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Allbirds, Wolverine, Caleres CEOs on Navigating the New Normal

2020 has provided countless challenges for retail and for the leaders helming the sector’s brands.

At the Footwear News Virtual Summit on Tuesday, footwear executives came together to discuss changes in operations, corporate culture and business stemming from the events of recent months. The spread of the coronavirus has provided a backdrop for change that can no longer wait.

“I was around in 1987 when we had the stock market collapse on Black Monday, for the currency crashes of the late ‘90s, the dot-com crash and the Great Recession,” said Blake Krueger, chairman, CEO and president of Wolverine Worldwide. While those experiences couldn’t prepare him for the challenges of 2020, he said, living through them informed his perspective on how to lead the company through a crisis.

Krueger said his team quickly realized that they needed to organize their priorities into manageable segments. Initially, they would focus on getting through the first 90 days of the pandemic. Then, they would develop a strategy for the remainder of the calendar year. Finally, they would look to 2021 and beyond, to a time when the pandemic has hopefully subsided or lessened in intensity.

“We tried to make all of our decisions within those three timeline segments,” he said, prioritizing urgent matters like employee safety and job security, and then looking to emerging consumer data to try and understand shoppers’ needs for the future.

The data—or lack thereof—represented a new hurdle for Bay Area upstart Allbirds, according to co-founding CEO Joey Zwillinger. The uncertainty surrounding shoppers’ appetites, the state of the economy and the spread of the pandemic made it difficult to set expectations and priorities.

“Early on in this crisis, I felt at times like we had a hand tied behind our backs when we were making decisions because of the lack of consistent, quality information,” he said. “It’s so multi-variant, in terms of the stock market, economic well being, government incentive programs to help kickstart the economy, and the specifics around the virus itself.”

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To deal with the anxieties of the current retail climate, Zwillinger said he has had to adopt a more stoic attitude.

“This is really hard for every business and retail is obviously getting pounded, but let’s think about the things we can control,” he said. The health crisis, he added, is an “independent variable” that is impossible to harness or predict.

Now, Zwillinger and the Allbirds team are focused on reassuring employees and supply-chain partners who are all anxious about the economic fallout and what it could mean for their livelihoods. The company aimed to provide clarity and transparency about the state of the business and scenarios for the future. “Health and safety comes first, but economic vitality has to be next,” he said.

Zwillinger said that as time goes on, consumer data is becoming more reliable. “Patterns have offered a little more evidence and the veil of uncertainty has lifted a little bit,” he said. Looking to sales in countries on the other side of coronavirus recovery has provided a valuable indicator of what an eventual return to normalcy could look like stateside.

Diane Sullivan, CEO, president and chairman of footwear firm Caleres, said the company operated “with an incredible sense of urgency” in the early days of the pandemic, prioritizing the health of workers across the board. “We wanted to act with as much compassion as possible,” she said.

In addition to work-from-home policies and necessary furloughs, the company shuttered brand stores and worked to reallocate inventory appropriately to its own channels and those of its wholesale partners.

As the company has had to implement structural changes for the health of the business, Sullivan said keeping morale high has ben a challenge. “How do you help everyone stay optimistic about the future?” she said. It takes stamina to remain forward-looking, she said. It has also been difficult to develop a clear-cut plan for the coming months while remaining flexible enough to tackle new challenges if—or when—they arise.

“It’s a challenging and actually amazing time to learn a lot about yourself, your teammates, and your company, and what you can do,” she said.

The pandemic has served to accelerate some industry trends that will change the way that brands do business, likely forever, Sullivan added. “The drive to e-commerce, the importance of innovation, working from home, the way we consume—all of that is changing,” she said. “We feel more certain that’s where everyone is moving.”

Zwillinger echoed the sentiment that life post-COVID will likely be forever changed, and company culture will undoubtedly reflect that evolution. Many teams across Allbirds have demonstrated the ability to work remotely during this time, he said, but the alienation from teammates has also highlighted the value of togetherness. “I love bringing the energy when I walk around the office and having those informal chats,” he said, “and now it’s taking place over a scheduled video call.”

It’s yet to be seen what the creative process looks like for the company 12 months from now, which is a particular point of worry for him as a leader. “I do think it’s never going to be a nine-to-five requirement, with no flexibility and no ability to work remotely again,” he said.

According to Krueger, “people are social animals,” and Wolverine’s culture is set by individuals coming together. “I think some work habits and some parts of the work environment have changed forever,” he said, but eventually, teams will need to “come back, walk the halls and interact.”

“As we’ve gone through this experience, everyone tries to bifurcate it and say, ‘It’s going to be this way,’ or, ‘It’s going to be that way,’” Sullivan said. “It’s probably going to be somewhere in the middle—we’re going to figure out the best way.”

Brands can transact and execute tasks well remotely, Sullivan said of her experience over the past few months. “I have yet to see how we will build and grow virtually,” she said. Likely, teams will need to come together in person to develop viable, forward-facing strategies.