By Eric Smith
When Bill Dodge was named CEO of Garmont North America in 2014, he took the reins of a footwear company that was emerging from bankruptcy, adjusting to new private ownership, repositioning after shedding its ski boot division and searching for a U.S. headquarters locale.
But under the leadership of Dodge, an industry veteran who left Wolverine World Wide to rebuild Garmont North America—a subsidiary of Italian-based Garmont International S.r.l.—the company was able to regain its financial footing, part of which included securing new stateside digs in New Hampshire.
Dodge has both experienced and engineered plenty of transition in the past four years, but through all this change, he has witnessed a consistent theme at Garmont: The company has an extremely loyal coterie of brand enthusiasts who stood by its products amid all the comings and goings, ins and outs, ups and downs.
As Dodge told SGB recently, the die-hard fans clamored for Garmont boots even during the company’s struggles. They lamented its decision to sell the winter and ski boot production to Scott Sports. And they applauded as Dodge and his team breathed much-needed life into the North American operation, which is now gaining momentum across the brand—especially in Tactical footwear—while also adding new doors in targeted retail channels.
“The business continues to grow at a very nice pace,” Dodge said. “It appears that spring/summer 2019 will be a tipping point for the brand, as we have added a large number of both outdoor and shoe specialty accounts. We are fortunate; there is a lot of love for the brand. Retailers are now seeing Garmont emerge carrying on a tradition of launching progressive new products.”
Here is the rest of what Dodge shared with SGB about Garmont’s past, present and future, and how he is working to continually and successfully steward the brand during its renaissance.
What’s driving growth for the company in 2018, and in what categories is the brand strongest? Our mountain and approach categories have always been strong. But it is our light hiking and lifestyle which is now gaining the most attention. The Santiago light hiker in both men’s and women’s, mids and lows, have sold well. These are full-featured shoes, which offer a nice trim look and feel, different from most classic hikers. We are just beginning to ship the new Karakum in men’s and Atacama in women’s. Both these models represent a compelling blend of performance and lifestyle. For spring 19, the Tikal is going to do really well. Retailers keep telling us there is nothing else like it—an outdoor shoe designed to be worn barefoot. Importantly, with growth comes economies of scale. We have been able to adjust our pricing beginning this Fall 2018. Garmont quality and fit is now available at very compelling prices.
You’ve been CEO of Garmont North America for almost four years now; what have been the highlights of your time so far at the company? This brand is a gem. Garmont builds beautiful, high-quality footwear, and unlike a lot of European brands, the fit is ideal for the North American foot. The team in Italy really understands how to sculpt beautifully shaped lasts. A highlight for me is the talented team we have assembled in North America who are all extremely passionate about the brand. We have grown quickly with a start-up mentality representing a cherished brand.
What are some notable challenges that have emerged, and how have you and the team handled them? The quickly evolving marketplace offers both big challenges and big opportunities. It is not easy for any new challenger because the market is full of very good brands. However, the timing has been good in that we have been able to build a business model based on the needs of the current marketplace. We are tightly connected with our consumers and have the ability to communicate with them every day. We do this by encouraging communication on our website, having relevant ambassadors, getting outside and simple but important things like answering the customer service phone line and listening closely. As in any startup, we certainly have not been perfect, but we pride ourselves on addressing challenges head-on and making constant progress.
How has your extensive footwear background benefitted your tenure at Garmont? I have experience in almost all business disciplines which has been very helpful and necessary to re-start the business. My background enables me to be a skilled resource manager with access to many, many talented folks. We have now assembled a powerful group that will take the brand to great heights.
What’s the relationship like with the HQ in Italy? Do you work closely with corporate, or is the North American division fairly autonomous? The new Italian ownership made the commitment to this market by opening a full service subsidiary, not a distributorship. We are one company with little daylight between HQ and subsidiary. It helps that the North American market is recognized as the greatest opportunity for growth. As a result we work closely together on product and marketing strategies.
What’s the Garmont brand reach like in North America, and where do you see opportunity to grow that reach? We are fortunate to have a very loyal core following. These are consumers that are simply in love with the brand. Until now we have focused on spreading that love by getting retail owners and buyers to try the shoes for themselves. We have given away a lot of shoes! It is very effective. In addition, we have a very strong retail staff purchase program. We also extend the brand love through our ambassador program by weaving together a group of communicators involved in a mix of activities that we feel reflects the interests of our broader consumer base.
How is the brand approaching marketing here—any unique campaigns that have been successful or anything coming up that you can discuss? Our focus has been on getting the word out that the brand is back, mostly through social channels. This has been effective to help build out our distribution base. Watch us closely over the next several seasons. We have carefully planned out some unique product launches. Garmont has a history of success by looking at the market in a unique way. We plan to carry forward that tradition and continue to create new concepts that surprise and delight consumers.
What channels have performed best for Garmont, and what role is e-commerce playing for the company? E-commerce is a strong part of our overall business. It has enabled us to quickly reconnect with our most loyal consumers. This has helped to quickly build awareness that the brand is back and is more interesting than ever. In turn, this has had a positive impact on our specialty retail business. We will more than double our brick-and-mortar specialty retail presence in spring/summer 2019. We talk every day with our most loyal consumers and listen to where they like to shop. This is how we build out our retail distribution targets both at the store level and e-commerce.
On a personal note, any chance of Garmont reviving its telemark boots? Unfortunately, the ski boot business is what got Garmont into financial trouble in past years. It is a very difficult business for ongoing success. Our complete focus is now on Outdoor, Lifestyle and Tactical footwear.
Photo courtesy Garmont