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Maker of Vans Sneakers Sold for $70 Million

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Times Staff Writer

The maker of Vans casual sneakers, Van Doren Rubber Co. in Orange, has been sold for $70 million to a venture capital firm in Menlo Park.

McCown De Leeuw & Co. plans few changes for Van Doren, which was founded in 1966 and made more than 2 million shoes at its plant in Orange last year, according to Luis Solis, a senior associate of McCown.

Van Doren was one of the last family-owned, domestic manufacturers of shoes in the $2.7-billion sneaker market now dominated by multinational companies that produce most of their shoes in South Korea.

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Richard Leeuwenburg, who has been brought in as chief executive officer of the company, said: “Vans is an oddity, but it’s a very good business.” Leeuwenburg is a former manager at Boise Cascade Corp., and he played offensive tackle with the Chicago Bears.

Solis said Vans’ 52 shoe outlets, which have become Southern California retail institutions, will remain open. The casual canvas sneakers, which became must-wear for the skateboard set earlier in the decade, will see few design changes. And 1,100 employees will continue to make all Vans shoes at the company’s plant in Orange.

2 Former Owners to Stay On

Two of Van Doren’s three former owners will remain with the firm. Company founder Paul Van Doren has been named chairman, and Gordon Lee has become vice chairman. The other former owner, Serge d’Elia, will not have a role in the company, Solis said.

The former owners could not be reached for comment Friday.

But Solis said they sold the firm because they had grown “tired” of running the company’s day-to-day operations.

Vans rocketed to popularity in the early 1980s after the shoes were prominently worn in the hit movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Consumers across the country began demanding Vans shoes, and department stores and “mom and pop” retailers everywhere were selling the shoes.

In an attempt to satisfy the growing demand, the company expanded its operations and experienced severe cash-flow problems.

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In 1984, Van Doren’s lost $3.6 million and sought federal bankruptcy protection because it couldn’t pay off a $6.7 million past-due loan from Security Pacific. The next year, Van Doren’s reorganized its debt, and the company is now debt free, Solis said.

Solidly Profitable Last Year

The company said it was solidly profitable last year, when sales topped $50 million. And demand for Vans shoes continues to be strong, with more buyers than ever in Europe.

“If you’re seen wearing them in France or Italy, you’ll be attacked for your shoes,” Solis said.

Solis said that McCown will finance operations but does not have big expansion plans.

Van Doren’s is the eighth company buyout by McCown, which is headed by George E. McCown of Menlo Park and David E. De Leeuw of New York.

McCown’s businesses include a lumber firm, a gas company and restaurant chains. “We look at several hundred businesses a year,” Solis said. “One or two of them excite us, and Vans is one of those.”

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