When Jason Lazar went to college, his grandfather made one request of him: Look at the ground and tell me what footwear people are wearing.
That push to stay ahead of fashion trends, Lazar said, has played a big role in the growth and evolution of Port Washington-based Harbor Footwear Group, the company his grandparents Murray and Evelyn Friedman founded in 1969.
"You have to keep changing with the times," said Lazar, 33, Harbor Footwear's chief operating officer. "With the fashion business, you're always looking for what's a hit."
The family-owned company got its start selling colorful, high-fashion urban shoes in the 1970s -- yes, including platform shoes -- to independent retailers. Today the company's portfolio of brands includes its Giorgio Brutini men's dress shoes, its GBX brand of casual men's footwear, G.H. Bass' iconic men's and women's styles, and IZOD men's and women's footwear. Harbor Footwear designs, manufactures and distributes its shoes, selling to many of the large national chains and department stores as well as small independent shops.
The company also has a large private-label business producing shoes for major retailers under their brands. And it has an expanding e-commerce presence with its branded websites that sell directly to individual consumers.
How did the company evolve from a small operation into what it is today?
It started off by importing footwear and selling it to the mom-and-pop retail stores. And then it grew into a business with a sales force and a design staff, building brands and really targeting the independent retailers. I think the turning point was when my father [CEO Dennis Lazar] came into the business in 1983. That was when we . . . found opportunities that we weren't capitalizing on, which was targeting the bigger chains, the J.C. Penneys, the Sears of the world. We started getting into the special makeup business. So we would do special makeups for the larger chains. [For example] a customer wants this shoe, but instead of suede he wants it in leather.
The fashion world is constantly changing. How difficult is that for your company?
Since we have the operations in-house, we can move on a dime. If we have a customer send in a particular spec, we have graphic artists, we have designers that can work on it. We have our own offices overseas. We have access to sample rooms. There aren't many levels of management you have to go through to get something done. I think that works to our benefit, especially when you are designing fashionable products. A lot of times the designers want to push the envelope. And we welcome that, because you want something new and exciting and fresh in your brands.
As the company has expanded, how do you maintain your identity as a family-run business?
We have a reputation of hiring people and keeping them for a long time. We look for long-term relationships, and that is not only in employees, that's in the suppliers we deal with, the factories we deal with, the trucking companies we deal with. I think that's what keeps it small, and we're all family because we don't have a high turnover rate.
What's the most challenging aspect of this industry?
Price compression. Retailers are looking for lower and lower prices. And prices are only going up overseas on goods. We still feel strongly that a consumer is willing to pay more for a quality product. You can only take so much out of a shoe before there's no quality left. You can always get to a price, but it doesn't mean you're going to be offering a quality product. We would never do that. We always provide quality.
How many pairs of shoes do you have?
I just cleaned out my closet, so I have less than I did. But I do have a lot. Maybe now I could have 30 pairs.
Name: Jason Lazar, chief operating officer at Harbor Footwear Group Ltd. in Port Washington
What it does: Designs and manufactures shoes for its own brands as well as for retailers' private labels.
Number of employees: About 170, including 100 on Long Island
Revenue: Over $100 million