Tips From The Top: One On One With Mark Kohlenberg

I spoke to longtime men's footwear executive Mark Kohlenberg about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Mark: I come from a very modest Midwest background.  I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin in a middle class family.  My dad was a plumber and we lived quite frugally. Most of my high school classmates never went to college or even left the area as you could get a great earning job working at the local Paper Mills. I knew early on that I needed to move beyond this for success in my career. 

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have bee mnost instrumental to your growth? 

Mark: When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, the job market was terrible. I had an offer from the May Company Executive Training Program and they placed me in Pittsburgh with Kaufmann’s Department Store.  I learned retail, merchandising and buying but after a year I moved back to the Midwest. I ended up moving to Milwaukee and worked with a non-profit for a few years and then working for a remarkable self made entrepreneur who helped position me for my future.  He introduced me to John Stollenwerk (then owner of Allen Edmonds Shoe Company). I met with John and he told me that I was impressive but he didn’t have any position for me. He then looked behind his desk and there was a dusty cardboard box of kids shoes. He said he had a friend in Germany who was looking for someone to help launch a kid’s footwear brand in the US and offered to introduce me.  I flew to Germany and ended up leading a joint venture between Allen Edmonds and Elefanten-Germany for 15 years. It was very rocky at the beginning. Sales were slow. The market didn’t want an expensive European brand and I was starting to have doubts about success. Finally, we started to get traction with Nordstrom and ultimately expanded to all Nordstrom doors and became the leading Euro kid’s brand in the US with sales of $15 million and very profitable.  One day I got a phone call to find out the European parent was liquidating and I was out of a job. No notice, no severance. I had 2 little kids and a mortgage. I knew I always wanted to do my own thing so I tried to buy the brand but the owners refused to sell. After about a week, I decided to launch my own brand with a group of investors. “Umi” shoes was created in my garage a week later. 

In terms of setbacks or challenges, money is always number one.  Raising sufficient capital at the outset (with a substantial cushion for unexpected issues is critically important).  Secondly, aligning yourself with reputable, solid suppliers is essential. We ended up moving our manufacturing base from Brazil to China and Vietnam.  This was essential as the currency relationship between the US and Brazil was deteriorating and we had to improve our margins. However, finding and maintaining a good supply chain in Asia was extremely challenging at times with shoe factories closing and also struggling for working capital to buy raw materials. 

Fast forward to today, the types of challenges can be very different.  We have some of the common growing pains of growth-systems, talent, partners, etc.. We certainly have made some mistakes but we have also opportunities for growth which have enabled us to maintain momentum.

Adam: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the menswear industry since you have been in it? What have been the biggest changes over the last year? 

Mark: The last year in my opinion has been like change on steriods.  First, tariffs. Trump’s actions on punitive tariffs from China through the footwear and accessory industry into turmoil this year and most retailers/wholesalers were not prepared.  As we are vertically integrated and produce 100% of our products in our own factories in India, we are not affected by the new punitive tariffs. This has been a significant competitive advantage for our Private Label customers and also our own brands as we did not have to move production or see our margins drop. Also, this year the rapid casualization of the Men’s market has changed the mix of footwear dramatically.  Brands that are still focused on dress shoes are losing share. We are very fortunate as we produce a wide variety of constructions, styles and materials in our own factories. This gave us the ability to pivot overnight. Sneakers, chukkas and other casual styles now make up a larger share of our mix. Finally, “sustainability” in footwear has become a big topic this year. We were already doing a lot in the areas of sustainability, worker safety, environmental controls and overall social practices so this hasn’t been a big transition for us. 

Adam: What are your best tips for entrepreneurs who are building new brands from scratch, particularly those doing so on shoestring budgets?

Mark: First, raise twice as much money initially as you think you need.  There will be many unexpected issues, problems, setbacks, etc.. You need a longer runway than you think you need.  Secondly, “rent” and don’t “own”. From staff, to warehouses, to people, don’t make long term commitments. Give yourself as much flexibility in decision making, cash flow and even channel selection.  Very seldom does anything go exactly to plan. This is a given.  

Adam: More broadly, what are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Mark: Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely business.  I have experienced this often. Having a board or even a group of advisors whose opinions you value and who can give you unvarnished advice and perspective is very valuable.  Even if they don’t know the industry, there are many commonalities across businesses. I have had a great group of advisors/mentors over the years that really have been instrumental not only in my success but also in keeping me grounded and looking at things through a fresh set of eyes.  

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Mark: Honesty, empathy, a sense of humor and a willingness to get your hands dirty.  There should be nothing beneath you. I am always reading and trying to learn new things – not only specifics about business but in life, culture in general.  Complicity is a horrible thing for a leader. I am always pushing for the next sale, the newest product and the next customer. I look at each day as a new challenge.  Don’t settle for second best.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Mark: “Zig when others Zag.”  Great advice to ignore the “pack” and follow opportunities your competitors are ignoring.  This is particularly advantageous for entrepreneurs trying to break into an established channel with big, dominant brands. In terms of “paying it forward” I have always tried to help others who are looking for jobs.  Helping someone find their next position is so simple and can change someone’s life. I try to always take a meeting, have a coffee and make introductions for people who reach out to me looking for help or networking.  Regarding hobbies, I have never had a lot of time for these. I love to travel and have had the opportunity to travel the world with my family and explore new cultures, new people, new religions and new food. I have traveled since early in my career and it has really shaped me as a person and an Entrepreneur.  Particularly now in the US and several other countries, the narrative has changed and other cultures are not being welcomed. This is wrong and is damaging to our country and to all Americans. Part of leadership is standing up when something is wrong. We as entrepreneurs need to take a stand on this moral issues that seem to be confronting us repeatedly in the United States.

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