A conversation with Leslie Lane, president of Dr. Martens Americas division.
Leslie Lane grew up in Deal, England — “literally on the white cliffs of Dover” — where his dad, a policeman, walked the beat in his 1460s, the iconic boot made by U.K. footwear manufacturer Dr. Martens. At age 12, Lane bought a pair for himself, the first item of clothing he purchased with his own money. More than 30 years later, life has come full circle for 48-year-old Lane. He became president of the Dr. Martens Americas division in January. Before that he held executive positions at Nike and helmed Hood River-based Dakine. A family-owned company now controlled by private equity firm Permira, Dr. Martens has suffered its share of ups and downs in the past decade.
Sitting in his office above the downtown Portland store, Lane discusses the brand’s resilience, expansion plans and the shoes on his feet, the 7B10 SS17, to be unveiled next spring.
You’ve been on the job nine months. What are your top priorities?
No. 1: Connecting with the Dr. Martens customer and new consumers, sharing our story and hearing their stories. The second thing is recognizing it’s a total marketplace world now. We need to go to market where the consumers wants to see us, whether it’s our own stores, partner stores, partners online. The third thing is the people: How do I continue to work with the team here to develop and reinforce the culture?
The brand has struggled financially for the past decade. Is that part of the story you share? It is part of the story. One of the phrases we use is a level of resilience. It’s a positive element of the brand. It has a very resilient culture and that has helped during tougher times and in times of change, as we moved from a family company to a privately owned company.
Permira Funds acquired Dr. Martens’ parent company for approximately £300 million in 2014.
How would you characterize the health of the brand today?
The brand is definitely bigger than the business. There is room for the business to catch up. We have tremendous potential for more sales, which is what you need to run the business.
How are you going to make that happen?
In the past two years we’ve had a turnaround, a restructuring. We were a little overdistributed and a little messy in our growth, and then we started to pull back and manage our distribution more carefully. We are now in our healthy phase. I think that’s the story of the brand overall globally, whether in Asia, Europe or the U.K.
How are you developing the culture?
We have a really connected global team. I was in London for two days earlier this week. CEO Steve Murray, former president of Vans, has a good global team. There is way more global connectivity, in product, marketing, regional efforts, human resources. We feel like a real team. Murray became CEO in 2014.
What is your marketing strategy?
We don’t necessarily chase the trends. We’re grounded in principles of the brand that are universal across so many different segments. It’s a brand about durability and utility and diversity and empowerment and music. You put those elements together, and whether you’re 7 or 70 years old, those actually resonate. I love the fact that we make great product and that it gets adopted by people as opposed to being pushed out. That’s the emotional tone of the brand. If you build stuff, people are going to like it.
The brand also resonates with you personally.
One of the fascinating things is that everyone remembers their fi rst pair. My dad wore 1460s, and I used to polish them for him. That was my job as an 8-year-old kid. Before I started this job, I took my dad and mom to the Cobbs factory, where we have our Made in England niche business. We chatted with everyone. There is a family connection for me. There’s a very personal connection.
After moving production overseas in 2003, Dr. Martens began producing footwear again at the Cobbs Lane factory in Wollaston England in 2004.
What’s your take on Brexit?
I called my dad and said: “Are you guys crazy? What happened?” And he’s like: “You better ask your mother.” And I said: “Oh, no: one voted to stay in and the other out. I’m going to stay out of it.” The immediate impact for Dr. Martens Americas is good. The dollar is effectively stronger against the pound. The more money we make in dollars, the better for the overall company. Over the next year or two, we’ll see what happens.
Is your retail footprint growing?
We opened six stores in the last year in the U.S. We’re probably going to open 3 to 5 this year. We connect through our digital environment, whether it’s e-commerce or digital communication. And we are still reinforcing our connection to music with in-store events where we have bands play in the store.
How do you fare in the rest of the Americas?
We did some restructuring in sales organizations in Canada and were showing tremendous benefits in the first few weeks. Then solid business with distributors in Mexico, Argentina.
The hot weather isn’t a deterrent?
We sell a lot of boots in L.A., in Texas and in the south. It’s a brand that resonates year-round and with people even in hotter climates. We had a sandal business in the past and have some canvas options. An area we have product potential is to spread our wings in the seasons.
Describe your new designs.
We’re launching [in September] a lighter-weight boot and shoe: the DMlite, based on the principles and design cues from the 1460 boot. It still has elements of Dr. Martens: the stitching, the welted construction. But it ends up being the younger, fresher brand. As a strategy, you don’t want to rely on one single manifestation. If you do that, you tend to have peaks and troughs when they go out of fashion. That is one of the things the company suffered from 10, 20 years ago.
And what shoes are you wearing now?
These are an industry product: the 7B10 SS17. It will be available in spring. It was designed for the industrial consumer but translates well as a lifestyle boot. I like to test as many boots and shoes as I can.
You worked in footwear at Nike and now you’re back in the game. What has changed in the industry?
Portland is now the footwear capital of the U.S. There’s a huge amount of respect for the industry here. And I loved that part of Nike, to come work for a footwear brand was outstanding. It’s been a wonderful experience so far. But I’ve only been here a few months. I am smart enough to know I will be a lot smarter a year from now.