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Saul Katz, 95; shoe executive reinvented himself with Rockport brand

SAUL KATZ

SAUL KATZ

In the late 1960s, many shoe companies in the United States went out of business when foreign shoemakers increasingly exported their products to this country. As president of the Hubbard Shoe Co., based in Rochester, N.H., Saul Katz watched his wealth and work quickly evaporate.

“He was a leader in the New England shoe manufacturing industry, and held on until there was no more possibility of operating,” said his son Bruce of Mill Valley, Calif. “Then he turned on a dime and re-invented himself as an importer. He was really a remarkable man.”

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Within a few years, Mr. Katz and his son created the Rockport Co. of Marlborough and began marketing shoes that helped make walking popular as a fitness activity.

Mr. Katz, who remained as a consultant to Rockport until retiring in his 70s, died of respiratory failure July 16 in his Mill Valley, Calif., home. He was 95 and had lived most of his life in Newton and Lincoln.

After changes in the business environment forced Mr. Katz to shut down Hubbard Shoe Co., “he lost his house, his car, all his personal wealth,” said his son Roger of Washington. “He was in his sunset years, and he lost everything.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Katz’s “resilience was his number one attribute,” Roger said. “He saw it as a chance to start over.”

Bruce said he first worked with his father “to help him liquidate some inventory. We had no brand for several years. Then we decided one day to create our own name and to build a new kind of business that would deliver comfort.”

That brand became Rockport shoes, which was later acquired by Reebok in the 1980s.

After the sale, Mr. Katz remained very involved in the company, said Tony Post, who recently stepped down as president of Vibram USA Inc.

Post, who called Mr. Katz “a great leader and a great teacher,” joined Rockport in 1984.

“After the company was sold, it was amazing to me how much he remained engaged in the business and wanted to see it thrive and succeed,” Post said.

Rockport, he added, was founded upon “Mr. Katz’s discipline and Bruce Katz’s creativity. The combination was very powerful.”

Post recalled that Mr. Katz would drop into his office for a quick chat and “end up staying two hours.”

“He must have done that a hundred times, and I would always say, ‘Have a seat,’ ” Post said. “He asked the tough questions. You had to be honest and open with him. You knew he only wanted the truth. He was a terrific guy, very respected, and very admired.”

Saul Leonard Katz was born in Brookline in 1917 and graduated from Boston Latin School.

Mr. Katz, who attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, enrolled in the Navy’s Officer Candidate School as World War II unfolded.

During the war, he was assigned to the radiation laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr. Katz might have embarked on a career in science or engineering, Roger said, but he was needed in the family business and joined Hubbard Shoe when he left the service.

An acquaintance introduced Mr. Katz to Dorothy Golden, of Woonsocket, R.I., and they married in the Copley Plaza Hotel in 1942. Mrs. Katz died in 2009.

Mr. Katz spoke before Congress on behalf of the American shoe industry in an effort to get the government to impose import measures that would help domestic companies, but much “of shoe production in America was shut down,” Roger said.

“He was destitute at the age of 57,” he said. “There were many people who would have chosen a different path. But he said, ‘If I can’t beat the imports, I need to join them.’ ”

Mr. Katz traveled to Brazil to buy durable leather, which was used in the design of Rockport shoes, and Bruce began selling these shoes across the country. Running shoes were the new trend, and Bruce persuaded his father that people would be similarly enthusiastic about shoes built for walking.

“People started recognizing that these shoes were amazingly light and comfortable,” Roger said of the Rockport brand, adding that because “they were the first walking shoes on the market,” that timing put the company in the limelight.

Throughout his father’s career, Roger said, Mr. Katz was a mentor to many.

“He was a magnanimous, kind person who gave complete attention to whoever he was connecting with,” he said. “He would listen more than he would talk, and then he would give feedback.”

Mr. Katz served as president of the Two Ten Footwear Foundation, which provides scholarships and other support to families in the shoe industry, and he was a mentor to Two Ten scholarship recipients long into his retirement.

Richard Rubin, a shoe industry executive and friend who also was a leader of Two Ten, said “he mentored a lot of people who ending up running companies, myself included.”

Rubin recalled traveling to Brazil with Mr. Katz on a business trip, and becoming frustrated by the language barrier.

“I went right home and took a crash course in Portuguese,” he said. “But Saul didn’t need that. He had a great gift for getting along with people, even if they didn’t speak the same language.”

Mr. Katz was an avid reader who loved golf, travel, and music, his son said.

A service has been held for Mr. Katz, who in addition to his sons leaves a brother, Burton of Palm Beach, Fla., and three grandchildren.

“He was very charitable, very kind, and very understanding,” Rubin said. “One of the true great gentlemen of the shoe business.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.

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