Can’t Stop. Won’t Stop. Through wars and now a pandemic, why does this shoemaking family keep coming back for more?
If there’s such a thing as a shoemaking gene, Bruce Katz has it. As a third generation shoemaker, he’s learned a few things over the years: technique and craftsmanship, quality, materials, how to treat people, and how to weather a storm. At 72 years young, Bruce has experienced a lot of ups and downs. In life, and in shoemaking.
As the co-founder, with his father Saul, of Rockport Shoe Company, and the current CEO of Samuel Hubbard Shoe Company, Bruce is considered one of the most successful shoemakers on the planet.
Ironically, Bruce never wanted to go into the shoe business. In fact, he doesn’t remember ever thinking that he wanted to go into business period.
“Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts in the 60’s I was drawn to everything that wasn’t Newton and that meant the Bohemian scene in Harvard Square where I went as often as possible by bus and trolley on the weekends. My dreams were more the life of Ken Kesey than of Andrew Carnegie. My dreams were about becoming an artist or craftsman, adventurer and lover, traveler and discoverer. I thought that my friends who were going off to college to study business didn’t ‘get it’.”
Bruce’s ultimate dream was to build a sailboat and sail around the world. But that would have to wait.
Rochester, New Hampshire had been a shoe town since the late 1800s and it was there that Bruce’s grandfather, Samuel J Katz founded his first small factory in an old bicycle factory in 1930.
“My grandfather, Samuel, was a much loved man who made something from nothing. There were no venture capitalists hovering around watering holes of New Hampshire eager to write big checks for a chance to be part of this new industry. He was clever and honest and very hard working—and people wanted to help him when they could.”
During World War II, the Hubbard Shoe factory was commissioned to manufacture boots for the armed services. The company added a second factory and grew to more than 500 employees. However, by the end of the war, they’d received a letter from the Pentagon saying, “Thank you very much. You’re very patriotic, but we don’t need any more boots.”
All of a sudden, the Hubbard Shoe Company had a large infrastructure and no customers. Bruce’s father, Saul Katz who had been an officer in the US Navy at the radiation laboratories at MIT during the war, joined the company to help his father rebuild their private label business.
“Somehow, my father was able to source new buyers, and the Hubbard Shoe Company continued to grow under his leadership. The family became very well respected in the industry. By the 1960s, my father was the head of both the New England Shoe and Leather Association and the Two Ten Foundation – the industry’s leading charitable organization.”
The Hubbard Shoe Company continued to prosper through the 1950s and 1960s, partly due to the success of new government contracts to make ski and parachute boots during the Korean conflict. By 1970, Hubbard had grown to three factories. Though they never sold a pair of shoes labeled Hubbard, it was by all accounts a very successful company.
Unfortunately, as more and more companies moved their manufacturing overseas to save money on production costs, US factories such as Hubbard ended up having to close their doors.
The Rockport Shoe Company grew out of necessity and without a plan.
“My father Saul had lost everything when he was finally forced to turn over the keys to the factory to the Bank of Boston. Low cost imports had eventually bankrupted the Hubbard Shoe Company after 40 years of operation. My father and mother lost their life savings, their workplace, their house and their car. All those years and all that work had left him back at square one at age 56. There was nothing to be ashamed of. All the other factories were going the same way, but I knew he was somehow ashamed that he had let down all the people who had worked for our family for all those years. He fought to keep that last factory going for over 10 years. While my brother and I were off enjoying our Ivy League educations he was watching the last of his savings sink into this endless pit which was a proud shoe factory that my grandfather and his three sons had built from nothing.”
The Hubbard Shoe Company founded by Bruce’s grandfather Samuel J Katz morphed into The Highland Import Company in 1971 when Saul Katz used his last $15,000 to start a business importing shoes from Brazil.
Saul worked with a well-respected Brazilian factory to design a moccasin-style shoe that was to become the foundation of the Rockport Shoe Company. When Bruce left the company in 1987, Rockport was shipping over 7 million pairs of shoes a year and it had become one of the premier brands in the industry.
But how did Bruce go from wanting to sail around the world to leading one of the fastest growing shoe brands of the time?
“My father was focused on bringing in high-quality, comfortable shoes, but found himself where his father had been – with a great product, but no customers. He had a container of shoes from Brazil that had arrived too late to be accepted by his original customers and was sitting in storage. He said, ‘Why don’t you try to sell those for your boat project?’ So, I started driving around the countryside peddling these moccasins and eventually sold the lot.”
Soon after, there was another lot of shoes available to sell. Remarkably, the first company that Bruce talked to immediately bought all 7500 pairs. Saul suggested the factory in Brazil could make a few more shoes to sell and Bruce found himself deeply entrenched in the shoe business.
Eventually, as repeat business grew, Saul and Bruce realized that these imported shoes in white, unlabeled boxes had a much larger potential. The Rockport Shoe Company became official in 1974.
Rockport quickly became known as the most comfortable casual shoe you could buy, even while weighing in at over 4lbs a pair. With a talented sales team and further development, Rockport began growing at 40% a year.
During that time Bruce watched as the so-called ‘casual’ shoe business was becoming seriously challenged by the ascent of Nike, Adidas, and then later Reebok. He knew the days of heavy casual footwear were numbered and that Rockport needed to find an answer. Bruce set out on a mission to create the most comfortable, durable, and lightweight everyday shoe.
“Running was never the lifeblood of running shoe sales. Comfort was. And anyone who tried on a running shoe was reluctant to step back into a less comfortable conventional shoe.”
When Rockport debuted the first sample of this new revolutionary type of lightweight casual shoe, retailers were curious but many were skeptical that the consumers would buy something that was so light. But within months Rockport had a big backlog on their new product, The RocSport.
“The RocSport became everyone’s favorite shoe and certainly my favorite shoe. It was my everyday shoe and quite frankly was so much more comfortable than any other shoe I had worn that it was quite nearly impossible for me to wear anything else. Running shoes certainly felt good and were sold in record numbers but the RocSport was perfect for ordinary walking, which is what most people do.”
In the early 1980s, Bruce launched an evangelizing effort to get people to go out walking and to educate Rockport’s audience on the health benefits of walking for exercise. He focused Rockport’s marketing budget into this effort with great success. He is recognized for creating a walking movement, with the RocSport collection at the center.
In 1986, what some thought would be the end of the Katz shoemaking legacy, Bruce and his father sold Rockport to Reebok. At the age of 40, Bruce was suddenly out of the shoe business, single, and with a considerable bank balance.
He was finally able to realize his dream of sailing around the world. During those years he was an active angel investor, and dove into the world of technology helping to pioneer online communities.
So, how did the Katz family shoe business come to be resurrected after 30 years? The short answer is family.
Bruce married late and had a child when he was 58. One morning his then eight-year-old daughter came to breakfast with a drawing of a shoe and asked if she and Bruce could make shoes together.
“I had no idea she even knew I had been in the shoe business. I later learned that my father, who lived next door to us, had told her our Rockport story.”
A few months before Bruce’s father Saul passed away they shared a conversation around their family and shoes. It was in this conversation, Bruce got the idea that *if* he ever got back into the shoe industry, his company would reflect the original Katz shoe business: Hubbard Shoe Company.
“It put a big smile on his face. A smile I will never forget because it came with that sparkle in his eyes that told me more than he could ever say about what that meant to him. He knew that I had learned how to build a brand which is something that the Hubbard Shoe Company never had. A great reputation for quality and fit, yes. But there never was a Hubbard branded shoe.”
Once that seed was planted, Bruce couldn’t shake it. After his father passed, Bruce found himself endlessly reflecting back on his life and their life together as a family. He began researching more about his grandfather and father in the early days of the Hubbard Shoe Company. The sense of pride and sadness at what was possibly the end of an era, spurred the decision. Bruce would continue his family’s legacy by “re-starting” the Hubbard Shoe Company. The company name was later amended to the Samuel Hubbard Shoe Company as a further nod to his grandfather.
Bruce knew he wanted his new brand’s shoes made in Europe to take advantage of the beautiful leathers and artisan craftspeople. He reconnected with one of his most trusted Rockport employees who now lived in Portugal and had contacts within the key factories that could build products that lived up to Bruce’s vision. It took nearly 18 months of design and production to get the first styles exactly right, but the Hubbard Free was finally launched in 2014, and is still one of Hubbard’s most popular styles. Since those early days, Hubbard has continued to make high-quality, comfortable shoes that resonate with customers. They’ve significantly broadened their casual offering and expanded to dress shoes, active outdoor styles for hiking, golfing, and boating, and also have a small women’s collection.
“This brand has surpassed even what we felt at Rockport in terms of repeat customers and our evangelical following. The reviews and stories we hear are humbling.”
Even through the COVID pandemic, Hubbard continues to hear from customers about their “life-changing” shoes. As more people are currently working from home and need fewer pairs of shoes, the Katz family is pivoting again to add men’s slippers that reflect the quality and comfort that Hubbard customers’ expect.
“If my grandfather had been a potter I could just have a shelf full of lovely old pots but shoes are different. Shoes have to be worn and things that get worn wear out. Of course, I could have put a few old favorites up on a shelf in a glass case to leave behind for my daughter and her children but was that not really what I wanted to do. So here we are. I couldn’t be more proud of the Samuel Hubbard Shoe Company and the shoes we make.”