancing act of understanding the toughness of the times that are out there and an understanding where we’re going in the future. And if you could do that, you could be successful at this.”

Where do you think the biggest opportunity is right now?

“In terms of category — outdoors. That’s a huge segment. And I don’t think comfort is going anywhere. By far, that’s the biggest growth in our company. The sell-throughs don’t lie and it’s slippers. From last year to this year, sales have doubled. So I don’t think it’s going anywhere. The fact that we embrace slippers so much is why we’re taking more market share, and we’re very sensible and affordable. We want to sell to the masses.”

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