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SNEWS Qs: Freewaters CEO John Vance talks issues and innovation

Freewaters CEO John Vance chats with SNEWS about footwear trends, industry issues and innovation.

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Every outdoor footwear company aims to make great shoes. But Freewaters Footwear is the brainchild of two friends from California – Eli Marmar and Martin Kim – who wanted to do a bit more.


SNEWS recently picked the brain of Freewaters CEO John Vance, previously of Raichle Molitor USA, Quicksilver and Sanuk, about trends in the footwear industry, what’s in store for Spring ’14 and the problems facing the industry.

Vance noted co-founder Kim’s background as a shoe and boot designer at DC and Burton, and Marmar’s as a wetsuit designer for O’Neill. Both graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and wanted not only to create a fresh casual footwear brand, but also to embrace the concept of social entrepreneurship.

As surfers, they had an appreciation for the healing power of water and growing water crisis; now 1 percent of Freewaters’ top line directly funds clean drinking water projects.

Tell us about your history with Freewaters Footwear:
I first met Martin and Eli shortly after we had successfully sold Sanuk and I had left the company. I had looked at over 40 companies at that point, and the chemistry between the three of us and the level of product just felt right. On July 1, 2012, I formally joined the company as president and CEO. Shortly thereafter, we added two additional colleagues of mine from Sanuk, industry veterans CFO Bob Kelley and VP of Sales John Gothard. These hires set the foundation to build the rest of the team. There are high expectations and excitement in the marketplace, as Freewaters is the newest casual footwear and sandal brand to come along in over seven years now. From what we’ve been hearing in the retail community, our timing is really good, too!

How has footwear evolved during your time in the outdoor industry?
The last decade has seen such an upheaval in design thinking and consumer acceptance. It’s just been amazing. From the first lightweight trail boots to minimalist Five Finger designs, to today’s casual canvas hanging footwear that travel light and are super-comfortable. The choices now seem endless. At Freewaters, we are focusing on the latter and are working hard to establish our brand as the traveler’s shoe brand. Light, comfortable and packable. Our new ad campaign is called, “Road Trippin,’” and I think that pretty much sums up what we are all about. I think going forward, you will see a continual effort to use lighter more breathable fabrics and materials, while seeing hybrid outsole constructions that combine flexibility, comfort and durability into a functional yet stylish package. For sure, the best is yet to come!

What are some emerging trends you’re seeing in footwear?
There are of course many, but for us it is this idea of a shoe that is light, ultra-comfortable and packable. This is something every surfer, outdoorsman or traveler is looking for. We want to be the shoe you wear when not riding your bike, surfing or rock climbing.

What are some trends you think we’ll be seeing in Spring ’14 lines at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market?
I can only speak for Freewaters. We will be expanding our Therm-a-Rest collection into women’s sandals and shoes. We will also be introducing a totally new construction in lightweight casual shoes, and a greatly expanded line of sandals. We will be introducing an entire collection of Hemp product for shoes and sandals, as well as announcing that Freewaters is now the official footwear company for Bruce Brown Entertainment. Freewaters will be releasing a number of new sandal styles celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic film “Endless Summer.” It’s some pretty fun stuff!

What are some challenges facing the outdoor industry — and how can we work to address them?
The biggest challenge we face is the consolidation at retail. It is imperative that we work to keep our independent retailers vibrant and alive. To do this, I feel that we as an industry need to work closer with the retail community to support them and their customer. This may seem like just the normal blah, blah, blah from an industry exec, but little things like easy warranty returns and stock rotations are super-beneficial for the retailer.

Also, everyone wants and needs to grow. It’s just a fact of basic business, but we need to be smarter about it. In the surf industry, I believe the idea that you can sell membership clubs or selling through their own brick-and-mortar stores is fundamentally wrong. A showcase shop in Times Square or Disneyland is one thing, but to have over 400 single branded stores across the country is only undermining the very folks that got you there. I think highlighting your best online partners on your website is another way to help direct customers to dealers. It’s not done much any more. On the retail side, I think it’s important to keep the “special” in specialty shop. Be sure to set aside a certain amount of “open to buy” for emerging brands. Revisit how you incentivize your employees and how to increase customer satisfaction. Nordstrom is a good example of this. They don’t sell anything special or exclusive to them, yet they dominate in their space even against discounters like Macy’s. There is a lot to be learned there. So, these little things are in fact huge if you plan on competing with the big box down the street or the Internet.

What is your favorite thing about working in the outdoor industry?
The people involved. I know this sounds trite, but every year we invite four groups of four dealers down to spend four days with us in the Los Cabos region of Baja. It is such an inspiring event, as you really get to know them as people and really get a chance to fully understand their challenges. We always like to say that it’s amazing what you can learn after four beers in the hot desert. It’s true, the folks become more than customers, they become business partners in the truest sense of the word. And these relationships last for decades. Obviously this industry has afforded me way more time outside than I deserve. I think that element is what draws most of us to it in the first place. I think we are all very lucky to be involved in a lifestyle as opposed to just working in a normal 9-to-5 job.

What didn’t we ask that might be relevant to our readers?
I just think it’s important to know that each of us can make a difference. Whether it’s in your local community, the way you run your business, a charity or cause that you believe in. Get involved in something and make it count. It can be as simple as a contest at your local beach or cleaning up trails in the mountains. Be different. That two to three degrees of difference is what separates the Apples from the PCs. It works in everything you do. Stand out. To have your message heard above the roar of the crowd you need to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. Make service a cornerstone of your business and place customer experience at the top of your priority list. Great customer service is almost a lost art, and it’s so easy to do. Keep it fun. Be that purple cow in a sea of brown ones.