Taking On Goliath

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Being the underdog isn't without its benefits. It gives you the authenticity of Stonewall, the character of Papi, and the personal touch of Tucker's Best Brands Plus. Being small also affords greater maneuverability: It's easier to think like a revolutionary when you aren't bogged down by corporate weight.

Not that Birmingham, Alabama, entrepreneur Howard Ruttenberg would describe his revolutionary journey as easy. Ruttenberg, 56, moved to the United States from South Africa in the mid-1970s, eager to escape the mounting political turmoil in his native country. In 1977, using a $20,000 investment, he opened an athletic shoe store called Just For Feet.

It was unremarkable. "We were profitable every year [after opening], but we earned very little at first," Ruttenberg recalls. "There were many days when things looked bleak. I was ready to mortgage my home--and everything else--for a good many years." While Ruttenberg plugged away, athletic shoe chains aggressively increased their market share. Just For Feet could have been lost in the shuffle.

But Ruttenberg didn't allow it. With limited capital, he couldn't out-expand the major chains. But, he thought, perhaps he could blow the competition out of the water one store at a time.

How? In 1988, Just For Feet opened its first superstore. "We were the first category killer in our industry," says Ruttenberg. But this wasn't simple shoe retailing, it was the Disneyland of shoes. In addition to an encyclopedic selection of styles, the company provides its customers with knowledgeable service in a fun atmosphere.

Today, a visit to Just For Feet is only slightly less exhilarating than winning the NBA finals. "We have basketball courts, restaurants and video screens in our stores. We invite sports celebrities to make appearances. We just launched our own satellite so we can do live broadcasts to our customers or employees at any time from our company headquarters," says Ruttenberg.

At a time when athletic shoe sales have flattened overall, Just For Feet is growing by leaps and bounds. Ruttenberg estimates 1998 sales at $800 million--up from $23 million in 1994--and projects that 1999 sales will reach $1.2 billion. "We've been averaging better than 100 percent growth, year after year, since we went public in March of 1994," he says. With 125 superstores and 120 smaller locations nationwide, Ruttenberg calls himself the number- two player in the athletic shoe industry.

While the trip from obscurity to fame hasn't been quick or effortless, it is satisfying: "Our competitors don't have the ability to push us around any more," Ruttenberg observes. "Our vendors think we're the future. It feels great."

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This article was originally published in the June 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Taking On Goliath.

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