Authentics, Old Skools, Sk8-Hi’s, Slip-Ons or Eras? How many smiling memories do you have of life in your Vans, the fun in your footsteps, and that bit of connection to a culture of skaters, surfers, graffiti artists, rockers and “Off the Wall” renegades? Paul Van Doren’s founding tale of an iconic brand is a delightful mix of biography, advice, business profile and inspiration. Here, Van Doren gives us his insights on the importance of empathy, strength of character and a legacy beyond shoes.
Back in 1966 when me, my brother Jim, Gordon Lee and Serge Delia created Vans, we wanted to build a different kind of company, a company where individuals came together to create something we could all be proud of. My belief is that you can always teach people how to do things. What you cannot teach people is how to understand others. What I learned was most important about people was their attitude and their integrity. For me, it’s something we should all keep in mind, as employers, as educators, as humans: that tenet about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and being able to show one another empathy. It makes all the difference.
Working with such a diverse group of people in my earlier days gave me insight into something far more important than how to make sneakers. Vans was a footwear and apparel company, but we would be nowhere without the people we worked with. I built a level of trust with all the people I worked with over the years. I knew their names and their spouses’ names and their kids’ names, and I made a point to ask their opinions about things going on with production. If you don’t work as a team, you’re nowhere. I respected the people I worked with and in return, I think they trusted and respected me.
Strength of character shows in everything you do, especially when hard times hit. I like to put it this way: it doesn’t matter if I’m behind the barrel or if I just got my ass handed to me. If I have to tell you what I stand for, I’m not doing something right. If you give without the expectation of gain, you receive much more in return. There’s just no better test of the quality of someone’s character than how they receive, and also how they give. We control our integrity, and when someone has genuine integrity, their character is immovable and wholly intractable.
I’m proud that Vans has become the biggest small company the world has ever known. The shoes I spent my life making walked people to the ocean, to their dreams, their marriage proposals, down the aisle, to their jobs, and to their family gatherings. My company and my family has sustained an ongoing commitment to putting people first, no matter what, while also making footwear and apparel.
But my legacy is one that goes beyond shoes. Many team members at the company today honor the family tradition of giving back. It’s also key to maintaining Vans’ unique identity within a big corporation. Recognizing people for what they contribute is at the core of all good business practice. No one gets anywhere alone. Vans is a people company that makes shoes — not the other way around. And in the end, what you make will never be as important as how, and with whom, you make it.