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Matt Rubel

The chief executive of Collective Brands expects a new showroom and head office will instigate rapid UK growth for its brands, including Keds and Sperry Top-Sider

Shirts off, bikinis on, let’s go,” says Matt Rubel, chief executive of US footwear giant Collective Brands, referring to the “attitude” of Sperry Top-Sider, which he believes has built on its success as a boat shoe label to become a more rounded, trend-led footwear brand.

“Sperry reignited the boat shoe trend three years ago but the brand itself has now gone beyond that to an aspirational, lifestyle brand focused in, on and around the water.”

Indeed Sperry Top-Sider, which is part of the Collective Brands portfolio that includes casual brand Keds and running shoe label Saucony, was partly responsible for the renaissance of the deck shoe in spring 09. No longer the preserve of Oxbridge types with upturned collars, the deck shoe moved into the mainstream of casual men’s footwear thanks to the US brand’s array of colours and fabrications. Sperry Top-Sider’s sales are now up fourfold in the UK, says Rubel.

But there’s still work to be done. In the UK alone, Rubel plans to triple sales over a five-year period across the three brands, hence the opening of the company’s first London showroom on Regent Street in June. A new, combined European head office and distribution centre has also opened in the Netherlands, consolidating warehouses and tripling Collective Brands’ capacity in Europe. In 2007, Rubel, then chief executive of 4,200-strong US discount footwear chain Payless ShoeSource, led the acquisition of kids’ footwear business Stride Rite to form Collective Brands, now the £3bn parent company of Payless, Start-rite, Keds, Saucony and Sperry Top-Sider.

“We opened the London showroom to show our commitment to building a connection with customers and retail partners [in the UK], and to put our people in the middle of the action. We want to make sure we’re in the centre of what’s happening,” Rubel explains. “Our business is quite strong with Keds and Saucony - the UK is our number one market in Europe largely because of Saucony - but it should be number one for all three brands over time.”

Marketing the message

How he will do that, however, remains a little unclear. Like a politician, Rubel is careful not to give too much away, preferring instead to give a more general - and somewhat vague - response.

“It’s really about focus,” he says. “Saucony has done a great job of focusing on technical product, and we are making headway in Keds. We are [working] more closely with our retail partners, creating great product that really resonates [with the customer] and making sure each brand has exciting product and exciting marketing behind it.”

Marketing could well be the key, especially for the more trend-led brands Keds and Sperry Top-Sider. According to one footwear retailer that stocks Keds, the brand was at its peak two years ago, due in part to a tie-up with actress Mischa Barton for spring 07 and autumn 07 and also because of the popularity of the canvas, rubber sole trend led by Converse. In 2008, Keds was shortlisted for the Brand of the Year prize at the Drapers Footwear Awards.

“Two years ago, Keds was probably in our top 10, but it’s slipped now because that’s how fashion goes,” says the footwear retailer. “Its strength lies in the way it does business. It’s quite flexible with stock and deliveries and they are good people to work with.”

Rubel is all too aware that the success of his brands to date in the UK has been achieved without “infrastructure and [much] marketing,” he says.

“But this shows that the UK consumer loves our product. They love Saucony because it is the best performance shoe in the world, so we will continue to drive innovation there. In Keds and Sperry, it’s for the style and design. Collective Brands is not the important brand - each brand is important in itself. The beauty of them being owned by Collective Brands is that we can invest in them, provide the infrastructure and focus on the individual consumer for each brand.”

Looking online

One of the ideas that Rubel is looking to bring from the US to the UK is one where shoppers can design their own Keds shoes and sell them online, making 10% on the sale. Collective Brands does not have transactional websites for its brands in the UK, but Rubel is planning to launch these within a year and the aim is that online will represent 5% of total UK turnover.

“Keds is about fun fashion,” says Rubel of the customer design concept, before adding in a British accent: “You can all be so serious about fashion.”

In fact, Rubel is pretty laid back about growth in the UK, where Collective Brands has 500 accounts including Office, Russell & Bromley and Schuh for Keds, and John Lewis and Asos for Sperry Top-Sider, despite the British Retail Consortium’s conclusion last month that footwear had one of its worst monthly sales performances in July for a year in the UK.

Among Rubel’s plans is to “explore one or two standalone stores for one brand, but it isn’t a primary goal,” he says. Neither is bringing the Payless ShoeSource concept to the UK, although he hasn’t ruled that out either.

Sourcing in general is currently being addressed with the opening of the Netherlands head office, and countries other than China will play an increasingly important role. China is Collective Brands’ biggest sourcing market, “but not necessarily for Europe,” says Rubel. “We have to do more sourcing out of countries that are more duty-friendly to Europe, like Vietnam and Brazil, but we’re ready to go.”

Not even the consolidation of the UK footwear sector a couple of years ago, which saw big high street names such as Dolcis exit the UK market, concerns Rubel. “We’ve already penetrated the UK market, it’s a matter of growing now with increased marketing, local affiliations and working with local brands, designers and athletes,” he explains. “We’re growing by double digits in the UK. Why should I be worried?”


Which is your favourite retailer?

[Organic food retailer] Whole Foods, because I love the format and it’s fresh and exciting.

Who is your industry mentor and why?

I have many for different areas of business. Arthur Cinader, the founder of [US casualwear retailer] J Crew, on knowing your consumer and how to connect with them; Collective Brands board director Scott Olivet on articulating your strategy, [designer] Tommy Hilfiger on building out an idea and finally Tom Clarke at Nike on how to build a brand and business while letting each one flourish.

Who is your favourite designer?

Ray Hunt, who designed the deep V-hull for boats. It looks amazing, works across power boating and sailing, and is the foundation of the boating industry.

Where do you like to shop?

Typically I shop a lot when I travel and I’m very eclectic. I always go to designer retailer Mitchells/Richards in Connecticut.

What was the last item of clothing or footwear that you bought?

Sperry Top-Siders, of course. The new split-toe style from the Gold Cup Series - it marries comfort and style beautifully.

What are the key differences between the UK and the US footwear markets?

The UK market allows for more diversity in taste. The US is more focused.

What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)?

I would love to be a producer for Broadway or television. Storytelling in these venues would be exciting.


2008 Chairman, chief executive and president, Collective Brands

2007 Leads acquisition of Stride Rite Corporation to form Collective Brands, which swallows up Payless. Becomes chief executive and president

2005 Chief executive and president, Payless ShoeSource

1999 Chairman, president and chief executive, Cole Haan

1994 Executive vice-president, J Crew Group

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