Birkenstock - CEO Interview
Interview with David Kahan
For our first culture session, A LINE is extremely excited to be speaking to David Kahan, CEO Birkenstock Americas. David is a footwear veteran who has held leadership roles at companies such as Nike, Reebok, Rockport and Adidas in a career spanning 35+ years.
David joined Birkenstock back in 2013, since which time the brand has been quietly achieving unprecedented levels of success. Whether launching exciting new retail initiatives like the Birkenstock Box, or creating new collaborations with designers such as Rick Owens, Birkenstock has become increasingly relevant to contemporary fashion while remaining fiercely true to it's 250 yr old German roots.
The formative years
Hi David, welcome. Great to have you here today at A LINE. Tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up, and how this has affected who you are today?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, before anybody would have used the term "hipster" in the same sentence as Brooklyn.
It was a gritty area. Very blue collar. And no matter how far you move from Brooklyn, you'll always be connected.
It's actually pretty incredible how many people in the entertainment & media business grew up in Brooklyn. I think there's just something when you grow up there that just drives you. You're kind of sharp.
Then you move away, and you realize that everyone isn't a little rough around the edges like that. You've got to tone yourself down a little bit sometimes.
How do you think Brooklyn has changed over the last 30 years?
Oh God. I've been gone so long. Like any other place it’s gentrified. First the arts people came in, then it became hipster, and now God knows. Apartments probably cost more than entire buildings did when I lived there.
“It's actually pretty incredible how many people in the entertainment & media business grew up in Brooklyn.I think there's just something when you grow up there that just drives you. You're kind of sharp.”
Do you think there were lessons you've learned growing up there that shaped who you are today?
No doubt. I think you got the sense that everybody was just very hard working. There were no lazy people in Brooklyn. It just wasn't that kind of place. People were up early and working late. I think when you grow up in that kind of blue collar mentality, you keep that with you no matter where you are or what you're doing.
How did you get into the footwear business?
I went to school in upstate New York, and I was working part-time in a Macy's store. I was actually working in the men's department. I was the guy who went around and folded shirts back before they even had those folding squares.  
One day the store manager, who went on to be a big executive in Macy's, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "We need help in the shoe department." I must have been 19 or 20 years old. Nobody ever wanted to work in the shoe department because you actually had to work! You couldn't hide and fold a shirt for a half hour. You actually had to wait on people.
So I went and worked in the shoe area, and from that I ended up meeting some of the executives from New York who used to come visit the store. From that I then got into the buyers training program.
A few years later they then asked me to start the athletic department. This was back before there really were athletic footwear stores. It was when Foot Lockers were first opening in malls. No store had an athletic department.
I think I was just in the right place at the right time. It was probably because I was the only guy who had an athletic and sports background, and this was something they found interesting. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was 24 years old and totally wet behind the ears!
We created the first real shop in shop, sort of based on Foot Locker, and we created this thing called the “Macy's Athletic Club”. We actually did T-shirts and sweatshirts. I think I paid a friend $50 to design them. We sold thousands of them!
Then we had the happenstance of happenstances. We used to do a small event once a month on a Thursday night when the store closed. It would be a health and wellness seminar, or how to start training for the marathon, or aerobics classes. We would probably get 20 oddball people off the street that came, and we'd give them a coupon to shop.
And then New York Magazine ran an article on the Top 10 hottest pickup spots in New York City. It was Studio 54, The Cat Club, the Fountain at Central Park on a Saturday afternoon, and Macy's Athletic Club Thursday night athletic seminars. We knew nothing about it!
I'll never forget one of our people in the building coming in and saying, Did you guys know Macy’s Athletic Club made New York Magazine Top 10 pick up spots in New York City? We were like "wait - we didn't beat out Studio 54?!"
We went from having 20 people to probably 250. Seriously, that kind of put this thing on the map. It became a phenomenon.
Do you think there were lessons you've learned growing up there that shaped who you are today?
No doubt. I think you got the sense that everybody was just very hard working. There were no lazy people in Brooklyn. It just wasn't that kind of place. People were up early and working late. I think when you grow up in that kind of blue collar mentality, you keep that with you no matter where you are or what you're doing.
How did you get into the footwear business?
I went to school in upstate New York, and I was working part-time in a Macy's store. I was actually working in the men's department. I was the guy who went around and folded shirts back before they even had those folding squares.  
One day the store manager, who went on to be a big executive in Macy's, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "We need help in the shoe department." I must have been 19 or 20 years old. Nobody ever wanted to work in the shoe department because you actually had to work! You couldn't hide and fold a shirt for a half hour. You actually had to wait on people.
So I went and worked in the shoe area, and from that I ended up meeting some of the executives from New York who used to come visit the store. From that I then got into the buyers training program.
A few years later they then asked me to start the athletic department. This was back before there really were athletic footwear stores. It was when Foot Lockers were first opening in malls. No store had an athletic department.
I think I was just in the right place at the right time. It was probably because I was the only guy who had an athletic and sports background, and this was something they found interesting. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was 24 years old and totally wet behind the ears!
We created the first real shop in shop, sort of based on Foot Locker, and we created this thing called the “Macy's Athletic Club”. We actually did T-shirts and sweatshirts. I think I paid a friend $50 to design them. We sold thousands of them!
Then we had the happenstance of happenstances. We used to do a small event once a month on a Thursday night when the store closed. It would be a health and wellness seminar, or how to start training for the marathon, or aerobics classes. We would probably get 20 oddball people off the street that came, and we'd give them a coupon to shop.
And then New York Magazine ran an article on the Top 10 hottest pickup spots in New York City. It was Studio 54, The Cat Club, the Fountain at Central Park on a Saturday afternoon, and Macy's Athletic Club Thursday night athletic seminars. We knew nothing about it!
I'll never forget one of our people in the building coming in and saying, Did you guys know Macy’s Athletic Club made New York Magazine Top 10 pick up spots in New York City? We were like "wait - we didn't beat out Studio 54?!"
We went from having 20 people to probably 250. Seriously, that kind of put this thing on the map. It became a phenomenon.

"And then New York Magazine ran an article on the Top 10 hottest pickup spots in New York City. It was Studio 54, The Cat Club, the Fountain at Central Park on a Saturday afternoon, and Macy's Athletic Club Thursday night athletic seminars."

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