Sole Technology Owner and CEO Pierre Senizergues have been through a lot of ups and downs since he founded the Etnies brand nearly 35 years ago.
The lean early years. The booming period from the mid-90's until the global recession hit in 2008.
Since then, the very challenging chapter included the fallout from the recession coupled with big athletic brands coming into space, luring athletes with bigger paychecks and becoming dominant players at core stores.
"Since 2008, we've been battling, surviving, doing whatever it takes," Pierre told SES in an interview. "But we still managed to stay private and 100% skater owned. Our whole team is passionate about our industry's culture and we believe in it."
Now it looks like a new era could be dawning. This next chapter includes a huge surge in the number of skateboarders from all age groups and walks of life.
All of those things are helping Sole Tech – home to Emerica, éS and Etnies skate shoes and ThirtyTwo snowboard boots – right now. In addition, the company's decision to hold inventory levels steady when the pandemic first hit in the spring is paying off.
"We kept our orders because we did not want to hurt our factories," he said. "We knew a lot of bigger brands were cancelling their orders. And we thought that could hurt retailers, too. We decided to keep our orders and try to deliver on time."
When fall arrived, skate retailers that had been experiencing months of booming sales over the summer were scrambling to find products, he said, because other brands had cut orders. Sole Tech was able to deliver what they needed and sold out of its inventory.
And for a holiday, it was the same story – Pierre said some brands did not place holiday orders at all. Sole Tech, on the other hand, brought in more products for December and even for January, even though it typically does not receive goods in January.
"The demand was so great, our team decided we had to," he said.
Pierre said the struggles that Sole Tech has gone through over the last decade also helped the company during the pandemic. It had already learned to move quickly, to operate leanly, to take advantage of any glimmer of opportunity that came its way. Pierre is proud that Sole Tech did not layoff anybody during the COVID-19 crisis.
Overall for 2020, Sole Tech's top line will be about flat with much healthier margins due to less sales to the liquidators, more full-price selling to the wholesale channel and higher e-commerce sales during the pandemic.
As the company heads into 2021, business is looking up. Spring 2021 bookings have increased in the mid-double digits. Pierre thinks the increase is due to several factors – having inventory when retailers needed it, the boom in skateboarding, and the overall improved financial health of core retailers. He also thinks core stores are rethinking their dependence on some big brands.
"A lot of small stores are questioning why they should buy certain brands if they are just going to get slashed," he said. "And, because core shops are selling so many hardgoods right now, they have more cash coming in, and they can be more independent. Before, when times were tough, they were sort of handcuffed by some brands, and sometimes had to take on more inventory than they wanted to."
He's most excited about the success so many core stores are seeing right now and what that means for the culture."They help us stay authentic," he said. "They are key to educating the kids, to transferring that passion, that knowledge and that excitement about why we all are doing it."
I've known Pierre for a long time – through the boom years and in the very lean years as well. I was always amazed that he managed to hold onto 100% of the company even when times got very, very tough, a feat that many others in the industry were not able to pull off.
"I never took anything for granted because I lived in my car when I first came to the United States," he said. "When I started earning money, I always put something on the side because you never know what can happen. When the company was doing really well, I invested in different things like the stock market, buildings, housing. When times got tough, I sold properties and other things and reinvested in the company."
"I realized I don't need much to be happy," Pierre added. "I'm happy when I skate, I'm happy when I go surf, I'm happy when I'm on the snow with friends."
Pierre hopes this unique moment in time – when surf and skate are booming, and core shops are healthy – will lead more retailers to reevaluate who it does business with, he said.
"Now is the time to make sure the industry is led by people who are authentic, that ride, that care about the culture," Pierre said. "I think this is our opportunity right now."
"It's very exciting. This pandemic is a disaster on many levels, but at the same time, it's a chance for the industry to reset the clock and do it differently next time."- SHOP-EAT- SURF.