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Mario Moretti Polegato - a step ahead

Mario Moretti Polegato
A step ahead
by Robin Rusch
March 31, 2003

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and indeed, when Mario Moretti Polegato’s feet began to overheat while on vacation in the American Southwest, a new shoe called Geox was born.

Italian footwear is big business. In fact it’s the largest in the world with around 14.5 percent of global production. The Italian bank Banca Nazionale di Lavoro (BNL) recently put the Italian shoe industry at around 100 trillion lire (US$ 44 billion). BNL’s figures climb the higher the quality of the footwear product. Mid to high-end footwear accounts for 28 percent of world production; top-end represents 33 percent, the study says (2001).

 
 

So an Italian shoemaker is not unusual, but an Italian shoemaker whose differentiating factor is technology is a little more unusual.

The story goes that as Polegato’s feet began to swelter in the hot desert sun, he hit upon the idea to slice holes in his shoes to allow sweat to exit. Upon returning to the rainier climes of his home country, Italy, he realized he’d have to find a way to let sweat out without allowing water in. Thus began a search to design a shoe with a tiny membrane that can absorb water vapor and release it without allowing outside moisture to enter the shoe.

The son of a winemaker, Polegato had never given much thought to his feet prior to this. Even upon hatching his idea, marketing and selling it was not his first thought. “When I had the idea to cut holes in my sneakers,” he explains, “I just wanted to sell this idea to a shoe company. But nobody believed that it could work. I knocked at the door of Nike, Reebok, Timberland, adidas, Puma... but no one opened it to me. I took it as a challenge and I didn’t give up.”

Blessed with a good idea but no one to work with, Polegato trademarked Geox (geo -- Greek for earth, that which we stand on, plus “x” for technology) in 1989 and spent years perfecting a technology that would prevent water from seeping in below, while allowing sweat particles to exit from above. Billing it as the shoe that breathes, the entrepreneur began manufacturing his creation in 1996.

Today you can find Geox footwear in over 50 countries and in styles that cover casual shoes, cross trainers and kids’ sneakers as well as a wide variety of dress shoes for uomo i donna. The company is focusing now on athletic footgear -- an obvious market for the technology. And two years ago, Geox moved into selling clothes in Italy. Based on the special membrane of the shoe, the technology is adapted to allow the clothing to breathe, keeping the wearer dry. Sales of the clothing line are relatively small compared to the shoe but as the clothing line continues to grow and expands abroad, Polegato is confident of its success.

Although Geox is marketed as an Italian brand, it is in fact manufactured at factories in Slovenia, Romania and Hungary. Polegato says the “Italian” tag still applies because, “Geox is still an original made in Italy, even though we have plants abroad; the raw materials are Italian, the technology is Italian, the design of the product is Italian, the brain and the heart of Geox is Italian. In each plant we have Italian technicians continuously controlling the whole production process and ready to stop it if something is not as it should be. Every pair of shoes comes back to Italy [to be housed]. In this way we can control the quality.”

Polegato compares the situation to Coca-Cola. “The original formula is the only one but it’s made all over the world. And you can find and drink your Coke in every [part] of the world sure that its taste is always the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the USA, in Russia or in Kenya. Geox has the same philosophy: one technology, one quality -- all over the world.” He goes on to explain that as a company Geox thinks “global but acts local, as marketing teaches us. The only thing that never changes is the technology.”

Obviously the “made in Italy” tag is compelling in fashion and design, particularly when it comes to shoes, and Polegato agrees that being an Italian brand helps. However, he feels that Geox’s most marketable differentiator is the technology behind the breathable shoe. Italy is not especially acclaimed for its technology, admits Polegato. However, he hopes that Geox will be regarded as an exception and that the other features of his brand (Italian culture and Italian design) will combine with the technology to offer the customer both form and function.

Can the brand stretch beyond clothing and accessories? Polegato explains that Geox’s strategy is to avoid overexploitation of the brand in every field. If there is a way to apply the technology to other products then it will be considered, otherwise he warns that: “If you stretch a stretch you will break it.”

The current target market is mid to high-income consumers who look for comfort and style in their footwear and clothing. Otherwise, the potential customer base includes all ages and lifestyles since, as the company notes, no one likes to have his feet wet and smelly.

But selling shoes is no small feat. Polegato revealed his grand plans to eventually shoe the world. “The potential of Geox is huge,” he says. “Now we sell about six million pairs of shoes a year, all over the world, but if you [realize] that 85 percent of human beings use rubber bottom sole shoes and all of them have to be replace by ours, the potential market is incredible (about five billion people worldwide).”

Of course there’s already massive competition for the soles of the world. Obviously Geox’s technology is patented but that doesn’t mean a competing brand can’t try to promote a comparable or similar product. For instance, Adidas is now marketing a ventilating system for its products, which it refers to as ClimaCool. Polegato dismisses the possibility that ClimaCool could represent competition, clarifying that his product is not a ventilation system but rather a waterproof rubber sole, which has a membrane that allows sweat to leave the shoe.

Just as the rubber sole represented a huge advancement for footwear over the traditional leather sole, Polegato hopes his invention will result in another foot revolution. According to company reports, Geox had a turnover of 200 million euros in 2002, with a production of over five million pairs of shoes and average growth rate of 50 percent per year. That should keep the competition on its toes. (editor@brandchannel.com)

 
 
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