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Power footwear Gerry Smith (Futura Footwear) with Omar Velasquez during his visit to Cape Town.
Feb/March 2012

Power to the people

The developer of the Power footwear ranges over the past two years has an impressive pedigree as range developer for some of the best brands. But, for Omar Velasquez good design and trendiness are not enough — you have to supply what the market demands. In SA the Power ranges meet these criteria, he believes. Interview: Trudi du Toit. Photo: Nic du Toit

Omar Velasquez is a lucky man. Throughout his life doors have opened to fascinating new opportunities. From his first footwear sourcing job many years ago in Mexico, to his current position as regional brand manager of the Power brand (Bata Emerging Markets), he has been following a career path he mapped out for himself as a schoolboy in Gr10.

He has developed and sourced footwear for brands like Diesel, Nike and now Power; has lived and worked in Mexico, the US, China and Malaysia for extended periods and has travelled the world to study factories, retail stores and consumer behaviour patterns.

Suffice to say that he knows something about footwear and retailing.

It is therefore a huge compliment when he describes the SA retail environment as a “pleasant surprise”.

Velasquez visited Futura Footwear, the Power distributor in SA, at the end of last year and made use of the opportunity to get a better understanding of the SA consumers and retail market.

“The SA retail environment is very sophisticated — the stores are well designed and the major brands have a presence here,” he says. He also noticed that we have chain stores with the commercial power to obtain a smart ticket to source from countries outside Europe. Big and small, the SA retail environment can be compared to retailing anywhere in the developed world, was his verdict.

SA retail market

“SA, with its European retail outlook, serves as a test tube for other emerging markets as far as consumer behaviour is concerned.”

While we have the affluent and sophisticated consumers at the top of the pyramid, the majority of our market cannot afford expensive branded footwear, “yet, they are eager to look at something that performs as good as the top brands, offered at a more reasonable price.”

SA consumers have access to information and communications from Europe and therefore want products reflecting these latest trends. SA is an active society — everywhere you drive you see people jogging along the roads and we live a life of sport. “These are not attributes of all emerging cultures,” he remarks.

This active lifestyle, coupled with the demand for lower price point footwear, offer great opportunities for the Power brand.

While their enthusiastic design team stay innovative by using new technologies, these must make sense to the end-user customers in a specific market. They therefore work closely with suppliers in the local market to ensure that their product will offer the best value for their customers.

“The SA mix of diverse cultures and incomes is a good example of a market where you will try and offer a good design, but keep in touch with the reality of the economy. While we push to offer the best value designs, we take into account what will work in the market. With Gerry (Smith) on board, we’ve developed a better way to differentiate our products and services for the SA market. This has given us more scope.”

Over the past two years the combination of the local market knowledge supplied by Gerry Smith’s Futura Footwear team, new products developed by Velasquez and the support of the regional office from Kuala Lumpur, have been a boon to Power in SA.

“The regional team in Kuala Lumpur helps each country to achieve whatever they need to do good business,” explains Velasquez.

They believe in the tried and trusted way of doing business: visiting retailers to sell and that the internet is a marketing, not selling, tool.

“The reality is that you deal with a mass market where people don’t always have computers — but probably own a smartphone.” They would therefore rather assist retailers to reach customers with smartphone applications to make their customers more aware of what the Power brand offers and when new products become available.

Power in SA

The first new Power range developed by Velasquez for the SA autumn 2010 season had a fresh, young look, and was very well received at retail. Retailers said that the new range had changed the brand’s personality to become more in-trend, brighter, with younger aesthetics and a product assortment to satisfy the younger consumers (17-25 year olds).

“Our aim is first and foremost to deliver the best designs and products that are currently in trend worldwide, at the best possible value,” he says.

In most countries Power supplies entry level running and training footwear — bread and butter ranges, covering products for school kids, teens, to training footwear for serious athletes. The next most important category for them is soccer, followed by court shoes (tennis and squash). He believes there is scope to grow their outdoor footwear offering with quality entry level hiking shoes, as they manufacture these in good, specialised factories.

He enthusiastically contemplates new developments to take the brand to new levels — but still meet market needs.

In running and training he has new ideas for a barefoot running shoe — it will be their second generation barefoot running shoe, with new designs — and they have also had requests for triathlon shoes. These must be shoes that can be put on and taken off easily, provide cushioning for the race section, but are comfortable when riding a bike.

“In countries like SA the multi-purpose shoes that can be used for everything from cross-country running to hockey, do well,” he says.

In soccer boots they came up with materials and elements in the upper that enhances ball control, but also make the soccer product more durable. They offer different outsoles for different terrains and a silicon embossed section that offers more grip and ball control on the upper.

By developing new ranges and growing and managing an international brand, Velasquez is fulfilling an ambition he’s had since he had been a teenager.

“When I was in the 10th Grade in school I told a friend: I don’t know if the job exists, but one day I want to do something involving international business, with a strong design element, that has to do with fashion and trends, and I want to work in marketing and manage a business.”

It is a career path he had been following for most of his working life.

In the 1980’s, after completing his studies in San Diego California, Mexican born and bred Velasquez met some Americans representing the Nine West footwear brand. At that stage most of the fashion brands had their women’s shoes made in Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara, the birthplace of Mariachi music. His knowledge of the US as well as Mexico and good English, made Velasquez the ideal candidate to manage the Mexican sourcing office they wanted to open — and so he landed his first sourcing and product development job.

But, the Mexican economy wasn’t doing well and the brand decided to close the Mexican office and source elsewhere.

So started a pattern of what other people might call doors closing, but Velasquez views as new doors opening.

At that stage he had no children or other responsibilities and was eager to explore the world, and when offered the opportunity to open an office in the US for a major Mexican company, he sold everything and moved to Dallas, Texas.

Still a youngster, he was managing all the US export and foreign trade business for one of the biggest companies in Mexico. He opened an office near New York and travelled to South and Central America and across the US to show samples to retailers — his first stab at marketing and business development.

There was a lot of trade between Mexico and the US in Dallas and he joined Ecko to source footwear out of Mexico and Brazil. But, when the European headquarters told the US office to close down, he was again without a job.

A big new door opened when Diesel called him with an offer to join their new footwear division in California. He was relocated to be closer to their factories in China… and fell in love with Asia.

He honed his skills in product development and by his third year in the job, the Diesel footwear ranges he developed had created a lot of attention in the market.

When Nike called him to join them to develop their lifestyle ranges, “I was as happy as a clown,” he says. He was initially based in Chenzhou, where most of the Nike factories are, and developed product and oversaw the production lines for their outdoor and kids products. “I love the brand. I had a fantastic time,” he says.

New responsibilities within the brand, however, necessitated that he moved back to the Nike offices in the US — then back to China — and ending his eighth year with Nike in the US. It was 2009, the year that Nike made 2 000 jobs redundant. Velasquez’s job was one of them.

Again, a door opened when the Bata company offered him the chance to return to Southeast Asia and work his magic on their athletic footwear products.

“I enjoyed China so much that I vowed that I would come back to the continent one day. I jumped at the opportunity to live in Kuala Lumpur.” His social anthropologist wife was equally keen to return to the Asian continent.

With the rising costs of manufacturing in China, international brands had been exploring other options like Vietnam, Indonesia and India. Bata opened a regional office in Malaysia four years ago. While Velasquez mainly did product development and sourcing for Nike and Diesel, Bata has given him additional scope to grow the Power brand.

Vibrant Asia

“Southeast Asia is like Europe in the 1800’s in the time of the Industrial Revolution, and America in the 1950’s, when there were a lot of new trends and developments. Southeast Asian countries look at the past, but they are hungry for the future. They are eager to get there. It is a vibrant society where everything is happening at a fast pace — in retail, brands and commerce,” Velasquez explains his enthusiasm for the continent.

As a designer and trend spotter he cannot think of a better place to be. But, he also travels to stay on top of what is happening elsewhere. For example, there is a strong community of sneaker heads across the world and Tokyo is the nerve centre for sneaker heads. “You have to look at what they do and understand what trend is developing. Observe all, put in a blender, and come up with your own concept,” he explains.

Trade shows like ispo, Bread & Butter, Sportsource Asia in Hong Kong and the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City further provide inspiration. Wherever he travels he enjoys talking to retailers — asking them what works, and what doesn’t work. What are their customers looking for?

Because, ultimately, no matter how stunning your designs, you’re wasting your time if the customers don’t approve.

From the feedback received, Velasquez’s customers do approve. He is indeed a lucky man.

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