Shoemakers Put Their Best Feet Forward : Social conscience: They made their money running Rockport, Ryka and Reebok. Now each is involved in a special cause.


Their common professional calling consists of cushioning the human foot’s contact with the ground. They are cobblers, shoe magnates who might well be content to lace up their hefty profits and let others fret about mankind’s moral bunions.

But Paul Fireman, Bruce Katz and Sheri Poe are three shoemakers with soul. Beyond their chosen line of endeavor they share little but the geography of New England. Yet in each of these footwear manufacturers, entrepreneurial acumen has fueled an equal appetite for social activism.

Their causes are varied. Fireman, chief executive officer of Reebok International Ltd., has taken on human rights as his personal and corporate mission. Katz, co-founder of Rockport Shoes, sold out of the shoe biz and used the money to leap into the arena of community change via on-line communication. Poe, founder of Ryka Inc., is a rape survivor and has dedicated herself to the goal of ending violence against women.


Fireman--only partially in jest--offered regional similarities as a possible explanation for their high level of social consciousness. “Maybe it’s something in the water,” he said. “And if it is, we should spread it around.”

Here are these shoemakers’ stories.

Paul Fireman, Reebok

Just a dozen or so years ago, Paul Fireman is entirely comfortable admitting, he wouldn’t have recognized social responsibility if it had come calling at his door.

“I’d never heard of it,” said the 50-year-old Fireman, who was raised in a family of shoe manufacturers in the gritty hamlet of Brockton, Mass. “I didn’t even know the words.”

Fireman, who today continues to fight a middle-aged bulge despite a serious golf habit and frequent trips to the company gym, knew only that “I wanted to make a difference.”

And why not? Reebok, after all, was going gangbusters; Fireman had acquired an athletic shoe business just when health-obsessed Americans began insisting on entire wardrobes of high-priced, sport-specific footwear. In 1981, Reebok recorded $1.5 million in sales. Five years later, the figure had grown to $916 million.

But to Fireman, meteoric profits were not inconsistent with an altruistic company spirit. “From Day One,” he said, “I didn’t want this to look like, taste like or smell like an American corporation of the ‘50s, ‘60s or ‘70s.”


He was a onetime shoe salesman, not some senescent social protester. Even so, “I had grown to hate the mainstream world, with all the compromises you had to make just to show up at the front door. I thought Reebok should operate slightly differently.”

Well aware of the boss’s philosophy, Reebok’s ad agency approached Fireman in 1986 with a proposal to sponsor an international rock music tour for Amnesty International. “It seemed like a good idea,” Fireman decided, even if $10 million was a lot of money for a few concerts.

Little did Fireman realize when he agreed to sponsor Amnesty’s Human Rights Now World Concert Tour--featuring such celebrities as Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Sting--that a funny thing would happen on the way to the tour.

“We got bit by the bug,” Fireman said in a 1992 speech at the Columbia University Business School. “Amnesty opened our eyes, and we became passionate about human rights.”

The feeling was not initially mutual from the human rights community. “They were skeptical to the extreme,” Fireman said. “They kept us in abeyance”--a polite understatement, Fireman conceded. “We were suits. They held in disdain the business community as a whole. In their minds, we were businessmen who did all the wrong things.”

Better, Fireman was gently informed, to stick to the traditional “side-door” route of quietly pouring money into existing foundations. No thanks, Fireman said. In 1988, he initiated the annual Reebok Human Rights Awards, offering no-strings-attached grants of $25,000 to people 30 or younger who were making “significant contributions to the cause of human rights--often against great odds.” The Rev. Carl Washington of Los Angeles was a 1993 winner, recognized for his leadership in curbing violence after the 1992 riots.



Fireman--often with one of his Human Rights Award board members, former President Jimmy Carter, by his side--was more than just the guy who handed out the checks. He was also the CEO who made sure that human rights production standards were in place at 40 Reebok-affiliated facilities around the world, and who made sure that “business decisions were made inclusive of human rights.”

Publicly traded Reebok’s profits were flat in 1993, and some hard-eyed corporate analysts and executives wondered about this father of three--married to the same wife since forever--who didn’t look a bit like Ben or Jerry yet still preached a do-gooder doctrine.

“Is it good business?” Fireman asked. “I don’t know if it sells any more shoes, but I don’t think that’s our intention.” Fireman is entirely aware that he might just as well have opted for a more benign cause than the social ills of East Timor, Kurdistan, Mozambique and even these United States. But he is adamant that “we didn’t do this to become powerful. We did it to do some good. We did it to change the world.”

And anyway, he said, “It feels better. What the heck?”

Bruce Katz, Rockport

The last thing in the world Bruce Katz (pronounced Kates) intended to do was follow in his father’s professional footsteps. He built his first computer at 13, back in the days when a computer was the size of a rec room, and turned up his toes at the mere mention of the shoe business. That was the domain of his dad, Saul. Engineering, his major at Cornell, was what Bruce had in mind.

But he got sidetracked by good, healthy American ambition. There he was in 1972, haunting the hippie emporiums of Harvard Square, hawking moccasins from the back of his pickup. “Basically I went into the (shoe) business to make a little money, and then leave,” Katz said.

To his amazement, “I really had fun, and I learned a lot.” He quickly realized that he was strolling in, so to speak, on the beginning of the walking-for-fitness movement. With his father, he launched Rockport shoes, now the metatarsal mainstay of many foot-weary Americans. For a while, Katz published Walking magazine while also marketing proudly clod-hopping footwear. He watched his little back-of-the-truck enterprise grow to a $300-million success story.


If Katz was becoming a millionaire, he was also turning into a believer--”in social change, and political activism, which I had never been much involved in. I got convinced that you could actually change things.”

But while funding fitness-related medical research, Katz chafed at the number of hands extended in his direction. “Giving money to various organizations was very frustrating,” he recalled. “The need is endless.”

In 1986, Katz sold Rockport--to, coincidentally, Reebok. Determined “to go out and solve some of the world’s problems,” Katz headed straight to San Francisco, his idea of heaven. There he established an investment firm and a philanthropic group called the Springhouse Foundation, which benefits the needy, the environment and the arts.

But the fit was far from perfect. In the nonprofit arena, the 47-year-old Katz said from his office in Sausalito, “I felt completely uncomfortable. People sat around and talked and talked. Nobody had the operational sense that I found in business.”


Still tinkering with his computers, meanwhile, Katz cast about for a community-based cause that would employ his engineering skills as well as his entrepreneurship. He was particularly taken by the WELL, an Internet conferencing system started in 1985 by the crowd who had brought out the Whole Earth Catalogs.

WELL participants share ideas in “forums,” or discussion areas, ranging from virtual reality to cooking. A bachelor living in San Francisco’s serene Pacific Heights district, Katz was electronically surrounded by the likes of lawyers, doctors, musicians, carpenters, hobbyists and more. It was a neighborhood pub without all the smoke, a seminar with no exams, a calorie-free dinner party. It was a cozy, cosmopolitan salon where if a bore showed up, you could delete him.


In this disembodied but burbling intellectual environment, Katz was a contented computer camper--so much so that in 1991, he became a 50-50 partner in the enterprise. Last January, he bought the whole electronic campground for an undisclosed amount.

Katz’s first order of business was to increase accessibility to the WELL, the better to stimulate wider discussions and, perchance, change from the ground up. While “up until now, communication with large numbers of people was really the bailiwick of the very wealthy,” he said, a vast conferencing system enables community groups to transmit their messages anywhere they want.

Katz said his modest goal is to get the whole world talking to each other, and to generate change from the kind of conversations that used to take place over the back fence.

Out of this effort, Katz believes, “is going to come some really nifty ways to organize people and to make some changes that will make all of our lives better.”

Sheri Poe, Ryka

Days after the death of Nicole Brown Simpson, Sheri Poe was galled that even for a moment, Simpson’s abuse by her husband might have been seen as a private issue.

“That’s the crux,” Poe said, fuming behind a desk in Norwood, Mass., that is adorned with equal numbers of family pictures and athletic shoes. “Society has bought into this ridiculous idea that domestic abuse is a private issue. And it’s not. It’s a public concern.”


You’ll pardon Poe if, looking disarmingly slender for a woman who gave birth to her fourth child five months ago, she leaps onto her soapbox from time to time. As the CEO of Ryka Inc., which Poe describes as “the only athletic shoe company exclusively devoted to the women’s market,” she has been known to remind unsuspecting rival executives, mostly male, that this country boasts about three times as many animal shelters as women’s shelters.

She spews out facts and figures confidently--and accurately: Every 15 seconds in this country, a woman is beaten; domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between 15 and 44, and so on.

She comes by her knowledge and passion honestly--if also unfortunately. Hitchhiking to work 22 years ago, a naive 19-year-old freshman at Southern Illinois University, Poe was raped at gunpoint. She tried to press charges but was made to think that it was her fault because she had been hitchhiking. Besides, she said, her attacker had friends in the police department. There was no chance, they told her, of a conviction.

Poe “coped” with her shame and anger by becoming bulimic. She said exercise finally helped her regain her self-esteem. Plagued by an aching back and perpetually sore knees, Poe blamed the shoes she wore during a decade or more of heavy-impact aerobic exercise.

If the right product didn’t exist, Poe reasoned, she would just have to invent it--and in 1987 she and her first husband, a marketing executive, started Ryka, named for her then-mother-in-law. A female investment banker, who conveniently happened to also be an exercise fanatic, raised money through public stock offerings.


From the start, the Ryka pitch was unusual--because to Poe, tending to “total well-being” for women meant accompanying each pair of shoes with an 800 telephone number offering 24-hour support and information for female victims of violence. She also urges retailers to pass out safety booklets published by her Ryka ROSE (for Regain One’s Self-Esteem) Foundation, which funds treatment, education and prevention programs to help end violence against women.


When Poe’s marriage broke up, she kept the company--as well as the ROSE Foundation, to which she has pledged 7% of her annual pretax profits. To date, Ryka’s shaky performance has meant that the promise has not put huge dents in Poe’s pockets. Since going public in 1988, Ryka has yet to record a full year of profitability. But Poe, a former “pink bag lady” for Mary Kay cosmetics, calls herself a “gut-sense entrepreneur” who projects brighter days for her company as well as her foundation.

Still, critics accuse Poe of talking a good game when it comes to crimes against women. Some have sniped that Poe has stooped to the cellar of “cause marketing,” turning into a professional rape victim who exploits her own experience in hopes of bigger sales.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she scoffed. “I’ve heard that, and I say, obviously you’ve never been close to anyone who is a survivor. Because if you think it’s a picnic to discuss this, you’re wrong. I’d have to be a real masochist to relive that kind of pain, just to benefit this company.”

Poe met her second husband, a biochemist who is the father of her two youngest children, while scuba diving. With so many kids, her home exudes a kind of pleasant chaos, she said. Often she welcomes the escape to the relative tranquillity of an office, where most of her employees are female, and where many come to work attired in workout clothes.

Poe said she will not give up the cause she has pegged as her own. “I have a commitment to bring forward the issue of violence against women, and I’m going to do that till the day I die.”

She smiled, perhaps ruefully. “Which is good, because it’s probably going to take that long.”