If you’ve been in the footwear business since the 1940s, you’re bound to have a story or two. Thankfully, Vans founder Paul Van Doren is willing to share some of his best.
From his humble beginnings as a service boy at Randolph Manufacturing Co. to creating the giant that is Vans, the sneaker industry icon revealed decades of strikingly honest stories, both personal and professional, through his memoir “Authentic.” In the book, Van Doren — who is now 90 — offered insights into his journey with the detail one would have as if the moments just occurred.
For instance, the shoe dog relived the day he quit Randolph Manufacturing Co. (referred to throughout the book as Randy’s) in February 1965. From there, he discussed a trip to Japan he took a year later at the request of Serge D’Elia, the upper material supplier for the Randy’s operation on the West Coast, who would finance what would eventually become Vans.
Also, Van Doren spoke at great length on the decisions that led to the Vans-only retail store at the front of his shoemaking factory in 1966, selling sneakers directly to consumers — something common today, but an anomaly at the time.
And there wasn’t a topic Van Doren shied away from. For every tale of the explosive sales the brand experienced after the release of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” catapulting sales from $20 million to $45 million, there was a story of divorce and Vans having to declare bankruptcy in 1984.
Through it all, an undeniable theme emerged from Van Doren’s storytelling.
“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,” Van Doren told FN. “When I started my factory [in Anaheim, Calif.], 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.”
Within the stories, Van Doren — whose company was acquired by VF Corp. in April 2004 for $396 million, nearly four decades after launching on a $250,000 investment — also revealed several lessons he had learned along the way. (For example, “If you know and believe in your gut and what you were doing, taking a risk isn’t risky” and “You don’t know what you don’t know, and if you don’t know, ask.”)
However, the footwear industry pioneer said there’s one lesson that stands out from the rest: no one is above getting their hands dirty.
One of the more profound stories the shoe industry veteran offered was when he was tasked with running the West Coast operations of Randolph Manufacturing Co. Upon his arrival, he noticed the departments weren’t working together, Van Doren recalled, which resulted in inefficiency and tasks going undone. To resolve this, he hired a crew to work alongside him in the factory overnight, and when the staff arrived the next morning, all of their work was done.
“One thing I learned growing up is the people who would help you, you didn’t find them in an ivory tower. Those people would never come out to help, and they don’t understand what you do. People don’t like them because they never get their hands dirty,” Van Doren told FN. “We used to say, ‘When you’re looking at somebody, look to see if their hands are dirty.’ It sounds like a stupid thing, but it isn’t. Try to find somebody in an ivory tower that gets their hands dirty. They don’t do it, and [those companies] don’t do well.”