Propét USA in Focus

Left: Brad Gebhard, Right: Jon Brookings

Product fit, particularly sizes and widths for all types of consumers, and strong business relationships are vital at Propét USA, which is slated to celebrate its 40th brand anniversary in 2024. The company, led by footwear industry veterans CEO Brad Gebhard, who joined the Auburn, WA company 16 months ago, and VP of Sales Jon Brookings, is focused on expanding its independent, brick-and-mortar retail presence and diversifying and expanding its offerings in 2024. High-quality, stylish footwear with an emphasis on comfort and fit is the brand’s calling card.

Gebhard, a former member of the U.S. National Cycling Team and past senior executive for Nike, Adidas and The Walking Company, and Brookings, whose industry experience includes prior stints with Ecco, Earth Shoes, Josef Sibel, and Gravity, recently spent time with Footwear Insight discussing Propét’s objectives and vision as the brand heads into its Ruby-esque anniversary year.

FI: Tell us a little bit about the brand’s history and category strategy.

Brad Gebhard: We have a longstanding tradition of collaborating with boutique footwear outlets, local shoe stores, and niche market retailers, reflecting our dedication to diverse market segments… Our trail series and outdoor products are key components of our evolving category strategy to meet our customers’ varied lifestyles. In 2024, we plan to further diversify, focusing not only on enhancing our athletic and outdoor lines but also on expanding our active casuals and dress footwear categories.

For those who might not be that familiar with the Propét brand, whether retailers or consumers, what is the one thing you would like each of them to know?

Brad Gebhard: We have exceptionally high-quality products that come in sizes and widths. And we have a full catalog ranging from hiking shoes to walking shoes to dress casual. We have a full product offering. But it’s about quality, sizes, and widths.

Jon Brookings: How we get to a value story is that we offer more than you would expect in the shoe. And the innovation is what you do when you run out of the expected things to put in the shoe, and you start innovating to add more. And that’s really been the driving force behind the evolution of our line… And if you haven’t taken a chance to look at the brand in the last few years, if you haven’t seen Propét in a while, you haven’t seen Propét.

Brad Gebhard: We’re investing a lot of money into products. That’s one of the main reasons why I came here because I’m a product guy. We brought in a new design horsepower to help us with our product.

Tour Knit styles by Propét  
What is Propét’s key focus right now with retailers, consumers and potential customers, and marketing?

Brad Gebhard: Our focus right now is expanding in brick-and-mortar independent retail, medical, and in some cases, hybrid accounts that do both… It’s the NSRA group, the USRA group, the independent retailers. We’ve [made] some strides with a number of them in the Midwest, and we’re looking to expand out and really partner with independent retailers. Very often you have an owner that is at or close to the fitting stool. So, your ability to quickly get information and apply it to the brand about fit and function and things of that nature is really high with that crowd. They’re going to tell you what they think and it’s very meaningful to then help drive the brand. People getting into these stores, they need to see and be told the Propét story. So, we’re very dedicated to the level of partnership we do. It’s not just sell-in. The way I say it is, sell-in doesn’t always get you sellthrough, but sellthrough always gets you more sell-in… It’s all the blocking and tackling, as well as marketing and quality product and making sure that the team on the floor is telling the (brand) story.

Jon Brookings: Our marketing efforts are strategically designed to engage the communities served by local and regional shoe retailers, highlighting our commitment to medically supportive footwear and an extensive size range.

What are some key objectives going into 2024?

Brad Gebhard: I’m a product freak like Jon is, so we want to make sure that we’re making world class product. That’s really our number one objective. Our second objective is to really continue to build in the specialty retail channel where we can be working with some of the best people in the business. As we’re running our business and building our products, we’re getting feedback from those partners. And our third mission is to continue to grow the business within our existing retail channels.

FI: Propét was acquired by private equity firms Merit Capital Partners of Chicago and Aiglon Capital of Durham, NC in Oct. 2021 (with founder Robert Propét retaining equity in the company.) What has the new ownership contributed to the company over the last two years?

Brad Gebhard: They have invested a significant amount of money into our organization and specifically into the infrastructure around the digital side of it and our ability to process orders much more efficiently.

Brad, you previously worked for large public companies in Nike and Columbia. What’s different about the approach and the corporate culture at Propét?

Brad Gebhard: Leveraging my background with larger corporations, I’m focused on infusing Propét with agility and a deep understanding of the small business retail environment, ensuring we remain a preferred partner for independent footwear sellers.

The Propét One
How much are things like excess industry inventory in the market and macroeconomic issues impacting the footwear business, particularly in the U.S., today? How is Propét dealing with these impacts?

Brad Gebhard: Our proactive approach during inventory surges involved engaging directly with our customers to manage deliveries efficiently…The retail channel got stuffed with product and everyone was exactly in the same boat. We have a lot of retail partners that we worked with. We sold them closeouts as margin builders and helped them bring in more product. We’ve been able to work through it…As a fiscally responsible company, we were able to hold acceptable margins as we worked through it without alienating any customers through the process. Looking ahead to next year, we anticipate growth by continuing this collaborative and adaptable approach, ensuring that we and our retail partners thrive despite the macroeconomic environment.