Mario Moretti Polegato
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Mario Moretti Polegato

What do blistered feet, a hot desert in America and a young Italian winemaker have in common? The answer is a footwear revolution. The man behind it, Mario Moretti Polegato, has often told the story about how he was in Reno, Nevada’s second largest city, in 1992, promoting

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Thu 25 Apr 2013 12:00 AM

What do blistered feet, a hot desert in America and a young Italian winemaker have in common? The answer is a footwear revolution. The man behind it, Mario Moretti Polegato, has often told the story about how he was in Reno, Nevada’s second largest city, in 1992, promoting his family’s wine at a fair, when he decided to go for a run in the desert. Almost immediately, he was plagued by sweaty feet in his rubber-soled sneakers so he took out his pocketknife and cut a big hole in each sole to let the air in. Back in Italy, he wanted to see whether he could find a scientific way to make shoes that could ‘breathe’ whilst still keeping the wearer’s feet dry and dirt free. After much experimentation, he came up with what was a minutely perforated two-tier rubber sole with an integrated membrane in between (not unlike that used by NASA in lunar spacesuits) that lets the heat escape as vapour without letting anything else in. He quickly patented the invention in five countries and then tried to sell the groundbreaking technology to some of the world’s leading shoe manufacturers, including Nike and Adidas. With what would turn out to be gobsmacking corporate short sightedness, none were interested. Forced to go it alone, Mario Moretti Polegato created Geox in 1995, today a global footwear and apparel empire.

 

In a stagnant national shoe market flooded by cheap Asian and Eastern European knockoffs, Moretti Polegato courageously took out a 500,000 euro bank loan and employed five people to test his first production run of children’s shoes. Using a small shoe factory owned by his parents at Montebelluna, near Treviso, he called his company Geox, combining the Greek word ‘geo,’ meaning ‘earth,’ and the letter ‘x,’ which symbolised technology, the ingredient that would be the venture’s trump card. It was, and still is, the main ingredient: the group now owns 60 international patents and invests 3 percent of its annual profits in research and development, with a team of 15 technical staff who evaluate new materials and create prototypes. Quickly adding men’s and women’s footwear to its collections, Geox entered foreign markets in 2000. It now has a network of 1,172 shops in 103 countries, about 80 percent in franchising and the rest directly owned.

 

Whilst Italy, Germany and Spain remain its biggest markets, in 2005, Geox opened a megastore on Madison Avenue in New York and, in 2012, added new stores in Moscow, Hong Kong, and three cities in China with plans to open another 400 sales points in China over the next three years. Quoted on the stock exchange in 2004, perhaps surprisingly for many, Geox makes none of its shoes in Italy. Instead, they are manufactured in various countries (principally, Slovenia, Romania and Hungary), but Italian raw materials, technology and design are used and every pair is sent back to the Montebelluno factory for final quality control.

 

Born in the heartland of Italy’s industrious northeast, in Crocetta del Montello in 1952, Mario Moretti Polegato is the third generation of a family that makes wines, especially prosecco. Groomed to join the family business, he studied oenology and took a degree in law. A youthful-looking man, he confesses to being ambitious and driven. He is married and has a son, Enrico, who manages Diadora, a sportswear company acquired by the Geox group in 2009. Like Elton John, a favourite performer of his, Moretti Polegato designs the eccentric eyeglasses he wears. He collects motorbikes and fast cars and is an accomplished equestrian, who enjoys fox hunting as long as no fox or other animal is killed.

 

Moretti Polegato is also the recipient of many national and industry awards, the latest, in 2010, when he was nominated Innovator of the Year at the European Business Leaders Awards, organized by CNBC and the Financial Times. He has been Honorary Consul of Romania for the North East of Italy since 1997 and is a member of the Governing Council of Confindustria, Italy’s powerful federation of industrialists. He also finds time to lecture on industrial property at universities at home and abroad.

 

Compared to its early years of prodigious growth, Geox suffered a slide in its turnover from 887.3 million euro in 2011 to 807.6 million euro in 2012, causing its share price to drop. Financial analysts blame the current economic crisis and the fact that 38 percent of the group’s earnings still come from a depressed Italian market. In addition, the group has been undergoing restructuring since late 2011, when Moretti Polegato replaced Diego Bolzonello, managing director of Geox and his right-hand man, the first person he had employed in 1995, with Giorgio Presca. Before arriving at Geox as marketing and product manager, Presca had previously worked in the fashion industry for such firms as Diesel and Benetton, and this experience appears to have secured him the job. The outcome remains to be seen.

 

This aside, in March 2013, Forbes magazine estimated that Mario Moretti Polegato is worth 1.8 billion US dollars, making him the 831st billionaire in the world and the 17th in Italy. All that from a brainwave under the blazing sun.

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