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How Manitobah Mukluks Is Balancing Expansion & Staying True to Indigenous Roots

After receiving a major financial investment from Endeavour Capital of Seattle in 2021, Manitobah Mukluks went into major growth mode. The Canadian company appointed industry veteran Greg Tunney as CEO to focus on expansion in the U.S. And founder Sean McCormick moved to the role of chief impact officer while remaining on the board.

Since then, the footwear brand that’s known for its Indigenous roots has grown significantly, opening its own stores and adding Dillard’s, Farfetch, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Zappos.com as partners. The company also continues its focus on social impact having signed The Climate Pledge and applying for its B Corp certification, for instance.

Recently, Tunney and McCormick spoke with FN to talk more about growth opportunities and challenges.

What does it take to operate a mission-based business?

Sean McCormick: “It [begins] with how the company started in 1997. My background, I’m Métis. I’m half Indigenous, half Caucasian. It just was always about having a deeper respect on where these particular products came from and the culture associated with it. Now, I would say one of the words that sticks out to me is ‘intentionality.’ Everything we do, we have to view through this lens of asking ourselves who are we and always going back to that mission. Before Greg and Endeavor joined the company, it was very grassroots and organic because it just was me. And since they joined, one of my tasks has been to formalize and build more structures, so we created playbooks as standard operating procedures for our social impact department to work with all other departments.”

How are you supporting Indigenous communities?

Greg Tunney: “Sean set up the four pillars of our foundation. The first one is everything that we do is to support Indigenous artists. There isn’t anything that we designed that hasn’t come from an Indigenous artist first and foremost. The second part is the Indigenous marketplace that provides a platform for authentic Indigenous art to be sold, and the artisans get 100% of the proceeds. The third one is our Manitobah Mukluk Storyboot School, which is an educational opportunity for students across Canada, where they can learn about the history of the culture and it teaches traditional mukluk and moccasin-making skills. The last part is economic sovereignty. A lot of that has to do with us hiring Indigenous people, giving them economic opportunities to grow.”

How far has the industry come in terms of representation?

SM: “I give a lot of credit to the younger generations — Generation Z, the millennials — for forcing
companies and brands to get on board. There’s still a ton of appropriation out there, but we provide a really great example of, if you’re an Indigenous kid like me growing up with no connection to business, to see what’s possible. I also think about the example we set for other businesses and other brands. You can do things the right way, you do not have to separate your morals from profit and growth. You can make them coexist.”

How are you able to evolve and innovate while also staying true to your heritage?

GT: “[Retailers] like Dillard’s, where we had one of our best performances last year, focused on our classics but they also brought in the new product with it. So they balanced each other out.”

SM: “There’s nothing wrong with innovation, and Indigenous people have been innovating for, you know, 100,000 years. We have this amazing wealth and rich history to draw from, so it’s about working with progressive, contemporary Indigenous artists out there in our community who want a platform.”

In terms of categories, where is the biggest opportunity?

GT: “We think that the men’s side is a big opportunity, just because we’re so underpenetrated in it. In
the women’s product, the biggest opportunity this coming year is color. You’re going to see this kind
of pop of color that you haven’t seen from us before.”

Where are you aiming to expand?

GT: “Last year, we went after a big e-com push, and our U.S. ecommerce business is up over 45%. That was beyond my expectations. Our biggest focus now is to continue to drive that and what’s going on within our own stores. Plus, continuing to expand our wholesale business. You have to realize, we haven’t even opened up independents in the United States yet. We’ve been focused on the majors. So as we get more production availability, we will continue to expand there as well.”

How important is opening your own retail stores?

GT: “When we first started together, nobody was thinking about building out stores. That was something that Sean pushed, so we launched stores this past year in Edmonton, Calgary, in Toronto and in Winnipeg. This year, we’re looking at adding three or four more markets in Canada. And in the United States, we’re looking at places like Park City, Utah; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Grand Junction, Colo. We’re not looking to put them in L.A. or New York.”

What is your biggest challenge?

GT: “Going into 2023, it is how do we continue to expand and explode our awareness? And how fast and how accurate can we get our brand social impact out there? Because when we do, the consumer responds.”

SM: “I have concerns about the macroeconomic conditions. But we got the playbook down. We’ve had some tremendous success at retail and wholesale, and it’s now just pushing forward a little bit more.”

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