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Jeffrey Swartz has been Timberland's President and Chief Executive Officer since June 1998. Jeffrey Swartz is the son of Sidney Swartz. Jeffrey Swartz serves as a director of Limited Brands[…]

CEO Jeff Swartz remembers the Italian man named Giuseppe, the first person to smell the essence of the company’s brand: a New England rough spirit.

Question: How did you build the Timberland brand?

Jeff Swartz: Well you know there are wines that come from the places that they’re grown and the five growing regions in France are very distinct by the terroir. The same is true of our brand. I told you that we came from the, we just want to make shoes to make a living to hey, it turns out that we’re from a place. There is a providence to Timberland, by the Land Prairie River in New Market, Hampshire is a very beautiful place in this old brick building and it’s a village. It’s an American village. It’s a very particular place. It’s the home of American democracy. It’s **** Scrabble. It’s an immigrant community. It’s wet and cold and rough and unforgiving and our brand to the extent that any brand can be nurtured from such very stony soil the truth is before we knew what our brand was our brand had a personality and point of view that was authentic from place.

It’s funny. We weren’t brand builders as instinctively. We were manufacturers. We had an Italian guy come to visit in 1979 who had smelled the essence of the brand. I honestly don’t know how he found it, but he showed up in double-breasted suit. My father and uncle thought this was… the guy should be committed. And he said he wanted to buy shoes and they thought that he meant a pair of shoes and he bought 6,000 pairs of one style shoe and they made him pay cash because he said he was going to go sell them in Italy and they thought okay, when this guy finds out you can’t sell shoes in New Hampshire and Italy they’re going to come back for his money back, so we’ll have to move the offices. Giuseppe sold all 6,000 pairs and he came back and he said, “I want to create a distributor’s business in Italy.” And they said, “When we figure out what a distributor is we’ll call you back.” But he built our brand in Italy and we were… Let me tell you who were are. We used to take pictures of the boot. We’d try to correct ever imperfection, in color, perfect. Giuseppe took black and white photos of the boots, took the laces out, covered them with mud, hung them from a clothes line and ran an ad in Italian that said… And thank God neither my father nor my uncle understood Italian. It said, “If you love me you’ll treat me badly.” And so I got the ad translated and like what the hell is he talking about? Well he wasn’t selling boots. He was selling New England rough spirit, independence and romance and all of the sudden we had a brand. We used to be a product, so we talk about boot brand and belief. Giuseppe in very many ways invented the brand. Now we’re smart guys. We’re fast learners and so when we saw this value in brand, not in product we didn’t give up the passion for product, but we sure started making investments in brand.

Question: What were branding mistakes you made?

Jeff Swartz: Oh boy. So far today I think I’ve probably made ten. We’re not formally trained. I went to business school. I’m over educated, but under trained and so brand has been to us egocentric and personal and passion and so we’ve distained competitors when we should have paid attention. We’ve misunderstood consumers. When we should have been listening we were talking. In fact, the best things we’ve ever done in terms of brand building is listen and I don’t mean to consumers. We’re not Proctor and Gamble sophisticated, but I told you the story of Giuseppe. He came to us and said, “It’s not a boot.” “It’s a brand.” And we said, “Got it.”

We’re pretty fully involved, pretty passionate guys about what we do, boot brand and belief and we we’re so busy. I don’t mean in a temporal sense, but I mean in a passionate sense that we don’t know what we don’t know. When we forget that we screw up the brand. We screw up the business. We screw up everything. When we remember that we know what we know and we don’t what we don’t and we are powerful enough to say to people show us, help us, share strength with us, we can fly. And the 30 years of brand building, the brand is as good as it is mostly because we didn’t know and we knew that we didn’t. Most of the mistakes we’ve made is when we said I’ve got this one. And I’m not trying to be you know aw-shucks from the country because that’s not how I think about us. I’m just telling you the model of almost stone soup. Everybody contributing something to make it work is really how the brand got built.

Question: When did you know your brand was strong?

Jeff Swartz: Our brand appears to me strongest when we are at our most vulnerable. In 1994 when I was first put in charge of the company I led us right off a cliff, like one of those Road Runner… You know one of those cartoons where the guy is hanging and he goes, “Uh-oh.” I set the company to grow up 72% in revenue and it grew 56% in revenue. 56 would have been great except I set it for 72 and the rest of it went into inventory and we had a liquidity crisis and we couldn’t advertise. We couldn’t do anything. We could hardly breathe. The banks were on our… literally they had our throat for 18 months and we found the strength of the brand in our weakness because the consumer didn’t notice the distress. In the current cycle we had a tremendous cycle of consumer interest and then disinterest in the brand and so we went out into the market with this like I’m not going to want to hear this and we asked a million consumers tell us about the brand, not literally. We did some real research and they came back and they said, “Look, you obviously have your head up your rear end.” “I don’t know what is bothering you, but our view of the brand is get over yourself.” “We love the brand.” “Show up again.” “Where have you been?” And so the permission that we have from consumers has saved us more than once and when things are really good we should be smart enough… If things are really good again we should be smart enough not to miss the point that at the end of the day it is about people making a choice. No one needs our product. Either they love it or they just don’t buy it and the fact is even as badly as some things have gone in the last 20 years consumers have decided to love our brand and we’re grateful.

Recorded on September 21, 2009