Mark Parsley, CEO, Earth Shoes
Mark Parsley has been quite busy. Since joining Earth Shoes in February 2020 as president (he was named CEO this July), the veteran shoe exec has rolled up his sleeves to reimagine, redesign and rebuild the entire operation. It involves an all-hands-on-deck effort spanning brand repositions, product extensions, portfolio additions (the first is the Tamaris license for North American distribution beginning this fall), a complete overhauling of the ecommerce platform and a customer service department revamp and relocation, to cite a few projects. Not even the pandemic and its epic industry-wide disruption has put the brakes on Parsley’s vision to transform Earth Shoes into what he sees as the company’s vast untapped potential. And he’s not the only believer: Private investment firm Windsong Global and Hilco Brands’ recently acquired a majority stake in the company that, Parsley says, will provide the financial foundation to make his vision a reality.
“My intent from day one was to find a partner that will enable us to do all the things that need and could be done, and Windsong Global is definitely that partner,” Parsley says. “They aren’t just investors. They want to be both an investor and an operator.” Parsley adds that Windsong will provide the baseline of financial support, in good times and bad. “I don’t care how strong or how bad your businesses may be, it’s all about cash flow,” he says. “Companies need that consistent level of support, and this investment makes us a strong company so we can be around for another 50 years.”
Parsley believes the investment is a win-win scenario for all parties involved. First, Earth Shoes’ founders, the Meynard family, get to unburden themselves of day-to-day fiscal responsibilities. (Current chairman Philippe Meynard remains on the company’s board of directors and will work on special development projects.) Second, Windsong can tap into Earth Shoes’ extensive footwear-making capabilities for its portfolio. Third, Earth Shoes can tap into Windsong’s lifestyle product expertise for what Parsley believes is a brand name with limitless lifestyle potential, especially given consumers’ increasing concerns about sustainability and social good.
“Windsong’s expertise in accessories, apparel and sportswear will give us the opportunity to build the Earth brand beyond footwear,” Parsley says, noting that the lifestyle brand repositioning is based on three pillars: community, hope and action, as well as finding ways to build a better Earth. “I can’t think of a better brand name to talk about matters related to sustainability and community. I believe we can check off all the boxes and help build a better Earth—a call to action in whatever we make to have some sort of purpose that’s good for the planet,” Parsley says. “We want consumers to be part of the conversation so we can all work together to find a better way.”
In some regards, Parsley started on his Earth Shoes’ journey even before he officially arrived in early 2020. He always saw the potential. “I knew the power of this brand and what it represents,” he says. “I’m excited about the future because I have a great partner in Windsong, and they believe in us and support us 110 percent. The future really looks bright for us.”
Of course, the pandemic’s dark clouds are still thick. Until those skies clear, Parsley expects business to remain challenging for everyone. Sourcing, shipping, pricing…it’s all upside down and epically unpredictable. “It’s just been nuts,” he says. “These last 18 months have been the most challenging of my career, on all fronts.” Parsley says there’s no playbook; everyone must do their best to pivot and find ways to source and ship shoes. “We’re trying to figure our way out of Asia because of the problems with logistics, all the craziness with the ports and just what’s going on in the world in general,” he says. “It’s unbelievable how many companies are trying to look elsewhere to source right now—Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, Spain and Turkey are now big hot spots for footwear.” Parsley says navigating the disruption is a work-in-progress for Earth Shoes, but he awards high marks to the company for weathering the storm. “For us to overcome all the hurdles—even before Covid—and put this company on the right track…it’s amazing what we’ve accomplished,” he says. “I’m really proud of that.”
The way Parsley sees it, he’s already got the solid foundation in place. Having spent nearly 20 years working at Jimlar Corp. and Mark Fisher Footwear, he knows that’s the key. “One thing I learned at those companies is that it’s like building a house,” he says. “If you have a really good foundation, then you can start putting that second, third, etc. floors on. Earth Shoes has the foundation to do what I was part of doing during 20 years of brand acquisitions and license deals.” Parsley adds, “I know how that process works, and that’s the vision for Earth Shoes.”
In addition to a solid foundation, new investors and a hand-picked team joining the effort, Parsley points to another factor that bodes well for Earth Shoes going forward. Despite all the logistical chaos and macro shifts in how consumers shop and what they are buying, demand overall for shoes and, in particular, for Earth Shoes’ brands remains strong, he reports. “Our customers love our shoes and are very loyal to our brands,” Parsley says, noting sales are up this year and bookings for next spring have increased significantly. “Our product reviews are amazing—they’re our golden ticket.”
The biggest challenge now is meeting demand. “We really don’t have the inventory we normally have, and that’s a problem,” Parsley admits. Of course, that’s a relatively good problem to have. “We have to look at the glass as half full,” he says. “We have to be proactive, not reactive. We have to take it one day at a time and do what we can to make a positive difference in our business. We’ll get through this. We’ll find a way to survive and to succeed.”
Despite the industry-wide disruption of late, you appear to be executing a sound plan to transform Earth Shoes.
We are, and I think that’s a big reason Windsong not only liked owning the IP of Earth, but they saw the infrastructure already in place with a team of seasoned footwear executives. It’s a win-win. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for us to learn from each other, and we’re looking at other footwear companies, whether it’s through a license or an acquisition. Of course, no one planned on the pandemic but, despite everything that it’s unleashed, we’re moving forward with our plans—from the lifestyle reposition of the Earth brand to all the other extensive plans to reinvent and build this company. On that note, we just introduced our first lifestyle brand extension in the form of an Earth Origins sock that features 20 percent recycled fibers. It’s made by Windsong’s Daytona Apparel Group division. Going forward, we can assist in making footwear for some of their brands. We have the platform already in place.
The brands currently in the portfolio are now more distinct from each other, correct?
Yes. Before I came aboard, there was Earth, Earth Origins and Earth Sphere. The latter being our Walmart brand that we’ve been doing for 28 years. However, Earth and Earth Origins were the same shoes, just priced differently. So we decided to reposition Earth and then we’ll relaunch it properly this spring. Meanwhile, Earth Elements is now our better, more sustainable brand that’s sits between Kalso and Earth Origins, price-wise. Elements is sold at better-grade independents as well as department stores like Nordstrom and Dillard’s, while Earth Origins has a much broader distribution. Kalso is a premium brand (SRP: $200-plus) aimed specifically at consumers who seek the negative heel construction. Most importantly, they all look distinct now. There’s also a white space in women’s at the $100-$130 range that we’re targeting with a Fall ’22 capsule collection within Earth Origins. We’re calling it Made on Earth. It’ll be a sustainable-driven collection that I believe has the potential to turn into something big. I love it so far. These are the kinds of opportunities that we have to look at in this business going forward.
Like the repositioning of Earth into a lifestyle brand?
Yes. As part of that overall effort, we’re in the process of designing a new collection under the Earth name that will serve as a brand halo. We’ve been working on the collection for about a year and a half now. The lead designer worked previously for Nike and Puma. When you see these shoes, they’ll blow your mind. The renderings are incredible!
Think of it this way: When you see concept cars at a show and you immediately think you’d drive that car today. Well, these shoes (a runner, a casual and a slide style) look as original and cool as those concept cars. They’re new, innovative and different. So many shoes in this industry are just not original looking. These are. They’ll be manufactured in Portugal and priced $200-plus. It’ll be a very focused distribution to start, where we may partner with one key retailer in addition to drops on our site to get started. It’ll be a go-to-market strategy backed by an MVP website to get the consumer engaged into the conversation so we can start building the brand.
Who is this Earth target customer?
First off, they’re unisex styles. We broke the brand down into three buckets within the Gen Z and young Millennial demographics. Specifically, we’re targeting the professional, the yogi and the creative. They all look at things a little differently, and we’ve identified what each of those customers represent. That’s part of our go-to-market strategy as we plant the seeds to launch this collection.
What are some other seeds being planted?
We’re always looking to expand into new categories. For instance, we’re introducing a new Trail category under Earth Origins for Spring ’22. As everyone well knows, the pandemic has led to a lot of consumers hitting the trails to exercise safely. We don’t see that trend slowing down any time soon. We also think trail is a perfect fit with our brand name. However, this isn’t the same crossover approach of a men’s style so commonly found in this category. The color palette and specs are aimed at what women want. It’s a trail shoe that serves a purpose and features partially recycled uppers and outsoles, but the shoes are really cute. We’ve gotten a good initial reaction—we opened Sun & Ski at the recent Outdoor Retailer show.
How are you getting the word out about the Trail collection?
To help get Trail off the launch pad, we’re planning a cross promotion with a subscription box company for dog owners that has 1 million subscribers. We’re going to create an Earth Origins Trail shoe chewy toy as a promotional add-in to the box. Their subscribers—75 percent of whom are women—are right in our demographic wheelhouse. We also want to tie it into our one tree planted with every pair sold campaign and have it timed around Earth Day. We’ll also send an email to our customers and engage them possibly with a giveaway for a box subscription. So, ideally, our customers will subscribe and their customers will buy shoes. It’s a win-win. Bigger picture: We need to think outside the box to expand our business where we have opportunities to do so and that make sense. To that end, we have to look at new categories and customers to build our business. We’re confident we can achieve that.
Why is Tamaris a good fit for the portfolio?
First of all, it’s one of the biggest shoe brands in Europe. They sell about 30 million pairs annually in that market. You see its presence on pretty much any street corner. It’s also a step above of what we do in the comfort space and it has a little more of a fashion twist to it. So, we see Tamaris as a great opportunity to build business in some better distribution channels where we can’t take Earth Origins. And Tamaris is excited about the partnership because they tried to enter the U.S. market about five years ago but struggled to gain traction. Like a lot of Euro comfort brands that have tried to break into this market and failed, you have to have boots on the ground. We have all the infrastructure already in place. Our distribution center in South Haven, MS, is about 200,000 square feet. It’s not third-party run. We can drop-ship roughly 12,000 pairs a day. That’s a lot. Another great thing about the Tamaris deal: We don’t have to do any development. We just merchandise the collection on what we think is best for the U.S. So, all in all, Tamaris is very excited about what we bring to the table and the opportunity it brings for us both. We are too.
How has the reaction been to Tamaris’ fall collection from retailers?
Phenomenal. Although, we were late, not surprisingly, delivering shoes. Nordstrom was our first customer. They’ve done well. We just need more inventory. I’m sick of saying that, but it’s the truth.
Do you see supply chain problems improving anytime soon?
We thought last spring that this fall would be much better. But it’s gotten worse, unfortunately. I think next spring will still be difficult. I keep asking our COO (Al Gervais), who I worked with at Mark Fisher for years, how do we hedge our bets pricing shoes and predicting deliveries with lead times so much further out than normal? Before, you could turn something around in 90 days. That’s not even remotely possible now. So, to answer your question, I think it will get a little better, but it won’t be until Fall ’22 that we see a light at the end of the tunnel. Then again, who really knows? It’s so unpredictable right now.
It’s hard enough to predict what a consumer might want 90 days in advance. How do you have any idea if the lead time is more than double?
You don’t know. You have to take a lot of risks. You have to gamble. The only thing going for everyone right now is that there’s just not a lot of inventory available, so retailers have to buy something. Fortunately for us, we have a long history and we have a very good idea what our consumer wants and is likely to buy from us. We’re a commodity-based business. We’re about comfort, fit and value. So it’s probably a little easier for us than for some other brands to predict what will sell.
How much is Earth Shoes still producing in China?
We still have a lot of development there. You just can’t just walk away from it that easily and ramp up production elsewhere. That said, we’re sourcing in Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar, although the latter was a disaster with the coup. We had 250,000 pairs sitting in trucks, but they never made it onto a boat because the government seized everything. Every wholesaler will tell you similar horror stories. I mean, look at Nike. Because of Vietnam’s issues, Nike won’t be able to make 160 million pairs. And that drives up prices for everyone because Nike will take over other factories trying to make up for the shortfall as much as possible. It’s just gotten out of control and every vendor is frustrated.
Care to share an example of frustration?
I heard about one vendor that had an Aug. 1 delivery date for a national chain. The date has already been pushed out a few times, and now the shipment isn’t expected until November. Normally that retailer would have just cancelled the order. But now they initially asked for a 20 percent discount followed by 15 percent and 10 percent. They were rebuffed each time until they said they’ll take the shoes. The have little choice, because another retailer will snap them up at that initial price. Worse, if they cancelled the order, they may have empty shelves. Everyone is struggling to find inventory. That’s why the industry is so upside down right now. And that’s why everyone is looking at other countries to source. For example, we recently took a couple of shoes to Mexico where the speed to market plus NAFTA outweighs the higher factory costs, which is a little more expensive than Asian countries. The lower logistics costs and duties alone will offset whatever those factory increases are. If that works, that could be a great opportunity for us. We’re also looking at going back to Brazil.
What is the main goal for the rest of this year?
Real simple: deliver shoes and fulfill every order that we possibly can. Everyone is feeling that pinch now. A year ago, some discount majors had the pick of the litter, buying tons of inventory at ridiculous prices. Now the tables have turned. They can’t get inventory, and there are no close-outs, which means they’ve got to make up shoes. We can do that for them, but we’re not going to compromise our product just to lower the price. The reason being: If a customer were to buy an inferior shoe and have a bad experience, she’ll likely never buy our brand again. But if she has a positive experience, then I can keep her no matter where she shops. So those retailers have to take a hard look at their business model—just like everybody else. It likely means price increases. And I believe it’s high time they do. I’ve been doing this for a long time and retail prices for shoes have never really gone up, but manufacturing cost have risen quite a bit. So, this disruption is actually giving the industry an opportunity to correct itself. We have to elevate prices. We can’t continue to sell $39, $49, and $59 shoes. It’s just not profitable. If the price of a 40-foot container before Covid was $3,000 on average and now it’s as high as $22,000, you can’t make a profit without raising prices. You just can’t absorb those kinds of extreme logistics cost increases, not to mention the 8 percent duties on leather goods made in China, plus another 7.5 percent tariff.
Any resistance to Earth Shoes’ price increases?
No. And that’s the point I’ve been making to our wholesale customers: Our consumers are willing to pay more for the shoes than what you’re charging. This is an opportunity for you to take advantage of this. Our customer is willing to pay $80 for that shoe, rather than going to Nordstrom Rack and maybe buying it for $59.99. They don’t need to match that. That’s why I think we have to keep pushing our retails up. We’ve also been running less sales than ever before on our ecommerce site, and our business has remained very strong. Our pricing for Earth Origins has really elevated. We have a lot of shoes at the $90-$100 range, which is where it should be for that type of footwear. And our Earth Elements is in the $150 to$180.
How has the shift to running fewer sales gone?
Very well. When I got here, the company was heavily promoting, which only got worse once the pandemic hit because everybody freaked out thinking that they had too much inventory. But last summer I turned that sales switch off. I went back to a regular priced model and increased retails where they needed to be. We only had one sale (Memorial Day) this spring. What’s more, every time we had the opportunity to put something on sale, we substituted it with an offer of free shipping, and our business exploded! We also shifted our email marketing approach. Instead of talking about price, price, price, we now talk about fashion and the product. It’s working really well—our emails now represent 35 percent of our online revenue.
So, less sales have meant more sales overall?
Yes. Remember when Nordstrom only had two sales a year? As a consumer, you were conditioned that if you saw something you liked, you’d better buy it because it may not be there by the time one of those sales came around. That’s how we need to be thinking about our business. Daily emails touting sales aren’t really effective. In contrast, I love the emails Todd Snyder sends. I instructed our team to mimic their frequency and content. So, for example, we’ll talk about a new boot’s features and benefits and fashion in general. We don’t just talk price. Since we started doing that, customers have been coming more to our website and buying more shoes. The ROI is amazing. Along those lines, before I got here, the company was spending money on ecommerce like a drunken sailor. So last summer I hired a consultant to conduct an audit of what we were doing right and wrong. Basically, the audit revealed that if we did the opposite of what we had been doing, we would be ok. So, we’ve flipped the script and it’s made a big difference in our ecommerce business.
Props to Todd Snyder, then.
Yes! His messaging is spot-on. His customer service is excellent, as well. That’s another thing we’ve done: We built a new customer service team and moved it to Memphis, TN, near our distribution center. I’ve set the standard really high. In fact, I don’t even call it customer service anymore. It’s customer loyalty, because it’s important that when a customer reaches out to us, whether it’s by email or phone, that it’s one touch. We’ll solve the problem, right then and there. If a shoe doesn’t fit right and they want to return it, let’s speak directly with that customer about what can we do to make it right for them. Those are the little things that will continue to pay dividends as we grow this business.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that every day is a new adventure. It’s just exciting to be in this position, and that I get to make decisions in all facets of the business to keep us moving forward. It keeps me on my toes. That’s the fun part of this job: creating opportunities. I always say, just make a decision. I don’t care if you make the wrong one, because that’s better than not making any decision. Just don’t make the wrong one twice. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We just have to keep thinking outside the box.
A look back on Mark Parsley’s three-plus decades of building sales, brands and, now, an entire company.
As a child growing up in Charleston, WV, Mark Parsley dreamed of becoming an architect. And while a career in structural design didn’t pan out, the veteran shoe exec never lost his love of buildings—and building businesses.
“To this day, I’m obsessed with architectural design,” Parsley says. “When shopping the market, I’m looking at the buildings as much as shoes. And if I walked into your house, I’d probably suggest knocking down a wall or something.”
Parsley credits his ability to “see through things” as a talent that serves him well in building shoes and brands. “I can look at a sketch or a prototype and visualize what that shoe could look like completed and why it could be successful,” he says. “It’s a structure, just like a building.” The same goes for brand building.
Parsley’s building talents have served him well in other facets of the business. It started with his knack for building impressive sales numbers and solid relationships—first as a rep for Allen Edmonds, followed by successful runs with Bostonian and Timberland. During this period, Parsley built quite a reputation: His name increasingly came up in C-suite circles discussing potential managerial up-and-comers. Industry trailblazers Larry and Jim Tarica, former owners of Jimlar Corp., were two such Parsley spotters. They hired him as a senior vice president in 1998. But, as shoe lore goes, it wasn’t that simple. Parsley had just accepted a position managing East Coast sales for Ecco when Larry Tarica called, out of the blue, with a job offer. Parsley initially said thanks, but no thanks. The Taricas persisted, luring him with an offer to learn the business from the ground up.
“Larry wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Parsley recalls. He finally agreed to meet in-person in Great Neck, NY. “He told me I’d learn everything about the business—sourcing, product, design, sales, marketing, financing…all of it. I realized that I could learn a lot more than just being a sales guy. I was sold.”
And Parsley did learn the shoe business inside and out, as the Taricas promised. What’s more, he adored his employers. “Larry and Jim are two of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet,” he says. “They’re like family.” In fact, the only reason Parsley left—in 2007—was because the Taricas wanted him to relocate closer to their Long Island headquarters. A born Southerner, Parsley refused to move his family from their home in Charlotte, NC. “It wasn’t about money,” he says. “I simply didn’t want to move.”
His next career move felt like a case of déjà vu all over again. Out of the blue, Mark Fisher called Parsley with an enticing offer to join his start-up team. Parsley cut right to the chase. A move to the Greenwich, CT, area would be a non-starter. Fortunately, “Mark didn’t care where I lived,” Parsley says, noting that he was the only non-Nine West veteran on the team. Over the next decade, Parsley helped introduce an array of new brands as the operation grew into a multi-branded conglomerate. “It was a great experience,” he says. “I learned from another one of the industry’s best, who learned from the best in his father and Vince Camuto.”
Having built such a solid foundation in all facets of the business, it was only a matter of time before Parsley would be entrusted with running a company. That opportunity came this summer when he was promoted from president to CEO of Earth Shoes, a family-owned business launched more than 50 years ago by another industry legend, the late Michele Meynard. Parsley sees this as his dream job—one he believes he’s been preparing for all along. Call it shoe destiny. “I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career to have worked with some of the best people and brands in the industry,” he says. “I couldn’t have scripted it any better, and now I’m putting a team together that I believe represents some of the best in product and sales to help grow a company with enormous potential. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have this opportunity.” —G.D.
Mark Parsley, CEO, Earth Shoes