Making shoes with love

Mr Aldo Bensadoun, founder of shoe company Aldo.
Mr Aldo Bensadoun, founder of shoe company Aldo.ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Aldo Bensadoun says his shoe label was built around love of the product being designed

Canadian shoe brand Aldo has a presence in 95 countries and is known for its trendy yet affordable shoes and accessories.

Interesting, then, that its founder built it with love in mind in 1972.

Mr Aldo Bensadoun says: "It was during the Vietnam War and the hippie feeling and all of that, so basically when you are young, you want to revolutionise the world and do something completely different.

"I wanted to create a company where the most important thing would be the love you have for the people you are working with and the product you are designing. So it was very revolutionary in a way because businesses do not normally work with love."

While it might sound rather idealistic, he did something right.

He built the business up in Montreal, followed by stores all over Canada and the United States. In the 1990s, he was approached by someone who wanted to franchise the brand in Israel.

The success of that led him to consider expanding outside of North America.

In 2001, he opened a store in Abu Dhabi and in 2003, one in Singapore.

Aldo had wanted to open in Singapore in 2001, but Mr Norman Jaskolka, president of Aldo Group International, says the brand was thwarted as "a lot of international brands had not yet expanded and no one really knew who we were".

Aldo eventually found a partner in the Jay Gee Melwani group, which still distributes the brand today.

The first Aldo store in Asia opened at Suntec City in 2003.

Initially, the brand concentrated on opening along the Orchard Road shopping belt. It expanded into suburban malls four years ago, starting with Junction 8, Tampines Mall and Westgate, followed by Parkway Parade.

From 2003 to last year, it has enjoyed a 20 per cent increase in store count year on year. There are now 13 standalone stores here.

"Despite the retail headwinds, we still see growth opportunities for Aldo in Singapore for the next five years," Mr Jaskolka says.

"In terms of sales volume, Singapore is the biggest market for Aldo in Asia. It is the anchor country for the brand's development in Asia."

Expansion of existing stores, relocation to bigger units upon lease renewals and new stores are in the pipeline.

The brand pumps out at least eight collections a year and it takes six to seven months to get a pair of shoes in stores from its initial design concept. An accelerated development chain produces designs within two to three months to keep up with fast-moving trends. The shoes are made in China, Vietnam, Romania, Portugal, Tunisia, Italy, Spain and Brazil.

On keeping the brand relevant, Mr Bensadoun says the key is in knowing exactly what the consumer wants.

"You know who the big boss of Aldo is? It is not me, it is the consumer, the person who shops at Aldo, and we believe in making sure we understand the need of that consumer," he says.

"So we are constantly looking at what consumers are doing, where they go, how they shop and where they go to find what they are looking for: is it on the Internet, their cellphone or the store? We try to understand that, keep up with them and make sure we give them what they want."

To do this, the company conducts focus groups around the world, in places such as New York, South Korea and Dubai, to name a few.

Although Mr Jaskolka thinks there could be more Aldo stores in Singapore, the country's geographical size is a limiting factor. There are also issues such as the retail slump and labour crunch here to consider.

He says: "It would be a real challenge if we were coming into Singapore today."

And so they are focusing on growing the business elsewhere in Asia.

"Asia is an important area of growth for us in the next five years. It is our biggest growth area in the world," he says.

"In Malaysia, we were behind Singapore. If you look at it percentage-wise, Malaysia was great and continues to perform great - Singapore had already grown and was at a higher point of maturity than Malaysia."

Despite Aldo's growth and expansion, Mr Bensadoun will never forget its humble beginnings.

He says: "We started with the wooden clog and that is what we would sell in our stores, and over the years, we moved on. What we are very proud of is that even though we are 43 years old, we attract the same kind of customer - style-seekers, people who are young and want to express themselves and are proud of themselves for their look as an individual, and it changes continually."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'Making shoes with love'. Print Edition | Subscribe