Leader.co.za - Management, Training and Career Advice for Business Leaders

25 AUGUST 2020
Making an iconic South African shoe globally recognisable
by Timothy Rangongo

From A-listers and royalty to ordinary folk, here at home and abroad, people are enamoured with the redesign and return of the iconic South African velskoen shoe.

The year was 2016 and the Summer Olympics had just drawn to a close in Rio de Janeiro. Veldskoen co-founders Nic Dreyer and Ross Zondagh were disappointed by the South African team’s apparel and thought that it “really should have been more representative of how amazing South Africa is”, explains Dreyer.

Velskoen shoes – an ankle-length subset of the chukka boot made of soft but strong rawhide – came up, but the duo felt the traditional footwear could do with some colour. So, Dreyer had a friend photoshop colourful soles and laces on to a pair and they “immediately knew we were on to something”.

Dreyer and Zondagh registered Veldskoen Shoes (Pty) Ltd, crammed into a 3x3m office in Woodstock, Cape Town, and ran with the fresh redesign. Another co-founder, Nic Latouf, also came on board, helping to set up Veldskoen’s ecommerce platform.

Three years later, the company has successfully entered global markets (US, UK, Europe, Zimbabwe and Zambia), and counts Brian Joffe (Bidvest founder), Ashton Kutcher (US actor and entrepreneur) and Marc Cuban (US entrepreneur and investor) among its shareholders. Veldskoen is also eyeing Israel, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands for expansion, after the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dreyer, the company’s chief executive, spoke to finweek.

Let’s start with the name…

It simply could not be called anything else. Ask any South African what a velskoen is and they will tell you. It’s part of the South African lexicon and our mission is to make that known globally.

What inspires new designs of the shoe?

Velskoen shoes have been around for about a century and they have two key characteristics. Firstly, they are well-made and should last a long time. Secondly, they need to be seriously comfortable. So, whenever we tackle a new shoe design, it must pass these two tests. Then, we look at what sort of shoes we would love to wear and take it from there.

On average, how long does it take to make a shoe and what goes into the process?

Our shoes are handmade by unbelievably skilled artisans, specialists in each part of the production line. If you had to walk one pair through the entire production line, it would take around seven hours. That said, we make lots and lots of shoes, so a sizeable order takes a few weeks. Our manufacturing partners, Hopewell Shoes in Durban, are the best in the business and are fully committed to delivering exceptional manufacturing standards for Veldskoen.

How did Veldskoen make its very first sale?

We have always been a digital storytelling brand and for the first 18 months all our sales were made at www.veldskoen.shoes, our ecommerce platform. I must tell you, getting that first “stranger validation” (when someone other than your mates and family buys a shoe) was an incredible feeling!

How tough is the competition?

Footwear is a competitive space and since we launched three-and-a-half years ago, around eight new velskoen brands have popped up. I think we may have started something. We are totally comfortable with the competition and wish them all well. We know what our mission is and won’t be distracted: Veldskoen strives to be SA’s most recognised global brand. The motivation behind Veldskoen since we started has been to shine a positive light on SA. We wanted to create a piece of apparel that connects us as a nation and is a visual representation of all the incredible characteristics of our great country.

How has Veldskoen’s expansion into international markets been?

Having a global brand was the mission, so we have focused on building an international business from day one. We started in the UK with an online store and that has been growing nicely over the last three years. (It really helped that Prince Harry wore our shoes!) After the UK we launched in the US. Ashton Kutcher and Marc Cuban invested in Veldskoen US and that has grown aggressively for the last two years. We have seven more territories where we have passionate South African distribution partners.

How many shoes are made annually, and how many are exported?

In the last financial year, we made around 80 000 pairs of shoes and that is growing monthly. Of those, around 10 000 pairs were exported. Our biggest international market is the US. We are excited, though, that all the territories are growing nicely, and we should be able to fundamentally increase our manufacturing year-on-year.

How many employees does Veldskoen have?

We now have a team of 14 working directly for Veldskoen; in our factory we have around 120 people.

What are some of the biggest difficulties Veldskoen has had to overcome?

Being an online footwear brand is tough and that has come with many challenges and mistakes. Our team culture, however, allows for mistakes and improvements – so, we manage to get through them. The biggest singular challenge has been Covid-19, unsurprisingly. Like everyone, our business lost a potentially fatal amount of revenue with the lockdown.

It took a massive team effort, sacrifice and creativity to survive it and I am immensely proud to say that Veldskoen is in a good position to get through this period, and well-placed to grow coming out of it.

The biggest lesson(s) learnt?

The biggest asset in any business is its customers. We are deeply grateful for our customers, value their loyalty and strive to deliver them world-class products and service.

In addition to our customers, it’s our team. We have an amazing team, including Iridium Business, who is an integrated part of our business. When we started out, we required an inventory management system that could work in the ecommerce world and began a search for one that met all our needs.

Iridium helped us implement effective and efficient systems, an IMS that plugged into our online store and accounting system. Inventory is key to retail success. By providing the systems and training, they literally changed our business.

What keeps you motivated?

We are passionate advocates for local brands and local manufacturing. We feel a responsibility to share our experience and learnings with other local brands and start-ups that want to grow. We know that in SA we make incredible products because our people are so talented. We stay motivated to make sure we all grow and hopefully employ more and more people.

What is the long-term vision for Veldskoen?

To be SA’s most globally-recognised brand. We are committed to building this business to be something that SA can be proud of.
Useful resources:

Finweek is South Africa's best selling business and financial weekly, delivering news, analysis and investigative reporting of the highest calibre to readers who are serious about managing their money and succeeding in business. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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