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Leaders: Are you dedicated to the people you serve?

The shoe company Vans shows the power of treating customers and employees as partners in good times and bad.

5 min read


Leaders: Are you dedicated to the people you serve?


Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Chip R. Bell.

He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and spent his days at the horse racing track without a job. His mother, worried about his future, got him a job sweeping the floors at Randy’s, a local shoe manufacturer.

By the time he was 34, he was executive vice president of Randy’s, by then one of the largest shoe companies in the country, with many factories. Sent to turn around a factory near Anaheim, Calif., he quickly transformed it into the company’s most productive factory.

Paul Van Doren, however, had a dream of owning his own brand. He left Randy’s and started the Van Doren Rubber Company on East Broadway in Anaheim in 1966. The goal was to make and sell high-quality sneakers. At this time, skateboarding was catching on in popularity, especially in southern California. Skateboarders needed a different kind of shoe to hug the skateboard that was durable enough to withstand the intense wear. Vans shoes would fit that bill.

On the store’s first morning, only 12 customers purchased sneakers, priced from $2.50 to $5 a pair. The customers were told to come back in the afternoon to pick up their shoes that would be manufactured that same day. When the customers returned, Paul had forgotten to get change for their transactions. The 12 customers were told to take their new shoes home and come back and pay for them the next day. Every customer returned to pay. It was a prophecy of the egalitarian manner in which the company would be run — dedicated to those they served.

The company became the leading producer of footwear for skateboarding, expanding as the organizer and sponsor of major skateboard competitions, huge rock concerts and as a builder and operator of skateboard parks. In 1988, Paul sold the company for $74 million in a leveraged buyout, but continued to expand the brand’s footprint and offerings. Later, VF Corp. purchased the company for $396 million. At 90, Paul is still the inspirational leader of Vans.

Here are three steps he used to achieve success.

Stay close to customers through a partnership

So, how did it all begin? The story goes that during the company’s very first week, a young woman came into the store complaining that Vans shoes needed to be crafted with bolder colors. Paul finally suggested she go to a nearby fabric store and pick out the colors she preferred. Bringing back fabric in bright pink and yellow, he crafted sneakers to her preferences. 

From that serendipitous start, Vans fans have been able to design their own kicks. Few features ramp up customer devotion more than allowing them to put skin in the game. Remember, customers will care when they share.

Take your challenges to your partners

Vans’ shoes were selling great, but the company quickly expanded to serve other sports through a range of products. The result was a drain in resources, with the company hitting a wall and unable to overcome its debt. Vans filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Instead of wringing his hands, Paul took the challenges to his employees. He warned employees not to expect a raise for at least three years and encouraged them to cut back on everything but shoe quality. His loyal employees, committed to Paul’s vision, held the company together, and Vans paid back all its creditors 100 cents on the dollar and emerged from Chapter 11.

Immerse yourself in your partner’s world

Paul’s vision was not shoes; it was about a process that linked customers with the company in a close partnership. Vans was able to remain on the cutting edge of the ever-changing expectations of its target market — skateboarders who respected Vans’ brand image of rebellion, originality and self-fulfillment. Vans’ jazz-striped shoes and its “off the wall” tagline attained cult status among its base who enjoyed lots of control over Vans products (color, style, materials and function).

The Warped Tour, which Vans started in 1995, is now North America’s longest-running music festival and a forum for nonstop customer learning. The tour has helped launch the careers of such artists as Eminem, Fall Out Boy, Paramore and My Chemical Romance.

Wise leaders view their customers as partners, not merely consumers. The more egalitarian and collaborative the customer relationship, the more likely customers will become long-term advocates. The more customers are allowed to put their signatures right alongside the provider’s as co-authors of the encounter, the more likely they will tell emotional and positive stories.

Take a page from Paul Van Doren and Vans shoes: Show your dedication to the ones you serve through trust, respect and inclusion.


Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and the author of several award-winning, best-selling books. Global Gurus in 2020 ranked him for the sixth straight year in the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service. His newest book is “Inside Your Customer’s Imagination,” which was released this month. 

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