They were black, white-laced Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars high-tops.
Growing up in the Bronx in New York City, a young Angel Martinez had his eyes on the $6 pair of “Cons,” but his guardians couldn’t afford them. So he saved money by collecting 5-cent Coke bottles.
“I remember being so proud that I went to the store, got the Cons and walked home on the sides of my feet so the soles wouldn’t wear out,” Martinez said.
“When I came to the U.S., we had nothing, and now I’m sitting here and talking to you,” he said. “Only in America. It really is a land of opportunity and I want this company to be a company of opportunity.”
Martinez, a native of Cuba, didn’t see his parents for more than 34 years. His grandmother’s sister and her husband adopted him when he was 3 years old; the Cuban revolution prevented his immediate family from joining them in the South Bronx.
“I never thought of ourselves as poor, we just never had any money,” said Martinez, who lived off of welfare and food stamps. “It always bothered me as a kid that we had to take help from the government. I didn’t like that and I knew that someday I would pay it back.”
The family settled in the Bay Area when Martinez was 13, but living in the Bronx taught him “everything (he) needed to know about people in the world,” Martinez said. The local Boys & Girls Club allowed him to travel, practice photography and make new friends, he said.
“The Boys & Girls Club gave me the opportunity to go to the Channel Islands, a museum or the mountains,” Martinez said. “That was an incredibly big deal for someone who had no chance of getting there because their parents work two jobs, have one car and no money.
“It was a place that I could go where people cared about me. That’s important to kids.”
Martinez earned a scholarship to UC Davis where he studied rhetoric and marketing and ran competitively. After college, he opened running-shoe stores in Mountain View and eventually in Alameda.
“I never thought a love of running would lead me to this,” Martinez exclaimed.
During that time, he met the owner of an English specialty racing-shoe company called Reebok. Martinez became Reebok’s third employee in 1980 and, in two years, the company had grown to about $13 million in revenue — largely as a result of the branding and marketing of specialty footwear like the aerobic shoe, he explained.
“Aerobics were the catalyst that drove the company,” said Martinez, calling it the first women’s athletic shoe that blended style and function. “We introduced basketball, tennis, walking and improved running shoes, and it was the fastest-growing company in the history of business before Microsoft. Consumer insight was critical in creating multiple categories of footwear.”
Buying shoes can be a transformational process. Take the UGG boot. It’s an emotional brand; people don’t like it, they love it, said Martinez, adding that he can identify certain personality traits by what shoes people wear.
“The UGG consumer more than anything values comfort,” he said. “It isn’t just personal and physical comfort, it’s emotional comfort.
“You could be having a crap day and you could come home and put on an UGG and not only feel better physically but feel better emotionally. Nothing in the world feels like UGG, and that directly relates to its success.”
When Martinez joined Deckers in 2005, UGG recorded about $150 million in annual sales (the brand totaled $1.2 billion in sales last year). Now, Deckers has outgrown its location at 495 S. Fairview Ave. and will move to the corner of Hollister Avenue and Los Carneros Road.
The 13.8-acre Goleta site at Cabrillo Business Park will include three buildings totaling 150,000 square feet and an additional fourth building that may be developed later. The headquarters is projected to house more than 400 employees, and will include a gym, a cafeteria, a 4,000-square-foot retail store and a multiuse rotunda. Deckers plans to move in by mid-2013.
“I have to say it was Goleta that truly expressed the desire and shared vision for Deckers being here for the long run,” Martinez said at the groundbreaking last year. “It isn’t just the economic impact of Deckers; it’s the quality of life for all the people who work at Deckers as well as the benefits the city will derive from a global headquarters.
“It’s an opportunity for a young city like Goleta to establish itself as a pragmatic business-friendly steward of the future.”
Outside Magazine has named Deckers as one of the best places to work three out of the past four years, but Martinez’s goal is to become the best place to work on the Central Coast.
In terms of its philanthropic impact, the company donates footwear, pays for 24 hours of volunteer time for each employee and matches employee charitable donations up to $1,000, said Deckers corporate communications director Errin Cecil-Smith. Deckers also sponsors Noozhawk’s Nonprofit Calendar, a joint project with the Santa Barbara Foundation.
“We have kids coming to us from UCSB and Boston University,” Cecil-Smith said. “What they see is not so much a footwear company as a way to change the world through what we do. We are trying to push our limits to find more time to give back to the community.”
Ultimately, Martinez wants to offer what he received growing up — a chance, he said.
“I would love to have created incredible opportunity for people here, equivalent to the kind of opportunities I got when I was growing up,” Martinez said.