Bearpaw is celebrating 20 years in business, and founder and president Tom Romeo has no plans to slow down.
To celebrate this anniversary, Bearpaw has relaunched its very first boot, the Eva model in sheepskin. In addition, the brand will donate $ 20,000 to the Tahoe Fund’s Smartest Forest Fund project. For Romeo, Lake Tahoe represents a special place personally and professionally as this is where Bearpaw’s journey began. The founder had a real run-in with a bear there, and that pivotal moment prompted him to start the business in 2001. Now Romeo aims to launch a Bearpaw storefront in Lake Tahoe next year.
But there is much more to the work. The parent company of Bearpaw, Romeo & Juliette, Inc. is set to launch a new footwear brand in the works. Called Strole, the line is focused on health and wellness and aims to fill a void in the market for a shoe that can help beat plantar fasciitis. For starters, the brand will launch with QVC, Nordstrom and Zappos in March.
“We’re just coming at our own pace,” Romeo told FN, adding that he also continues to build the Flip Flop Shops chain of stores, which he acquired in June 2018. By the end of the year, it plans to have 100 outposts, up from 59 in 2018.
Here Romeo expands its 20 years in the footwear business, where the industry is currently located and where the greatest opportunity is.
When you look at your career, where does the COVID-19 pandemic land in terms of challenges?
“This is by far the biggest challenge of all. This has been the most difficult in terms of the supply chain. The supply chain has just been totally destroyed. It’s nothing I have ever seen in my career. To see what it’s made with everything – your raw materials, your factory workers, your ships, every aspect, your trucking. Everything has been impacted by COVID-19. I call it the cosmic two by four that hit us and woke us all up. And then it just took the shoe industry and accelerated it five years in advance, with e-commerce becoming more and more important. “
When it comes to e-commerce, how important is it to your retail strategy?
“We have always been focused on e-commerce. I will never forget the first time I had the chance to meet Tony Hsieh at Zappos, and he asked me, “Why do I want to buy Bearpaw? And I said, ‘It’s simple, you get 33% returns. I can cut that in half because we don’t do half sizes, we only do fulls. And then I did business with Amazon. Amazon was our third customer. It was then that I realized the internet was there. But it’s a balance with brick and mortar. We have amazing customers, from Famous Footwear to Nordstrom to Macy’s to DSW to Rack Room. Until I’m not running this business, I believe that both can exist and both will exist.
As a leader, how have you changed during this time?
“I’m a sponge, and you absorb all the thoughts of your employees and customers, and you change by constantly adapting. It’s something I’m proud of and the business is constantly evolving, constantly looking at what’s to come.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs starting their own business?
“It is the most difficult environment I have ever seen because of the supply chain. So these challenges, you need to understand and recognize them when you are starting a new brand or starting a new business. And e-comm is the way of the future. If you are an affiliate of Amazon, hang in there. You have a good ride. It is a balancing act between understanding the harshness of times and understanding our future. And if you could do that, you could do it.
Where do you think the biggest opportunity is right now?
“In terms of category – on the outside. It’s a huge segment. And I don’t think comfort goes anywhere. This is by far the strongest growth of our company. The sales don’t lie and they are slippers. From last year to this year, sales have doubled. So I think it’s not going anywhere. The fact that we embrace slippers so much is the reason we are taking more market share, and we are very reasonable and affordable. We want to sell to the masses.