Bruce Katz, who with his father started Rockport Shoe Co. in 1971 and established walking shoes as a vibrant footwear category, died June 26 in Greenbrae, California. He was 75.
His brother, Roger, said he died in a hospital from complications of a fall at his home in Mill Valley, California.
In the late 1970s, Katz developed a comfortable, casual shoe that became the foundation of Rockport’s business. The company was a pioneer in the use of features such as cushioned, removable orthotics — or foot beds, as they are also called — to provide internal comfort and structure.
“Bruce was the first person, in an era of leather-soled shoes, to have the foresight to understand the concept of building footwear for walking and comfort,” Robert Goldberg, president of the Manhattan retailer Harry’s Shoes, said. “From that inspiration, the whole rubber-soled shoe business really developed.”
Advertisements for the company’s popular RocSport shoe stressed that “feet have feelings, too,” and that “if you were a foot, this would make you drool.”
Katz backed his walking shoes with a campaign designed to turn walking into a fitness movement. He sponsored a yearlong walk, from 1984 to 1985, around the United States by chemical engineer Robert Sweetgall, who wore Rockport’s new Pro Walker shoe over more than 11,000 miles to demonstrate the cardiovascular benefits of walking. Katz funded scientific research about walking; distributed leaflets, books and films; and promoted events with the American Lung Association and other organizations.
“We want to be to walking what Jane Fonda was to aerobics,” Katz told The Boston Globe in 1984. “It takes somebody, whatever their motivation, to make it happen.”
The campaign brought increased attention to Rockport, a fast-growing privately held company that in 1985 had sales of about $65 million. The next year, when Rockport’s sales were expected to exceed $100 million, Reebok acquired it for $118.5 million.
Katz went on to fulfill a longtime dream by supervising the building of a 143-foot sailing yacht, called Juliet, which he took around the world. He also invested in online and software ventures such as the online community The Well, which he bought in 1994, and Republic of Tea, a retailer.
Then, after 27 years away from the shoe business, he returned, starting Samuel Hubbard Shoe Co., which he named for his grandfather and the company he founded in the 1930s.
Bruce Richard Katz was born Feb. 17, 1947, in Newton, Massachusetts. His father, Saul, was drafted by his grandfather to work at the Hubbard Shoe Co. and eventually took it over. His mother, Dorothy (Golden) Katz, was a social worker who later oversaw human resources at Hubbard.
Bruce Katz graduated from Cornell University in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics. Around that time, Hubbard Shoe Co. shut down, a victim of inexpensive imports that were flooding the U.S. shoe market. He and his brother gave their father, who had been wiped out financially, $20,000 each from their trust funds to start a new business: importing shoes, in particular a moccasin, from Brazil.
Bruce Katz had enough left of his trust fund to go into business. He imported English double-decker buses and taxicabs to the United States, his brother said, and he also bought and sold steel, partly in the hope of using some of it as rebar to build a sailboat.
Meanwhile, his father needed someone to sell his imported shoes.
“He had a container full of shoes from Brazil that had arrived too late to be accepted by his original customers and was sitting in storage,” Katz said in an interview for the Samuel Hubbard website. “He said, ‘Why don’t you try to sell those for your boat project?’ So I started driving around the countryside peddling the moccasins and eventually sold the lot.”
He kept selling shoes, and the boat was put on hold. Eventually he came up with a design for a lightweight, comfortable shoe — the model 2105 — which became Rockport’s first popular product.
Roger Katz said that his father and brother formed a balanced partnership.
“My father was a manufacturing genius; he knew where to make product and source materials,” he said. “But he had no concept of marketing. My brother knew how to create a brand and a presence.”
But he said they sold the company to Reebok because his father was “aging out” and his brother “really had no life” and was nearing burnout.
In addition to his brother, Bruce Katz is survived by his wife, Dasa Katz, and his child, Lee.
As Katz contemplated his return to the shoe business, he attended a trade show in 2013 in Las Vegas, where he encountered Werner Wyrsch, a former executive at Rockport who was preparing to retire.
“He said, ‘Let’s walk around,’” Wyrsch said. “He picked up a shoe here and a shoe there, imports from Vietnam and Cambodia, and he said, ‘This is terrible, let’s do it again. Let’s show them how to make shoes again.’”
Katz soon started Samuel Hubbard, with Wyrsch serving as senior vice president of product development and sourcing. The company is a kind of Rockport 2.0, with a continued emphasis on lightweight, casual comfort but using more luxurious European leathers and advanced technology.
Roger Katz, an architect who designed a distribution center for Rockport and its first store, in Marlboro, Massachusetts, said he was not surprised that his brother returned to the shoe business.
“Bruce tried a lot of endeavors in between, and to be candid, he didn’t have the type of success he wanted,” he said. “He reached a point where he wanted another real success. He openly talked about the fact that the one place he was really successful was in shoes.”