The Man Behind GBMI
by Shannon Kelley Gould
It’s fair to say that Global Brand Marketing Inc. founder and CEO Killick Datta stumbled into his career in the world of footwear marketing. Born in Mumbai, India, Datta was shipped off to Oxford by his parents at the ripe age of 14 in order to begin the schooling he’d need to become a biochemist. After finishing at Oxford, he went on to the University of Durham, England’s third oldest college, to earn his MBA, which, Datta said, was “a frowned-upon degree in England; they call it an ‘American degree.’ My father was horrified.” It was in the library at Durham one day in 1978, when fate stepped in, in the form of Olympic medalist runner Brendan Foster. “In walks Brendan, to the business school library, and I was [decked out in] Adidas,” recalled Datta. “He said, ‘Take that off.’” A big sports fan (he played soccer), Datta recognized Foster immediately, although that brief exchange was the extent of their first conversation. A couple of days later, however, Datta spotted Foster again. “I went, ‘What are you doing here?’” Foster handed him a bag of running gear from a little-known, fledgling company called Nike and the two began chatting. Foster told Datta he was taking a refresher course for management, because he was the new president of Nike in the U.K. Datta had never heard of Nike, but the two found they had much in common.
When Datta mentioned that he was about to begin work on his thesis, a multi-branded plan for Proctor & Gamble, Foster was not impressed. “He said, ‘Oh God, give me a break, P&G doesn’t need another MBA student.’” Datta asked if Foster had any other suggestions. “Come and do a thesis for Nike,” Foster said, “a marketing strategy for Nike in Europe.” Datta confessed he knew little about the retail business in Europe, but Foster wasn’t concerned, telling him to start traveling to get an idea of the markets. When Datta asked who was going to pay for all of this travel, Foster said Nike would.
“So I acted like I had to think about it,” said Datta, “But in my mind, I’m going, are you kidding me? I loved sports anyways, and this was sports and marketing.” He dumped P&G and got to work on his thesis for Nike. Before his paper was complete, Foster called Datta and offered him a job. Again, Datta felt it was too good to be true. “I’m going, are you joking? Is this how easy it is for MBA students? You’re actually going to pay me for this?”
But not everyone was thrilled with the path Datta had set out on. Back in Mumbai, Datta’s father was chairman of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company, which now goes by the name of GlaxoSmithKline, and couldn’t understand why his son had chosen to work with shoes of all things. “My father’s idea of a career was in science, a major corporation; in India, parents want to brag that their son is a doctor, physicist, surgeon, software programming is right up there now, and then somewhere way down here,” he said, holding his hand just above the ground, “only short of being a janitor, is being involved in the shoe business.”
Traditionally in India, shoes are left outside the house, considered too dirty to be worn inside. “My father was horrified,” Datta said. “My parents were like, ‘We sent you to Oxford? We sent you to these schools to sell stupid shoes? Are you serious? You’re going to be a cobbler?” But Datta accepted the job despite his parents’ disapproval; straight out of school, before his thesis was finished, he became Nike’s Marketing Manager for the U.K.
The Sky’s the Limit
With Foster and Datta at the helm, Nike began killing its main competitor — Adidas — in sales in the U.K. Foster was promoted to the head of Nike Europe, and Datta was promoted to marketing manager for all of Europe. Not long after, Nike brought the two men to its U.S. headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, and named Datta head of global distribution. Datta was in his mid-twenties, traveling the world, attending every high-profile sporting event imaginable, hanging out with professional athletes, and the Nike swoosh was becoming as ubiquitous and recognizable as McDonald’s golden arches.
Datta rode the wave of success for a while, but in 1986 he was up for a change when another opportunity presented itself. While in L.A. for MAGIC (Men’s Apparel Guild in California), the international fashion industry tradeshow, Datta found himself schmoozing with some execs from another little-known shoe company called L.A. Gear. He liked the company’s strategy, which drew inspiration from the aerobics craze of the time, and decided to leave Nike to become L.A. Gear’s vice president of international marketing. While Datta was there, L.A. Gear went from being a virtually unknown company to a billion-dollar corporation and, at the time, the fastest growing brand ever, staying at number one on the New York Stock Exchange for two years.
Datta remained with L.A. Gear for two years until one of his distributors tempted him with the top position at yet another shoe company. He accepted and moved to Michigan to become president of shoe manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide. When Wolverine’s board began talking about dumping one of its running-shoe brands, Brooks, Datta decided that if he could find the money, he would buy it. He contacted a distributor in Norway who agreed to fund the project. Datta bought Brooks, moved to Seattle (where they set up headquarters), and prepared to turn the flailing brand around.
After about a year running Brooks, Datta got a call from his old boss at L.A. Gear, who by then had sold his company to Disney, banked a good chunk of cash, and was bored. “He called me up and said, ‘Killik, let’s do it one more time,’” recalled Datta. “I couldn’t refuse, it was the old team, and we’d had such a great run at L.A. Gear.” So he left Brooks and moved to Manhattan Beach to become president of Sketchers International, which became another major success.
While he was living in L.A., Datta met his wife, Tina. “She’d always say [to me], ‘Why do you keep doing this for other people, why aren’t you building something for yourself ?’” While he knew starting his own company could make him a lot of money, Datta also knew that doing so wouldn’t necessarily earn him any points from his family back home. “Everybody in my family was really successful, doing really prestigious stuff, working for huge companies,” he said. “So starting your own business — first of all, I’m in the shoe business, then you start your own business … starting your own business in India is [what you do] if you can’t find anything else.” But with his wife’s support he decided to give it a go.
Datta set his sights on obtaining a footwear license — which would allow Datta to design, manufacture, and sell shoes — for a high-end denim company, and Diesel, the number-one brand in the world for premium denim, fit the bill. He and his wife flew to Italy so he could meet with the head of Diesel and pitch his idea. The meeting didn’t quite go as planned. “He asked what the name of my company was, I said I don’t have one; he asked how many designers I had, I said I have none; he asked where my company would be based, I said I had no idea,” Datta said. When asked what he planned to do with Diesel’s shoes, Datta replied, “I don’t know, I have nothing, but your line sucks, you’re treating shoes like an accessory; [they’re] not an accessory, [they’re] as big a category as denim, or bigger.”
After spending several hours with the Diesel exec, he returned to the hotel room feeling dejected. His wife asked if he’d gotten the contract, and he said, “No, we had a meeting for about 10 minutes and I gave him about five hours of free consulting services. He asked me five basic questions and I gave him the wrong answers.” Datta assumed that was the end of the story until one day, back in Manhattan Beach, he got an email from the honcho at Diesel, who said, “We do deal now.” Datta wasn’t sure what it meant, thinking that perhaps something had been lost in translation, but found out soon enough. “Much to my shock, he gave me the [licensing],” he recalled. “Later on, I asked him why he gave it to me, and he told me that it was because I’m passionate, straightforward, and I said that I’d treat the brand as if it were my own.”
With that, GBMI was born. Datta’s wife was from Santa Barbara, so they decided to move here and started the business in 1996 with one designer and a couple of salespeople. Since then, they’ve continued to grow at an amazing rate. GBMI is the owner of Dry-shoD, NO MASS by Dry-shoD, Mehandi, and FunFlopps brands, and the global footwear licensee of Diesel, Nautica, XOXO, 7 For All Mankind, and Mecca. It employs more than 400 people, 250 of whom are based in Santa Barbara. Last April, GBMI picked up the footwear license for denim it-brand 7 for all Mankind. They’ll launch their first line for the brand this November, for Fall ’07, which will be available in May of next year.
GBMI has seven retail shops — as well as a 20,000-square-foot showroom on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, has passed $250 million in sales, and holds the title as the largest private fashion footwear company in the world, which is no small feat. Success in this business isn’t a one-time thing; the design team has to consistently deliver, to create new products every season that are different and exciting.
At the moment, Datta has no plans to take GBMI public as he’s found that being privately held allows the company to be more flexible, fast, and nimble. When investors come in and ask him when he’s going to sell, Datta said, “I tell them I have everything. I have the home of my dreams, a beautiful office building in a beautiful town, I’m living the life I want to live. … This is my love, my hobby, everyone’s happy, we have a group of people who enjoy being here, we’ve got a business that’s thriving, so why mess with it? To me, this is not work. When it stops being fun, it’ll be different.”
As for his parents, they’ve come around. “Now, if it was Global Brand Marketing Pharmaceuticals, god, I’d be the ultimate hero,” Datta said. “But short of that, they’re happy.” And while Datta’s quick to chalk up his successes to luck, happenstance, and being in the right place at the right time, with such an amazing track record, it’s pretty clear that there’s something more to it than that. Humble to a fault, Datta claimed he’s no hero, but if the shoe fits, he might as well wear it.