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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 : Paul Fireman, Reebok

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.

Just a dozen or so years ago, Paul Fireman is entirely comfortable admitting, he wouldn't have recognized social responsibility if it had come calling at his door.

"I'd never heard of it," said the 50-year-old Fireman, who was raised in a family of shoe manufacturers in the gritty hamlet of Brockton, Mass. "I didn't even know the words."

Fireman, who today continues to fight a middle-aged bulge despite a serious golf habit and frequent trips to the company gym, knew only that "I wanted to make a difference."

And why not? Reebok, after all, was going gangbusters; Fireman had acquired an athletic shoe business just when health-obsessed Americans began insisting on entire wardrobes of high-priced, sport-specific footwear. In 1981, Reebok recorded $1.5 million in sales. Five years later, the figure had grown to $916 million.

But to Fireman, meteoric profits were not inconsistent with an altruistic company spirit. "From Day One," he said, "I didn't want this to look like, taste like or smell like an American corporation of the '50s, '60s or '70s."

He was a onetime shoe salesman, not some senescent social protester. Even so, "I had grown to hate the mainstream world, with all the compromises you had to make just to show up at the front door. I thought Reebok should operate slightly differently."

Well aware of the boss's philosophy, Reebok's ad agency approached Fireman in 1986 with a proposal to sponsor an international rock music tour for Amnesty International. "It seemed like a good idea," Fireman decided, even if $10 million was a lot of money for a few concerts.

Little did Fireman realize when he agreed to sponsor Amnesty's Human Rights Now World Concert Tour--featuring such celebrities as Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Sting--that a funny thing would happen on the way to the tour.

"We got bit by the bug," Fireman said in a 1992 speech at the Columbia University Business School. "Amnesty opened our eyes, and we became passionate about human rights."

The feeling was not initially mutual from the human rights community. "They were skeptical to the extreme," Fireman said. "They kept us in abeyance"--a polite understatement, Fireman conceded. "We were suits. They held in disdain the business community as a whole. In their minds, we were businessmen who did all the wrong things."

Better, Fireman was gently informed, to stick to the traditional "side-door" route of quietly pouring money into existing foundations. No thanks, Fireman said. In 1988, he initiated the annual Reebok Human Rights Awards, offering no-strings-attached grants of $25,000 to people 30 or younger who were making "significant contributions to the cause of human rights--often against great odds." The Rev. Carl Washington of Los Angeles was a 1993 winner, recognized for his leadership in curbing violence after the 1992 riots.


Fireman--often with one of his Human Rights Award board members, former President Jimmy Carter, by his side--was more than just the guy who handed out the checks. He was also the CEO who made sure that human rights production standards were in place at 40 Reebok-affiliated facilities around the world, and who made sure that "business decisions were made inclusive of human rights."

Publicly traded Reebok's profits were flat in 1993, and some hard-eyed corporate analysts and executives wondered about this father of three--married to the same wife since forever--who didn't look a bit like Ben or Jerry yet still preached a do-gooder doctrine.

"Is it good business?" Fireman asked. "I don't know if it sells any more shoes, but I don't think that's our intention." Fireman is entirely aware that he might just as well have opted for a more benign cause than the social ills of East Timor, Kurdistan, Mozambique and even these United States. But he is adamant that "we didn't do this to become powerful. We did it to do some good. We did it to change the world."

And anyway, he said, "It feels better. What the heck?"

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