Dansko, Inc. CEO Mandy Cabot thinks success as a shoe company means generating social and environmental returns in addition to financial profits. Mandy and her husband, and Dansko cofounder, Peter Kjellerup are ardent advocates of this three-fold mission for which business pundits have coined the phrase ‘triple bottom line.”
“Call it karma or the golden rule,” says Mandy, “but social responsibility makes sound economic sense.” Dansko is a certified “B Corporation,” according to B Lab, a Berwyn-based non-profit that independently evaluates whether businesses are socially responsible or “beneficial.” To be certified and use the B Corporation seal, businesses must meet social and environmental performance standards and amend their governing documents to reflect the interests of employees, community, and the environment in addition to shareholders.
How did a shoe business that started in a small garage on a horse farm become a leader in both the footwear industry and the social entrepreneurship movement of the 21st century? By trying to do the right thing, every step of the way.
Mandy and Peter met at Hamilton Farm, an equine facility outside Boston cofounded by Mandy’s mother. Peter had traveled from his native Denmark to be a dressage instructor. “It was love at first sight,” recalls Peter. After their marriage, they began planning where and how to build their own farm. The young couple settled on West Grove as a prime location and built a state-of-the-art facility they named Five Star Farm. (Today it is run by Phillip Dutton and called True Prospect Farm.) From 1983 to 1998, Mandy and Peter ran a full-service breeding and dressage training facility where their clients included the U.S. Equestrian Team.
On one of their frequent horse-buying trips to Europe, the couple bought pairs of flexible-bottomed, closed-back clogs in Peter’s hometown. The clogs were unlike anything they had ever worn: extraordinarily comfortable, durable, and versatile. Wanting to share their discovery back home, they filled their suitcases with dozens of pairs every time they went to Denmark.
As part of their efforts to offer five-star service for their clients, Mandy and Peter ran a tiny tack shop in a farm garage where they sold high-quality specialty items like bits and riding clothes. They arranged to have quantities of clogs shipped from Denmark and began selling them at the tack shop and at horse shows. “We found that many more people beside just horse people were in love with our shoes,” says Mandy. “We had a demand that far exceeded our original thoughts on the whole enterprise. And we did what was only natural to do; we started a shoe company.”
Mandy and Peter established Dansko, Inc.—literally translated as “Danish shoe”—in 1991. The product line expanded to include fashionable casual and dress choices from sandals to boots while continuing to offer the classic closed-back clogs sought after by chefs, nurses, and other footsore professionals.
Today Dansko is a leader in the high-end Euro-comfort shoe market. Savvy celebrities from all walks of life wear the shoes: chef Wolfgang Puck, singer Sheryl Crow, actress Julia Roberts. Footwear Plus, the industry’s leading publication, has awarded them top honors in women’s comfort design three years in a row. The American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) has stamped Dansko’s shoes with its Seal of Acceptance; and for the first time ever, the APMA recently gave the Seal to a heel—and that heel belongs to Dansko.
A privately owned company with an employee stock ownership plan, Dansko has approximately 140 employees and annual sales topping $100 million. Originally sold only in the United States and Canada, Dansko went international in 2007 with distributors in Australia, China, Croatia, Israel, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. The West Grove campus houses administrative, product development, marketing, sales, and warehousing departments, and the Dansko Company Store. The shoes are produced in Brazil, China, and Italy.
All this growth required lots of room. Mandy often refers to Dansko as the couple’s “daughter,” and Dansko outgrew buildings like young girls outgrow shoes. Faced with the need to expand, in 2004 they began planning their new headquarters. Determined not to have a negative impact on the environment, Peter led the project and focused on sustainable design.
Their 80,000-square-foot building opened in May 2008. Designed by architect Paul Sgroi of Bernardon Haber Holloway Architects of Kennett Square, it is targeted for the U.S. Green Building Council’s Silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
An abundance of windows provides more natural light and less demand for electricity. Occupancy and daylight sensors automatically control the lights throughout the building—a far cry from the old system that consisted of Peter walking around the offices, turning off lights. Flat roofs planted with sedums, herbs, shrubs, and grasses absorb more than half of the rainwater during a storm. Any excess is channeled to the storm water management system that protects the local watershed and adjacent properties. Rain chains on the store’s radiused roof serve as artful downspouts to collect rainwater that is stored in a 10,000-gallon tank, then filtered and used to flush toilets. A new campus recycling center that is also available to the community is the result of a progressive partnership between Dansko, the Southeastern Chester County Refuse Authority (SECCRA) and the local township.
Creative green details literally carpet the interior. Carpet tiles in the offices and halls produced 30 percent less installation waste than traditional rolled carpet and can be returned to the manufacturer for recycling. In the lobby, terrazzo flooring sparkles with tiny pieces of multi-colored recycled glass set in eco-friendly resin, while a 24-foot-high tapestried wall of living plants acts as a natural indoor air filter.
Dansko’s employee culture also promotes health and comfort with style. The new headquarters offers two meditation rooms when employees need quiet private spaces, a fitness room, and cafeteria. Family fun nights, Lunch and Learn days, birthday celebrations, and engaging works of art all over the building provide positive energy throughout the work week. “We want to be the most rewarding place our employees have ever worked,” says Mandy.
Dansko supports continuing education outside the company and offers internal “stretch opportunities” for employees to learn different parts of the business.
In addition to having a good neighbor that is also a model employer and great shoe store, the community profits from Dansko’s success through the Dansko Foundation. Funded by proceeds from the store, the foundation supports community organizations and creates philanthropic opportunities for Dansko staff. “We care about making active, passionate philanthropists of our employees,” says Mandy. Dansko sponsors service opportunities throughout the year and gives employees up to 16 hours of annual paid time off to volunteer. More than 80 percent of employees participate and Dansko matches their time with financial contributions. Since its inception, the foundation has supported 75 community organizations.
Anyone who visits Mandy and Peter and their Dansko family is bound to leave inspired and thinking about the triple bottom line in their own endeavors. When asked for advice on how to follow in Dansko’s footsteps, Mandy replies: “Get off autopilot and pay attention to the details. You will find the big ‘ahahs” along the way, but in the meantime, pay attention to the small things we can all do.” And Peter’s answer? “Just do the right thing!”