Boston-based Rockport set the standard for comfort footwear nearly 45 years ago. When New Balance and Berkshire Partners LLC acquired the brand in 2015, a move that placed Rockport and New Balance-owned brands Cobb Hill, Aravon and Dunham, all under the newly-minted comfort conglomerate called The Rockport Group.
Bob Infantino, the comfort shoe veteran with more than 30 years of experience, was the obvious person to lead the charge. As The Rockport Group CEO, Infantino has the unique opportunity to reboot the brands both individually and as a family.
“As a stand-alone company, we are no longer in the shadow of an athletic shoe parent. We are fully responsible for our own successes and failures, our corporate culture and our reputation in the industry,” said Infantino. “This is both a challenge and an opportunity, but one that everyone on our team has wholeheartedly embraced.”
VAMP: What’s the status of comfort footwear for Spring ‘17?
Infantino: More than ever, style and trend relevance is critical. Consumers around the globe are picking up on trends earlier and demanding that their comfort footwear follow suit. So we’re seeing lots of block heels and open-toed or perfed booties for women. In the men’s arena, the athleisure trend certainly isn’t slowing down so we are seeing more and more patterns, including dress, on athletic outsoles.
VAMP: What are some challenges in running a comfort shoe conglomerate?
Infantino: Like any company with multiple brands in its portfolio, the biggest challenge is creating a unique value proposition so that each brand can live alongside each other. A little competition is healthy but we have to be careful that the Aravon, Dunham and Rockport brands each have their rightful place out on the retail floor.
VAMP: What does it mean to be a Boston brand?
Infantino: Here in Boston we are surrounded by people who literally grew up in the shoe industry. We have employees who grew up in their parents’ shoe stores or who work in the shoe factories when the area was full of them. That history of shoemaking really makes a difference in our culture and in our dedication to the art of shoemaking.
VAMP: What was your first job in footwear?
Infantino: I started in footwear back in 1971 when I was an assistant buyer at Altier Shoes, a small chain in upstate New York. I loved the hustle and the relationships with my co-workers and customers.
VAMP: Who do you admire the most in the footwear industry?
Infantino: The small independent retailer. In today’s digital marketplace, their challenges are real but they are committed to a unique set of values that harken back to a different era. They’re creating jobs, launching brands, offering unmatched customer service and oftentimes are pillars of their community.
VAMP: What are some important qualities to have in order to succeed in the footwear industry?
Infantino: You need to be humble enough to know you don’t have all the answers and you can get those answers by listening to your team, your retail partners and most importantly your consumers.
VAMP: Was there a moment when you knew that you would be involved in footwear for the long haul?
Infantino: When I first met Bruce Katz back in 1973. He and his father had created a new brand called Rockport and they had found a way to make everyday casual shoes feel like athletic shoes. No one had done that before. I was a buyer for a small chain of shoe stores and bought 4,400 pairs on the spot. They were a huge hit and the rest is history.
VAMP: What is your favorite part of your job?
Infantino: That’s easy. Bringing people together to achieve a common goal and enjoying every step of that journey.