The North Face is no longer just satisfied with dabbling company toes in the footwear ocean. Two recent hires and a decree to the rep force to take footwear seriously indicate TNF is seeking to build on recent successes and start swimming in earnest.
On the heels of VF's announced acquisition of Vans, TNF President Mike Egeck called SNEWS��® to let us know the company just hired Johnny Hawthorne, a former vice president at Dexter, as the director of footwear sales. TNF also nabbed Leslie Meier, the former director of sales at Johnston & Murphy (it sells to accounts like Federated, May Co., Nordstrom and Marshall Fields) to become the company's New York-based director of footwear major accounts.
When TNF first launched footwear with trail runners in 1999, it was when the wheels were coming off the company. And while the shoes garnered an editor's choice award from Trail Runner magazine, the footwear really didn't fit very well and, as a result, retailers were left with a bad taste in their mouth. Still, it was that first shoe, embraced by the ultra-running community that opened the door for TNF to build on the footwear model if the company chose -- albeit with more attention to quality control.
Egeck acknowledges the checkered history, but also points out he had other things on his mind than figuring out how to immediately fix footwear when the company was acquired by VF in 2000.
"We took a hard look at all the things we needed to work on after the acquisition, and footwear was not near the top of the list," Egeck said.
By mid-2001 and into 2002, however, TNF re-launched the footwear program, this time with an in-house design development team and as a result, according to Egeck, the product growth has been going in the right direction ever since.
"We are fortunate that the consumer has a love affair with the TNF brand," Egeck told us. "Their past experience with our outerwear and equipment encourages them to try the footwear, an advantage many other brands don't enjoy. It is up to us to be sure the product stands up and meets or exceeds our consumers' expectations."
According to Egeck, the company experienced really good sell-through with the winter boot line in 2003. That success, combined with the growing strength of TNF's multisport and trail running lines, has increased TNF footwear sales nicely, up 50 percent compounded growth rate this year.
While Egeck told us the footwear line currently represents about 10 percent of the company's overall sales, he indicated TNF would like footwear to represent a third of the overall sales in the next five to six years, and he thinks that is very achievable.
"We have the product dialed, now we need to super-charge the sales efforts," Egeck said. "With the addition of Johnny and Leslie, we've added serious footwear sales experience to our corporate team. Now, we need to add more footwear selling experience to our infrastructure (at the rep level).
"In our yearly review of our sales agencies, we emphasized with them the need to acquire footwear selling experience if they don't already have it," added Egeck.
Are there any areas in the footwear line that Egeck would like to see more growth?
"We need to be stronger in all the categories," he said. "We have the right kind of momentum now and need to maintain that."
That doesn't mean TNF will try to be all things to all consumers, though. Egeck told us that while the company does produce a small offering of casual shoes and sandals, it is treated like an accessory item for the footwear program, like knit beanies are for the apparel line.
SNEWSÂ® View: Little wonder that TNF continues to be the much-talked-about darling of VF's Outdoor Coalition (TNF, Eastpak, JanSport and now Vans). From a growth standpoint, there is little not to like. Credit Egeck and his team for having the foresight early on in the process to focus on the things that needed focusing on first because that is now allowing the company to move aggressively forward with targeted growth plans, expansion of categories, and more. As for the mandate reps step up, many are doing just that, and some already had the infrastructure in place and are simply taking the sales model to another level -- California-based Outdoor Adventure Sales is one good example. In addition to representing TNF on the West Coast, it sells to REI nationwide and, as a result, has recently launched Shoe University. Read about that new venture in a related story this week about the continued success of the Outdoor Academy.