On the heels of a major shift in leadership at Vasque with the departure of Connelly, Day, and Tackle, and after the resulting coverage of the turnover in SNEWS® — click here to read SNEWS® was invited to fly to the Red Wing headquarters to sit down with company CEO and President David Murphy to discuss corporate strategy and brand direction. Murphy agreed to answer any question we asked with the intention that he felt we’d be able to better report to the industry once we had a full grasp of all the facts, as well as an inside look into the mindset of the Vasque team. What follows is a digest of our conversation with Murphy:
How important, really, is the Vasque brand name now to Red Wing?
Financially, the company does not need exorbitant profits from Vasque to make its numbers. Emotionally, Vasque means as much to the Red Wing company as anything.
Vasque had been losing market share at a remarkably consistent rate over the last five years at least. Then, under John Connelly, Vasque began to achieve recognition again only to see Connelly move on and everyone looking at you and wondering why. What happened?
When we built the business plan last year, I had never been through a planning cycle at this company before and there were a bunch of things in our plan that were not quite right. Those mistakes are owned by me and some of our financial folks. We have made adjustments and are moving forward positively. Economically, we can afford to invest in the Vasque business to get it back to where we want it to be, but what is clear is that we can’t have a brand that is subsidized for life by Red Wing. We want to be modest in our expectations and aggressive in our passion to get the brand back on track.
In one of our last SNEWS® Views, we said, “Vasque still has some very talented folks on board, and Vasque retains strong brand loyalty among many specialty retailers, but will that be enough to achieve the volume success Redwing management is probably mandating?” Care to comment?
That’s a fair statement, but only when you realize that we are only going to try to leverage the resources of Red Wing to better, not burden the brand. There is simply no way we’re going to mandate steel toes in hiking shoes — ever! We don’t want to be a company with decisions made by Dave Murphy or a company that is making Vasque products developed by Red Wing. Additionally, our focus is not about volume. Red Wing accounts for 80 percent of our business with Worx making up 10 percent and Vasque and Irish Setter each bringing in 5 percent. Ten years ago, Vasque accounted for 20 percent of our business. All of that is good news and bad news — we can certainly afford to invest in Vasque and are. My goal near term — over the next couple of years — is to get back to one half of what we once were, and I think that is reasonable because we can achieve that growth through innovation. Our dealers are telling us that Vasque used to be the leader in high performance outdoor footwear and — you know what? — we have permission to be that again as long as we deliver the goods.
You mention innovation. Frankly, it’s a buzzword we hear all too much and it is often heavy on rhetoric, light on substance. How are you defining innovation?
True innovation causes expansion of a market if it honestly meets a need. When Teva was first introduced, the sandal they brought to market was demonstrably different and it brought in many new users to the market. I believe, although on a much smaller scale, that there will be more people buying mountaineering boots because of what we developed last year. A market needs innovation to grow and that is fact. Why has the computer business flattened and stabilized? Because there is nothing demonstratably different to cause the consumer to pay attention. I ask myself if we could perhaps develop a product that gets kids using Vasque. Is there a way to create and embrace the outdoor extreme lifestyle with footwear? Can we create a shoe that adjusts in volume to accommodate different foot shapes more readily? As new sports and trends develop, do we have a shoe developing along with it or leading the way? All of these embrace the notion of innovation to meet a need and make a difference. The bottom line in my opinion is if we can create something that makes our dealers say “cool” we might actually have something. Innovation is also about taking calculated risks. Putting a Stealth sole on our Talus is risky. It offers a real benefit, but on the other hand, it puts a marking sole on a shoe that is often worn indoors. So far, the indications are we might have a hit.… We’ll see.
Innovation is great, but Vasque needs to reestablish its dealer base too. How do you propose winning back the loyalty of dealers who may have decided another brand is a better investment for their retail wall space?
I’m very specific about meeting the needs of our dealers by ensuring them through practice that we are a brand that will help them grow their business. We will do that by paying close attention to the specialty outdoor retailers. Vasque will work to become far more consumer- and customer-focused. We promise that we are committed to product innovation and quality for the outdoor performance market. We will remain connected to the outdoor industry. Vasque will partner with our reps and customers. We will be willing to adjust our systems to meet our dealers’ needs. And, perhaps this is the most important point, we want to be the most respected footwear brand with our buyers, not the biggest.
Nice to know what you want Vasque to be. How about telling SNEWS® what you don’t want Vasque to be?
We don’t want to be a brand known for inconsistent customer service. We don’t want to be a brand with mass appeal. We don’t want Vasque to be a secondary division of a workboot company. We also don’t want Vasque to be a division of Red Wing with no accountability. Vasque must always be accountable to its parent company and to its customers.
How do you want Vasque to be viewed by your consumers?
A brand with high-performance footwear that offers consistent quality with superior styling.
And by your retail dealers?
A brand that offers innovation that meets real needs with unsurpassed service, exciting retail marketing, timely execution and delivery of product, and committed to growth both of the brand and our retailers.