It's in his sole

In a bold move, an Italian son left his family's vineyards, only to become one of the richest men in Europe.

Mario Polegato 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mario Polegato 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Producing shoes is my mission," says Mario Moretti Polegato, completely excited, as if this is his first interview about his worldwide business. With two-tone glasses and an Italian grin across his face as he sits in a classy Jerusalem hotel, Polegato has more than just enthusiasm or excitement. It's clear to see that he puts not only his mind but much of his heart, body and soul into that mission. After all, it made him a billionaire and one of the wealthiest men in Italy, according to Forbes annual list of rich people world-wide. Born in 1952 near Treviso, in the heart of Italy's northeast, Polegato is the founder and CEO of Geox, maker of the breathable rubber shoe sole and one of Italy's most lucrative brands. As a third generation to vintners, Polegato had been expected to continue the family tradition. He completed his studies in oenology at the University of Conegliano and also has a law degree. "This is where I grew up" he says, as he spread out a photo of Villa Sandi, an exquisite mansion dating back to 1622. Surrounded by dunams of vineyards, Villa Sandi is the headquarters of the winery which produces Prosecco, the typical Italian sparkling wine with a fruity taste, cabernet sauvignon and pinot gris. "My family would have liked me to join the business," he explains, "but luckily I have my brother, Giancarlo, who runs the winery now." At the heart of Geox's success is a carbon-based breathable membrane inserted between the layers of the sole, allowing air to flow through the shoe, thus eliminating the sweaty smell, but water cannot come in. Polegato discovered the secret behind Geox quite by accident. While attending a wine conference in Reno, Nevada in 1992, he took a mountain hike and was unhappy with how hot his feet became. He cut a couple of holes in the bottom of his sneakers to give some relief to his hot sweaty feet. This made all the difference and got him thinking. Back home, he worked on the technology of his idea, developed a prototype and immediately patented it. He then tried to attract investors from major shoe companies to develop the product. "I offered my technology to several companies around the world - but nobody seemed to believe in its efficiency," he says. "So when none came, I decided to go solo, turned to the family owned leather business to produce the shoes, and the Geox brand was born." Geo, he says, comes from the Greek for earth, because most naturally desire to walk barefoot, and the "x" on the end stands for technology. "This is the solution to the problem of sweaty feet many people have," he says as he pulls out a kit of demonstration sole from his bag. "My shoe-making flows out of Italian culture - we have always put the emphasis on style and precision." Geox is the fastest growing shoe company in Italy, and Polegato says that "to create a successful business you have to strongly believe in your idea." When the company began its commercial and industrial activity in 1995, it had a core staff of five who were convinced by Polegato to believe in his idea and were promised to become managers when the company took off. According to Polegato, Geox now employs around 30,000 people not only in Italy but also in Romania, Slovakia and China, where he has assembly plants. "No matter where they are assembled, all our shoes have Italian design and materials, and in every facility we have an Italian supervisor." In 2004 Polegato floated the company on the Milan Stock Exchange and sold 29 percent of its shares, mostly to American investors. He holds the other 71 percent. Unlike most shoe brands, Geox makes all sorts of shoes for men, women and children, and has adapted its original patent so that it can now make leather soles that don't let in water. With nearly 750 stores worldwide, Geox is represented in 68 countries. It has grown at an average rate of nearly 30% for the past few years and in 2007 produced 21 million pairs of its patented breathable shoes. The company invests 3% of its annual sales of Euro 770.2 million in R&D. It's been developing breathable apparel as well as leather soles, and recently they went into sport footwear. "Innovation is the combination of three factors: creativity, patent and scientific research," Polegato says. "Actually, we have a unique study program on the premises where we welcome students from around the world and train engineers in our technology." In its marketing, Geox uses images of the breathable sole technology and focuses on the Italian shoe design, rather than use models or celebrities. If there is a face behind the advertising, it is Polegato's.