By Eric Smith
When Fabrizio Gamberini was appointed as the new president of Vibram Corp., the wholly owned North American subsidiary of Italian-based Vibram SpA, he was presented with a unique opportunity to learn under his predecessor.
As a former general manager of retail and soccer for Nike, CEO for the eyewear company Marcolin USA, and CEO for the footwear and apparel company Geox, Gamberini has gone through his fair share of transitions.
But Gamberini called the succession from outgoing president and CEO Michael Gionfriddo to himself one of the “best processes ever” because of the time he has been able to spend learning both the culture and the business of the company he is taking over.
Read more: Vibram Announces Management Changes
At the recent Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Denver, CO, Gamberini, who is Italian but has been living in the U.S. since 1995, sat down with SGB in the back of Vibram’s booth, behind the company’s popular Sole Factor mobile resoling vehicle, for a wide-ranging conversation.
There, away from the noise of trade show attendees getting their shoes, boots and sandals resoled nearby, he dished on everything from the executive transition to Vibram’s place in the market to a new location in Boston to how the company has remained focused on innovation. Here’s what he had to say:
How is the handoff from Mike to you going and what has surprised you about Vibram since joining the company? It’s been one of the best processes ever. When you get appointed, the predecessor is usually either gone or on the way out. Here, instead, I’m working very closely with Mike in the transition. The differences that I see in Vibram is that it’s truly a family company with a huge passion for the success of the brand. If you look around the show, we have amazing exposure and acceptance: this is a testimony of the work done! We are all over the places brand-wise, and we are clearly the leading player in the business; it’s been also very refreshing for me to see how we can continue to grow from the bottom of the shoe (sole) to higher and assembled components too. The company has grown fast, so we’re working on refining processes and strategic direction for the future; something that I’ve seen in the first month here is there are many different activities that sometime are diluting the opportunities that we have in the marketplace. Again, this is a great family company with lots of passionate people who are inclined to bring success to the business. It’s been very good few weeks.
What are your goals as president and what is the mark you hope to leave on the company? I’m a very down to earth person and my style is very team-oriented. As president, what is important for my time at Vibram are a few things and all related to three areas: people, process and product. 1) I want to keep Vibram as the premium company in this business. My goal is to continue to reinforce the premium capability of the brand. Vibram means performance in every latitude 2) While Vibram is super well-known with a mature audience, I want to start to attract the millennials. We want to inject a little bit of youth into the brand and some of the stuff that you see here [at OR] is very much in sync with that. We want to provide awareness today to an audience that’s less familiar with Vibram. 3) I want to contribute in the definition of a brand ecosystem. We are combining our Concord, MA, and Newbury Street offices into a new space in Boston, right in front of Boston University (Commonwealth Ave). We will relocate in a prestigious Boston University building in which we will have office space in the back and a new consumer location in the front end. I want that space to become an integrated element of the overall brand picture. 4) I want us to continue to innovate and attract talents. Vibram is a unique combination of design and compound technology that allows us to provide performance. The innovation piece is becoming so important, so as the company evolves, we need to have a laser-focused attention in new technologies.
In what ways are you responsible for ensuring Vibram remains a market leader and what are your plans around that? This is a very important point for us. One of the things you’ll start seeing is us investing in the brand. This doesn’t mean advertising on TV, but it does mean investing in the brand with our partners, investing in technology, investing in specific events. We want the brand to be more visible, that is why the new location too. It all goes back to innovation. You keep the leadership position if you’re willing in invest in technology and people, and we are. Not too many companies that I’m familiar with, have been expressing the same interest in developing continuous technology.
A second area that’s very important in keeping our leadership position is knowing your customer. You need to wear the lenses of your customer if you want to drill down to the technology that you need to develop. Clearly we need to know what the athletes who use Vibram, like climbers, want from our product. But we want to address our customers who just want to go for a hike on a rainy Sunday afternoon or safely work on an oil and gas platform in Texas: we need to know their specific needs. This is a very normal strategy but it’s very intense in its collaboration with the consumer because we need to what they’re looking for.
A third area is developing our people. Testing them, putting them in different set up to train their ability in designing, developing, marketing, leading, promoting. Leveraging in our global facilities and sending them to learn about different technologies. We just had chemists engineering global meeting in China, for example.
A final way to keep leadership position is to drive always toward the biggest trends and provide a “turn-key” solution; we have developed franchises in our business like MegaGrip, LiteBase, ArticGrip, Ecostep (made from a minimum of 30 percent recycled rubber) and our efforts are toward the continuous evolution of these franchises adding new elements and potentially new platforms too.
What are the biggest challenges facing Vibram right now (whether internal or external, market or commodity driven, etc.) and how is the company handling them? When you are the leader, challenges are always coming to you. First of all, externally, if we look at the market today, our political situation is very uncertain. I would assume 80 percent of the people here [at OR] are concerned about the situation with tariffs and duties and all the related components that this administration is putting in place. Like many others, we are looking at Vietnam instead of China [for manufacturing] and asking about backup plans for the current situation. The tariff issue is rather nebulous right now, but we want to be ready. Secondly, the marketplace is doing well, but it’s doing well only for those brands that have clarity of what they are working with. Some brands will continue to grow in a big way, while some will phase out because they don’t have a clear proposition. That’s why, for us, it’s important to be sure that we’re recognized as the performance player. Third challenge is to refine our ability to launch new finished good products like Five Fingers or Furoshiki. We are so focused on serving this entire floor with the best soles ever, but we also want to add finished goods. It’s good for us and it helps with our direct-to-consumer. We are very focused here, but we need to shift our internal resources into this business.
What is the company’s response to this year’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and the new three-show schedule? Trade shows are a little bit a thing of the past—in every industry, even in my past eyewear industry. That said, it’s important to have contact with the players. This is a perfect opportunity for us to listen, to connect, to decide what to do and what not to do. November show was probably not a necessity, I’m not sure. Denver makes a lot of sense from a hospitality standpoint, but having three events is overdoing it from a product creation standout. In every industry it’s two. Adding a third one is a stretch for all. Still it’s important to be around the players since we are an ingredient of their success. I want to be here and I want to talk with them, to show them the technology and where we are going.