Vans, Inc. History

15700 Shoemaker Avenue
Santa Fe Springs, California 90670

Telephone: (562) 565-8267
Fax: (562) 565-8406

Public Company
Incorporated: 1966 as Van Doren Rubber Co.
Employees: 1,688
Sales: $341.2 million (2001)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: VANS
NAIC: 316211 Rubber & Plastics Footwear Manufacturing; 448210 Shoe Stores

Company Perspectives:

VANS footwear, apparel and accessories are created to be comfortable, durable and stylish ... traits demanded by our customers. VANS-sponsored athletes, who are some of the most talented and colorful personalities in Core Sports, endorse and help design our products, providing a bond with our consumers that is strengthened by the credibility of our athletes and the authenticity of our brand.

Key Dates:

Paul Van Doren founds Van Doren Rubber Co.
Vans slip-on shoe is introduced.
Vans opens manufacturing plant in Orange, California.
Paul Van Doren sells company to McCown De Leeuw & Co. in leveraged buyout.
Gary Schoenfeld is named president and CEO.
Vans shuts down manufacturing facilities in Orange.
Vans skateboarding park opens in Orange, California.
Vans joins with Pacific Sunwear to form VanPac, a joint venture to market skateboarding apparel.

2000 and 2001: Forbes Magazine recognized Vans as one of "America’s Best Small Companies."

2002: Vans opened an enclosed skatepark in the Festival Bay Mall on International Drive in Orlando, Florida. The park was later closed on January 21, 2012.

2004: Vans launched the Vans "Customs" on its website. This allowed customers to log onto the Vans website and design their own pair of Vans Slip-ons, mid-cuts, or high-tops. Nowadays, it allows for the design of custom Era, Slip-On, Old Skool, Authentic, Authentic Lo-Pro, and 106 Vulcanized shoes.

2004: Vans acquired by VF Corporation for about $400 million.

Company History:

Vans, Inc. is a premier manufacturer of shoes and apparel for a target group of young and active consumers. Vans snowboarding boots and skateboarding sneakers are specifically designed for today's extreme sports culture, and are the footwear of choice among elite athletes worldwide. Through event sponsorships and a chain of skateboarding parks, Vans has forged a unique niche in the booming youth sportswear market. The company's unflagging commitment to tracking the latest trends has put it in an excellent position to grab an even larger market share as it heads into the 21st century.

Birth of a California Style: 1966

Paul Van Doren gained experience manufacturing shoes on the East Coast in the early 1960s. By 1965, Van Doren had developed the idea to start up his own plant. But instead of selling his shoes to retailers, Van Doren decided to take on retailing activities as well and to sell the shoes he manufactured directly to the public.

Van Doren, together with partners Serge D'Elia, an investor based in Japan, and Gordy Lee, who also had shoe manufacturing experience, moved to southern California, building a factory and opening a first 400-square-foot retail store in Anaheim in March 1966. The company was incorporated as the Van Doren Rubber Company, and Van Doren's shoes came to be known simply as Vans. Later, Van Doren's younger brother, James Van Doren, joined the company. Paul Van Doren and D'Elia owned the majority of the company; James Van Doren and Gordy Lee each were given a 10 percent stake.

As the company itself tells it, the opening of its first store was inauspicious. Vans offered three styles, priced from $2.49 to $4.99, but on the day the store opened for business, the company had only made display models. The store racks were filled with empty boxes. Nevertheless, 12 customers came into the store and chose the colors and styles they wanted. The customers were asked to come back in the afternoon, while Van Doren and Lee rushed to the factory to make their shoes. When the customers returned to pick up the shoes, Van Doren and Lee realized that they had neglected to have money available to make change. The customers were given the shoes and asked to return the next day to pay for them. All 12 customers did.

Over the next year, the company opened a new retail store almost every week. A pattern developed in which Paul Van Doren scouted locations on Monday, signed a lease on Tuesday, remodeled on Wednesday, added shoe racks on Thursday and displays on Friday, hired a store manager on Saturday, and trained staff on Sunday. Retail operations would generate the bulk of Van Doren's early sales; the stores also enabled the company to get close to its public. Complaints over the early design of the company's rubber soles, which featured a diamond pattern that cracked too easily along the ball of the outsole, led to the addition of vertical lines to the ball area. The new design was patented as Vans' waffle sole.

A new type of customer boosted the company's fortunes in the early 1970s. The skateboarding craze, an outgrowth of California's surfing culture, provided an opportunity for Van Doren to prove its flexibility. When skateboarders began requesting new colors and patterns, the company responded by offering the Era, a red-and-blue shoe designed by professional skateboarders. Vans quickly became the skateboard shoe of choice, beginning the company's long, and devoted, association with the sport. Many more color combinations and patterns were added in the 1970s. A new style, the slip-on, was introduced in 1979, and it became the rage of southern California.

In 1976, ownership of the company was equalized among the four original partners, and James Van Doren was given control of the company's direction. The younger Van Doren set out to expand the company. He was helped by the latest sports craze sweeping California, the BMX bicycle: Vans became the shoe of choice among the young BMXers. But it was a movie that gave Vans a national market.

From Dude to Dud in the 1980s

The 1982 hit film Fast Times at Ridgemont High featured the California surfer dude Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn, wearing a pair of Vans checkerboard slip-ons. The film made a star of Penn and launched Vans nationwide, bringing the company's shoes into department stores and independent retailers. With sales skyrocketing, James Van Doren boosted production capacity, moving the company to a new 175,000-square-foot plant in Orange, California, in 1984 and raising the number of employees to more than 1,000. The Vans slip-on craze spawned a variety of licensing agreements, including items such as sunglasses and notebooks. Van Doren also pushed the company deeper into specialty sports footwear, developing baseball, football, umpiring, basketball, soccer, wrestling, boxing, and skydiving shoes. Most companies had already begun to move manufacturing to Asia, where labor costs were lower and environmental regulations were less restrictive, but Vans remained dedicated to domestic production, while expanding product offerings to include widths from EEEE to AAAA.

Faced with high labor and expansion costs, and the expense of maintaining the breadth and depth of its line, Van Doren was soon hit by a flood of competitors selling cheap imitations and knockoffs. In response, Van Doren was forced to drop its prices below manufacturing costs. Adding to the company's troubles was a 1984 raid by federal immigration officials, which resulted in the arrest of nearly 150 suspected illegal workers. Then the bottom dropped out of the slip-on craze.

Over 21 months, Van Doren lost some $3.6 million, building up a total debt of $12 million. When the company's bank demanded payment on a $6.7 million note in 1984, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy. Conditions for its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization called for the ouster of James Van Doren. Paul Van Doren returned to lead the company out of bankruptcy, which was accomplished in 1986.

From Leveraged Buyout to Initial Public Offering: 1987-92

Demand for Vans shoes continued to be strong and, by 1987, with two million pairs of shoes manufactured at its Orange plant bringing in $50 million in sales, Van Doren returned to profitability. International sales, particularly to Mexico and Europe, were also growing strongly, accounting for 10 percent of company sales. A third of the company's business went to custom-designed shoes. In a time when almost all of the major sneaker makers had shifted production to South Korea, Vans clung to its tradition of domestic production, boasting order-to-delivery times of five days for its catalogue items, compared with an industry average of nine months.

In 1988, Paul Van Doren, explaining that he was tired of overseeing the company's day-to-day operations, agreed to sell the company in a leveraged buyout organized by the San Francisco-based venture banking firm McCown De Leeuw & Co. The leveraged buyout, worth $74.4 million including the assumption of existing liabilities, left Paul Van Doren in place as chairman and Gordy Lee as vice-chairman. Richard Leeuwenberg, formerly with Boise Cascade Corp., was brought in as president and CEO for the company, now renamed Vans, Inc.

In 1989, raids by U.S. and Mexican officials shut down several counterfeit operations that had flooded the market with cheap Vans imitations. Despite losses to counterfeits, Vans' sales topped $70 million in 1990, with international sales rising to 25 percent of sales, and special orders continuing to play a strong role in revenues. The following year, Vans went public, with an initial offering of 4.1 million shares, at $14 per share. Paul Van Doren, while retaining shares in the company, stepped down from the board.

By 1992, however, the recession of the early 1990s, and especially poor earnings performances among the major footwear producers, forced Vans' share price down to $7. Yet, revenues from the company's 70 retail stores and 4,500 independent outlets grew to $91 million, raising net income to $6.5 million in 1992. By then, more than 32 percent of sales came from international exports. But on the domestic front, Vans was losing ground.

Vans' production techniques had changed little in the past two decades. Although its catalogue offerings swelled to more than 200 different styles, its original canvas-and-rubber shoe continued to provide roughly half of its sales. But sport shoe fashions had changed in the 1990s, with new materials and styles eroding Vans' market. The other manufacturers were producing their shoes in Asia, where labor costs were as low as 14 cents an hour. Foreign production allowed manufacturers to use solvents and other materials that were closely controlled by California's environmental regulation.

Vans clung to domestic production, spending $5 million to build a state-of-the-art plant in Vista, California. But sales and earnings were slipping, down to $86.5 million and $2.7 million, respectively, in 1993, and to $80.5 million and $1.4 million in 1994. In 1993, the company again ran afoul of immigration laws; 300 employees were deported and the company was fined $400,000.

Enter Walter Schoenfeld: 1993

By 1993, Vans sought to replace Richard Leeuwenberg. Gary Schoenfeld, then a partner at McCown De Leeuw suggested his father, Walter Schoenfeld. In the late 1960s, the senior Schoenfeld had joined his father's company, a small maker of ties. In 1971, Schoenfeld launched a new division, to be called Brittania Sportswear, with $1.5 million raised equally among himself, two investors, and a bank. Brittania married the burgeoning blue jeans trend with coordinated jackets, sportshirts, and sweaters. Sales took off from $100,000 in 1973 to more than $50 million in 1975, and Schoenfeld Industries revenues increased to more than $300 million by 1981. In the early 1980s, Schoenfeld sold Brittania to Levi Strauss and retired.

Brought out of retirement to head Vans, Schoenfeld acted to expand the Vans product line, going overseas for the first time to manufacture a new line of shoes in step with the current fashion. Schoenfeld also addressed the company's troubled chain of retail stores, which had been hit hard by California's continued recession, closing some stores and converting others as factory outlets to siphon off misfired shoes and excess inventory. Schoenfeld sought to boost the company's marketing efforts, hiring new designers and marketing staff. In 1994, with revenues and profits on the rise again, Schoenfeld retired again, bringing in Christopher G. Staff, former president and CEO of the Speedo and Action Sports divisions of Authentic Fitness Corp.

Sales of Vans's foreign-made "international collection" took off and soon accounted for as much as 75 percent of the company's revenues. Domestic production, however, had become a drag on the company's profits. Sales were falling, inventory was climbing, and Vans stock dropped to a low of $3.125. To stem problems, the company laid off 300 workers, then idled their plants for two weeks in March 1995. In May 1995, Schoenfeld came out of retirement again, resuming leadership of the company.

In July 1995, the company closed its Orange plant, firing nearly all of the 1,000 workers there. Restructuring and write-off charges from the plant closing created most of the company's $37 million loss on its $88 million in 1995 revenues. The Vista plant continued operations, but most of Vans' production was now contracted through a dozen or so factories in South Korea.

Importantly, Schoenfeld worked to change the focus of the company. From a company rooted in manufacturing, Vans would become far more market-oriented, that is, producing what would sell, rather than selling what it produced. The introduction of the Vans line of snowboarding boots in 1995 added $7 million to gross sales and within one year gained the company the number three position among the leaders in that market. Deeper expansion into women's and children's lines also produced strong successes. With analyst estimates of revenues climbing to $118 million, with earnings reaching to $4 million, and with its stock rebounding to $11 per share in early 1996, Vans appeared, finally, to be on a steady course for the future.

Sportswear Trends in the 21st Century

Vans snowboard boots played a vital role in the company's resurgence as a major contender in the youth sportswear market. Sales of the boots rose from 6,000 in 1995 to over 110,000 in 1996, and almost singlehandedly restored the company to profitability after the near disastrous losses suffered following the closing of the Orange plant. The growing popularity of snowboarding in Europe and Japan also provided the company's overseas business with a significant boost. Vans further strengthened its foothold in overseas markets in 1998, when it opened retail outlets in Liverpool, England, and Barcelona, Spain. Overall, international sales more than doubled between 1997 and 2001, from $46.4 million to $98.2 million.

A more diversified line of shoes, designed for a wider range of outdoor sports, also contributed to the company's rapid growth. In addition to launching new lines of skateboarding shoes named after world-class athletes such as Geoff Rowley and Cory Nastazio, the company also introduced a number of products aimed at women, including the distinctive Compel Tones line, white leather shoes that changed colors when exposed to ultraviolet light. The company also responded to the increasing popularity of women's sports by developing plans to introduce a complete line of women's outdoor shoes by the spring of 2002.

The primary impetus behind this expanded product line proved to be the shift from domestic to global manufacturing. Because plants overseas were able to produce shoes more cheaply and quickly than their American counterparts, Vans was able to respond to the latest trends with more immediacy than had previously been possible. The subsequent rise in the company's profitability made domestic down-sizing inevitable; the company shut down its Vista operations permanently in 1998, and began contracting out all of its manufacturing to factories in China and Korea.

In 1997 Vans took an even bolder step toward diversification when it introduced a line of young men's apparel. While sales of the Vans clothing line were initially insubstantial, they received a major boost in 1999, when the company joined forces with Pacific Sunwear to form VanPac, with the goal of becoming the dominant name in skateboarding apparel in the United States. The marriage of the Vans name and Pacific Sunwear's extensive retail network proved to be a fortuitous one for both companies, and the new venture was soon able to compete for market share with such established brands as Rusty and Quiksilver.

Vans further solidified its reputation as the brand of choice for skateboarders with the opening of its 46,000-square-foot indoor skateboarding park in Orange, California, in 1998. The venture quickly proved profitable, inspiring the company to launch a series of similar parks nationwide. By the end of 2001 Vans owned four skateboarding parks in California, along with parks in New Jersey, Virginia, Texas, and Colorado. At the same time, the company was generating a great deal of publicity through sponsorship of a range of Triple Crown sporting events, including skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross, and surfing. With its diversified product line, highly publicized event sponsorships, and popular skateboarding facilities, Vans was clearly right back in the thick of things.

After V.F. bought Vans for about $400 million in 2004, the company made it part of its outdoor and action sports business, where Vans has since become V.F.'s star performer alongside other brands such as sportswear apparel maker North Face. Despite sales declines for US manufacturers during the economic downturn, Vans has helped V.F. grow its revenue. Extending its reach to China in 2008, the footwear firm is one of its parent's most popular brands worldwide. Indeed, sales for Vans rose 20% in fiscal 2011 vs. 2010, thanks to growth in domestic and international markets. The shoe maker attributes the boost to new store openings, comparable store sales growth, and an expanded e-commerce business.

Internationally, Vans has begun to tap the huge market in China, where it boasts about half a dozen in-store shops in department stores in Beijing and Shanghai, and its own Vans store in Shanghai. To this end, Vans aims to be a more than $1 billion company by 2013. Elsewhere, the retailer operates an outlet on Carnaby Street in London as its flagship retail store in Europe. In Mexico, where Vans has marketed its products through a 50%-owned joint venture, the manufacturer in 2010 took full ownership -- and control of its product in the country -- by purchasing the remaining interest in the joint venture.

Principal Subsidiaries: VanPac LLC (51%).

Principal Competitors: Converse Inc.; K2 Inc.; NIKE, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • Apodaca, Patrice. "Vans Inc. to Build Skate Park at Mall in Orange," Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1998, p. D2.
  • Barron, Kelly. "Vans, Famous for Sneakers, Boosts Status with Snowboard Boots," Orange County Register, March 2, 1996.
  • Ferguson, Tim W., "Grandpa to the Grunges," Forbes, February 12, 1996, p. 88.
  • Granelli, James S., "Little Leverage in Shoemaker's Buyout," Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1989, Sec. 4, p. 9F.
  • Lee, Don, "Sneaker Maker Had--Till Now--Bounced Back," Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1995, p. D1.
  • Maio, Patrick J., "Kicking," Investor's Daily, January 31, 1996, p. A4.
  • McAllister, Robert, "Vans Optimistic with Schoenfeld at the Helm," Footwear News, August 9, 1993, p. 108.
  • Paris, Ellen, "As the Twig Is Bent," Forbes, April 27, 1981, p. 131.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 47. St. James Press, 2002.