If there's one word industry vets use to describe Bruce Franks, 72, the longtime GM of Asolo USA, it's "legend." Time and again over the last quarter century, Franks reinvigorated the U.S. market for the heritage footwear brand in ways that shaped the company's direction, its impact on footwear, and its place in the outdoor world. This summer, Franks will retire. And Bill Lockwood—most recently the North American sales director for Craghoppers—will step up to fill his boots. SNEWS caught up with Lockwood to ask about Asolo, the transition, and exciting things coming down the line for the company.
Throughout your career, you've worked all over the outdoor industry. What's different about joining Asolo?
The one big change between this company and others I’ve worked for is the depth of history and the legacy that Asolo has in the footwear world. There are a couple levels of learning that I’ve gone through. I mean, here I am dealing with a footwear company that can trace its origins back to World War II, to the beginning of the modern-day Italian hiking boot.
My introduction all started last week. I traveled to Nervesa della Battaglia, to the corporate offices of Asolo Italy, to meet the five generations of people that currently occupy that building. From Luca and Marco’s father [Ambrosiano Zanatta], who still comes to work on a daily basis to walk the production floor and keep an eye on what he’s built, to Ludovica who is actually his granddaughter now heading up social media and international marketing. It starts there, diving into the history and then looking at what pillars the company stands under: innovation, fit, and quality.
What are your initial plans for moving the company forward?
I think the three pillars of innovation, fit, and quality give me a very wide bandwidth for what we bring to the U.S. market and how that works synergistically with what we’re doing in Italy. In term of innovation, we're completely revamping the core hiking category for spring 2021, and then after that, spring 2022 will probably see a revamp of the light hiking or mountain trekking categories. We're constantly changing things, and Asolo USA is always part of that conversation.
One big thing that will happen under my watch is a shift in some of our production. Right now, about 90 percent of our boot production is coming out of Romania, but we're in the process of moving a lot of that to Vietnam. That's obviously going to present a lot of challenges with the coronavirus restrictions, so we're in the process of figuring out how to work around those.
Even with this new production, it's my job to make sure we're still adhering to the pillar of quality that guides everything. We’ve established a long-term relationship with a very old factory in Vietnam. That was definitely one of my big quality considerations, to use a single factory. It sets us apart from many brands where the production is handled by an agent who might farm out the operations to multiple people.
What challenges and issues are top of mind for you, going into the job?
In the current market, probably the biggest challenge these days is for brands to have a solid relationship with their retailers. Everything is moving so fast; unless a relationship between a brand and a retailer is truly a two-way street, it’s not worth it. There are just too many good brands out there. I think that relationship is more important than it’s ever been.
There are also challenges with what it means to be a legacy brand, and what people expect from that. Having a boot like the TPS 520, for instance, which is such a hugely successful product, there’s an interesting conundrum that sometimes comes up. People use a pair of boots like that for 10 years until they’ve seen the end of their life, but then for some reason the customer might come back believing that product should be under warranty. Because our industry is so focused on lifetime warranties, it occasionally creates a disconnect. The true question at that point is, have these boots served their purpose?
And just to be clear, we at Asolo have one of the longest warranties of any hiking boot manufacturer—two years. Most of the industry offers 60 days. For any boot older than three years but younger than five, we offer a complimentary resole. We like people to continue to enjoy the product. But there’s a reason REI and L.L.Bean no longer do the lifetime money-back guarantee. As much as those guarantees were a reason for customers to trust a retailer, I think over time so many of them were abused enough that, now, they no longer exist. It's a problem that lots of legacy brands face.
What will the transition process look like over the next few months?
I’m working side by side with Bruce through the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in June, when Bruce will say his farewells to the industry and push me out to sea on my own. I’m super excited about it. There are some great things in the pipeline for us in the spring of 2021 and I don’t think there’s a better time for both our products to get refreshed and for the management team to see some refreshment as well. I can go as far as saying some core elements in the hiking boot line are being renewed. It’s very exciting.
How does Bruce feel about leaving?
Bruce has been very thoughtful in the transition. Everyone in Italy was so happy with Bruce and everything he’s achieved here. They weren’t necessarily looking for a change. It was Bruce saying, "I’ve got only so many years on this planet and I want to make the best of what I can." Even now, Bruce is still the first one in the office on a daily basis and the last one to leave. He's still extremely passionate about footwear and about the brand. To me, that passion is like my guiding light.