“He was the ultimate visionary.”
That was how retailer Robert Goldberg of Harry’s Shoes in New York described Bruce R. Katz, the footwear entrepreneur who founded not one but two major brands: The Rockport Co. and Samuel Hubbard Shoe Co. Katz passed away on June 26, after suffering injuries from a fall at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. He was 75.
“Bruce created concepts that people really could relate to. And he was always ahead of the curve in terms of conceptualizing it,” Goldberg added.
Born in Newton, Mass., on Feb. 17, 1947, Katz was the third generation of a family shoemaking legacy that began with his grandfather Samuel J. Katz, who founded the first Hubbard Shoe Co. in 1930, and his father, Saul L. Katz, who was his co-founder at Rockport.
From an early age, Katz was fascinated with science, technology and “how things work” and went on to study engineering physics at Cornell University. He applied his engineering expertise to all his undertakings, particularly shoemaking.
Katz’s first entrepreneurial endeavor was Rockport, which he and his father co-founded in 1971. It disrupted the market by putting cushioned orthotic elements and athletic technology into traditional footwear and established a new category for walking shoes.
“At Rockport, we developed the first lightweight rubber-soled casual shoes, which was a revolution in what had been primarily a leather-soled industry. The Rockport ProWalker was the best walking shoe of its time,” said Werner Wyrsh, a Portugal-based shoemaker who worked closely with Katz at both of his brands.
Marketing executive Carol Cone was a consultant for Katz during the early years at Rockport and recalled how the walking movement was created. “Bruce came to me and said he wanted to build his brand differently, and he had this vision that shoes are really great for walking. But at that time, there was no walking community. So he and I set out to create that,” she said. “He made marvelous shoes, but he was also a great visionary at marketing.”
One of their biggest initiatives was sponsoring fitness enthusiast Robert Sweetgall on his walk through all 50 states, which led to a series of books and reports. Then there was the legendary stunt in 1990, when Rockport marketing head Tony Post ran the New York City Marathon in a pair of the DresSports shoes.
As the walking shoe category became a $1 billion success, Katz sold Rockport to Reebok in 1986. He spent the next 15 years exploring the world by sea, while also running multiple software and internet ventures.
“He wasn’t just about shoes,” said Peter Hanig of Hanig’s Footwear in Chicago. “I always enjoyed talking to him because he was an interesting guy. We’d talk about retail and sailing. And I always learned something from him.”
In 2013, Katz returned to footwear with the launch of Samuel Hubbard, teaming up again with Wyrsch to create a line of higher-end comfort shoes. And the founder again applied his sales savvy by capitalizing on the digital opportunities with direct-to-consumer, while also cultivating partnerships with independent retailers.
Colleagues say he also prioritized customer service. Noah Wheeler, CEO of Samuel Hubbard, recalled that one season a luxury winter boot sold out quickly with 1,000 people on
the waitlist, and the next shipment wasn’t expected for several weeks. “Bruce found out and sent them all Harry & David fruit baskets with a hand-written note apologizing for the delay. I asked him how much it would cost, and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter,’” said Wheeler. “That’s what he believed in. The core of the company is making the best quality shoe possible, but he was insistent that to create loyalty, we have to have superior customer service.”
That consideration extended to every aspect of his business. Speaking to FN in 2019, Katz described the most important advice his father gave him. “Business relationships have to be a win-win,” he said. “When Rockport was growing and we had a little money in the bank, dad said we had to send an order to a Brazilian factory for 3,000 pairs. I thought we had enough shoes, but he said it needed the order. He made me understand you have to make sure you’re winning, the factory’s winning and the customer gets what they want.”
Katz’s contributions to the footwear industry are not yet complete, however. This fall will see the introduction of the Performance Walker, what Wheeler described as “Bruce’s vision for the ultimate walking shoe.”
“It’s bittersweet that this is coming out after his passing, but I really think it’s going to be a big part of his legacy,” Wheeler added.
Wyrsh noted that he and Katz spent two years designing the Performance Walker and developed their own hybrid EVA and rubber outsole for superior grip. It also includes a new natural cork insole with arch support and a deep heel cup that offers lateral stability.
“Our dedicated team is fully committed to continue to design and develop products that are in the spirit of Bruce’s vision and ensure this is legacy will be present in every category of shoe we make,” added Wyrsh.
Katz is survived by his wife, Dasa, and their only child, Lee; brother Roger Katz, sister-in-law Karolynn Flynn and their children Abbi Hunter and Connor Katz.