I learned a tremendous amount about creating an authentic purpose from Rockport’s journey. Together, we created one of the first purpose-driven companies. Thank you, Bruce, for that opportunity.
For many of us, there’s that one very special business leader — the one you partnered with to create magic in the world. The one that accelerated your career exponentially. When they pass away, you want to honor them — and bring back some of the beauty of the work, memories and milestones. This is a tribute to that person, on the first anniversary of his passing.
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For me that was Bruce Katz, the CEO and founder of the Rockport Shoe Company. He pioneered the walking shoe when he combined the inner technology of an athletic shoe with a street shoe upper. The challenge was, that design was many years before its time and traditional product marketing didn’t work.
The breakthrough came with Bruce’s vision for those shoes. They were engineered for walking — walking to work, on a casual stroll or for health. Yet there was no category of walking shoes, no studies proving the health benefits of walking, no compelling stories about walkers’ journeys across the land.
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Connection-making is my superpower. I applied that in my work with Bruce and Rockport, and together we built the walking movement. My strategy was twofold: First, invest in science to begin to make walking credible; then, romance walking to make it intriguing!
Rockport sponsored a walking evangelist, Rob Sweetgall, who walked around the country for a year — 11,208 miles — talking to youth about health. To make that walk memorable, we added a layer of research — working with the University of Massachusetts Medical Center to study Rob and walking as a year-long walking experiment. We named the activity “fitness walking,” wrote books, created the Rockport Fitness Walking Test and launched it on Good Morning America — receiving 60,000 requests for information. That’s a lot of mail bags (remember, that was pre-internet days) filled to the brim.
We created films, more books, more research, events, partnerships with the YMCA of the USA and local chapters. With this authentic content, walking took off with stories everywhere. The headlines beckoned millions to try this new fitness regime: Forbes: “Walk, do not run;” USA Today: “Walking the healthy road to fitness;” The Wall Street Journal: “When Sweetgall Walks, People Listen.” Even a US News cover story: “Easy Does it! The new rules of exercise: Life in the slow lane can be good for your health.”
All the shoes Bruce crafted were made with one thought in mind: “Feet have feelings, too” — a headline he wrote for a Rockport advertisement in the late 1980s. With an eye for detail that only an engineer can have, Bruce approached shoemaking with precision — reinventing classic styles and reworking new ones until they met his exacting standards.
With the tremendous momentum building behind walking, Bruce even renamed the company: Rockport: The Walking Shoe Company.
With this extensive promotion, fitness walking became an accepted exercise and walking shoes became a $1 billion category at retail — with Rockport dominating sales.
This success led to the sale of Rockport to Reebok in 1986. I wrote the release about the sale; exciting for Bruce and Paul Fireman of Reebok. Bittersweet for me.
For the next 15 years, Bruce explored the world by sea, while also running multiple software and internet ventures. One of these ventures was The WELL online community.
In 2013, Bruce returned to his first business love, shoemaking — launching the Samuel Hubbard Shoe Company when he was unable to find shoes that he loved as much as his RocSports. He named it after his grandfather’s shoe company, founded in 1930.
Within the last two years, Bruce designed the walking shoe of his dreams, the Performance Walker. While he never saw its fall 2022 debut at retail, it honored his genius and is a comforting reminder to all who knew him personally — or just adored his shoes — that he is still on this journey with us.
I learned a tremendous amount about creating an authentic purpose from Rockport’s journey. Together, we created one of the first purpose-driven companies. Thank you, Bruce, for that opportunity. Through that work I discovered my life’s purpose — linking companies and brands to their purpose, their true reason for being; then, activating why they mattered in this world with all stakeholders.
I began to apply that knowledge to other prescient CEOs who desired to align their organizations with greater meaning: Reebok and human rights; Avon and breast cancer, and PNC and early childhood education were early initiatives that were built to live for decades.
My last project for Bruce was working with the New York Times on his obituary. The story honored his genius as the “Pioneer of the Walking Shoe.”
Bruce led an amazing life. He taught so much to all around him. I closed his obituary with this: “In lieu of flowers, please take a long walk with someone you love. And talk with them about living life to its fullest.”
Critical insights about authentic purpose from my Rockport journey and my work with Reebok and Ryka:
As CEO, lead the discovery and activation of your authentic purpose. You are the champion and steward of why your enterprise matters to the world and to your stakeholders.
Provide real resources — $$, capabilities, products, employees — to build and ignite your vision. And do it with a long-term commitment.
Bring the outside in through partnerships to embrace your selected issues. They have expert knowledge and insights as to where to make real impact.
Set seemingly impossible goals — then, crush them. Always continue to dream big.
Build humanity throughout your organizations. The outcomes will be truly magical.