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With Their Best Feet Forward : They Are 3 Shoemakers Interested in Making a Better Shoe--and Passionate About Building a Better World : Bruce Katz, Rockport

July 07, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Los Angeles Times

BOSTON — Their common professional calling consists of cushioning the human foot's contact with the ground. They are cobblers, shoe magnates who might well be content to lace up their hefty profits and let others fret about mankind's moral bunions.

But Paul Fireman, Bruce Katz and Sheri Poe are three shoemakers with soul. Beyond their chosen line of endeavor they share little but the geography of New England. Yet in each of these footwear manufacturers, entrepreneurial acumen has fueled an equal appetite for social activism.

Their causes are varied. Fireman, chief executive officer of Reebok International Ltd., has taken on human rights as his personal and corporate mission. Katz, co-founder of Rockport Shoes, sold out of the shoe biz and used the money to leap into the arena of community change via on-line communication. Poe, founder of Ryka Inc., is a rape survivor and has dedicated herself to the goal of ending violence against women.

Fireman--only partially in jest--offered regional similarities as a possible explanation for their high level of social consciousness. "Maybe it's something in the water," he said. "And if it is, we should spread it around."

Here are these shoemakers' stories.

The last thing in the world Bruce Katz (pronounced Kates) intended to do was follow in his father's professional footsteps. He built his first computer at 13, back in the days when a computer was the size of a rec room, and turned up his toes at the mere mention of the shoe business. That was the domain of his dad, Saul. Engineering, his major at Cornell, was what Bruce had in mind.

But he got sidetracked by good, healthy American ambition. There he was in 1972, haunting the hippie emporiums of Harvard Square, hawking moccasins from the back of his pickup. "Basically I went into the (shoe) business to make a little money, and then leave," Katz said.

To his amazement, "I really had fun, and I learned a lot." He quickly realized that he was strolling in, so to speak, on the beginning of the walking-for-fitness movement. With his father, he launched Rockport shoes, now the metatarsal mainstay of many foot-weary Americans. For a while, Katz published Walking magazine while also marketing proudly clod-hopping footwear. He watched his little back-of-the-truck enterprise grow to a $300-million success story.

If Katz was becoming a millionaire, he was also turning into a believer--"in social change, and political activism, which I had never been much involved in. I got convinced that you could actually change things."

But while funding fitness-related medical research, Katz chafed at the number of hands extended in his direction. "Giving money to various organizations was very frustrating," he recalled. "The need is endless."

In 1986, Katz sold Rockport--to, coincidentally, Reebok. Determined "to go out and solve some of the world's problems," Katz headed straight to San Francisco, his idea of heaven. There he established an investment firm and a philanthropic group called the Springhouse Foundation, which benefits the needy, the environment and the arts.

But the fit was far from perfect. In the nonprofit arena, the 47-year-old Katz said from his office in Sausalito, "I felt completely uncomfortable. People sat around and talked and talked. Nobody had the operational sense that I found in business."

*

Still tinkering with his computers, meanwhile, Katz cast about for a community-based cause that would employ his engineering skills as well as his entrepreneurship. He was particularly taken by the WELL, an Internet conferencing system started in 1985 by the crowd who had brought out the Whole Earth Catalogs.

WELL participants share ideas in "forums," or discussion areas, ranging from virtual reality to cooking. A bachelor living in San Francisco's serene Pacific Heights district, Katz was electronically surrounded by the likes of lawyers, doctors, musicians, carpenters, hobbyists and more. It was a neighborhood pub without all the smoke, a seminar with no exams, a calorie-free dinner party. It was a cozy, cosmopolitan salon where if a bore showed up, you could delete him.

In this disembodied but burbling intellectual environment, Katz was a contented computer camper--so much so that in 1991, he became a 50-50 partner in the enterprise. Last January, he bought the whole electronic campground for an undisclosed amount.

Katz's first order of business was to increase accessibility to the WELL, the better to stimulate wider discussions and, perchance, change from the ground up. While "up until now, communication with large numbers of people was really the bailiwick of the very wealthy," he said, a vast conferencing system enables community groups to transmit their messages anywhere they want.

Katz said his modest goal is to get the whole world talking to each other, and to generate change from the kind of conversations that used to take place over the back fence.

Out of this effort, Katz believes, "is going to come some really nifty ways to organize people and to make some changes that will make all of our lives better."

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