Watch out world: Geox is sticking the boot in

How did an Italian shoe manufacturer, launched in a small town just 14 years ago, come to be the second biggest in the world after Clarks? No sweat
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The Independent Online

I can't stop staring at Mario Moretti Polegato's shoulders. Running across each one is a narrow stripe, ever so slightly paler than his otherwise deep navy suit, making him look more like a pilot or soldier than Italy's biggest, and the world's number two, shoe tycoon.

He spots my stare, stops chatting, taps his shoulder and points excitedly to the stripe: "This breathes. There are tiny holes here. They allow the sweat to leave your body."

"Look," he says, flinging his jacket open to show the lining inside which looks as though it has ducting running up and down, not a million light years away from what the "still suits" worn by the Fremen in Frank Herbert's epic science fiction novel Dune might look like. "Our transpiration system is revolutionary. Inside here – the jacket – this 3D lining takes away about 40 per cent of the body's sweat. It keeps water out too. We are working on even more, newer technologies to beat sweat."

As far as I can see under his jacket from where I am sitting, this one seems to work pretty well as his white shirt looks crisp and perspiration free even though its 6pm and I know, because his PR has told me, that he has been dashing from meeting to meeting with buyers since early this morning.

Herbert may have foreseen the benefits of keeping sweat close to the body but it's Polegato who saw the value of letting it out, notably from our feet. Battling sweaty feet by inventing the revolutionary new "respira" shoe, which put holes in the soles to let them breathe, has made Polegato a billionaire. And the story of how Polegato founded his shoe company, Geox, almost by accident only 14 years ago and turned it into the world's second biggest shoe manufacturer, after the UK's Clarks, is already part of business mythology, making him a celebrity worldwide and a superstar in Italy. It's one he tells endlessly as he now lectures to students at business schools from Moscow to Cambridge.

We meet in his modernist office in Montebelluna, a small, beautiful Italian town north of Venice in Treviso, as the light is fading and there is the most sensational view over the nearby Dolomites. He cuts an imposing figure, while his exaggerated taste for Dame Edna glasses add a faintly eccentric air. Obviously exhausted, he still retells his story with freshness: "I was running in the desert in Nevada when I got really fed up with how sweaty my feet were. I took out my Swiss army knife, cut holes in the soles to let air in. This made me realise the benefit of ventilation. But I still had to work out how to stop the water coming in." He had been in Reno, Nevada, attending a wine convention for his family's successful winery, Villa Sandi, where he was then working.

Back in Montebelluna, also home to Italy's makers of ski and mountain boots, he started talking to technicians at the local universities about designing a sole that would allow feet to breathe but which would also be waterproof. The technicians at Padua came up with a solution using materials from Nasa spacesuits – a microporous membrane that acts like a second skin – which he quickly patented, and then took to some of the world's big shoe companies. But they didn't get the idea, and sent him packing.

"I didn't have any plans to start making shoes myself at all. But I couldn't believe that no one was interested as I was convinced the technology would work. So, one day, I talked to a few friends about doing it ourselves. I come from a rich family but I didn't want to ask them for money so I went to the local bank – the Cassa di Risparmio di Treviso – and took out a €500,000 loan. We started by making children's shoes, selling them here in Montebelluna. The mothers liked them so much they asked us to make them for them. Then for men. That's how it started," he says, with the tiniest of sighs. The first shop is still there, in the main square.

Now Pope Benedict XVI, Russell Crowe, Barack Obama, Queen Rania of Jordan and the other queen of shoes, Sarah Jessica Parker, to name just a few, are regular Geox wearers but, he assures me: "We haven't asked them to endorse them but found out they wear them." In 2008, Geox sold 23 million pairs of shoes, made sales of €892.5m in 68 countries around the world and now sells through 10,000 independent shops – 400 in the UK – and, as of August, has just opened its 1,000th own-brand store, and employs 4,000 people.

In October, Polegato opened his biggest store yet – 6,000 square feet – on 34th Street in New York, making it his 34th store in the US, and more are planned in China. Geox earned a net profit in 2008 of €118.2m and, despite the downturn in the world's economy, still made €64.4m in the first six months of this year. While shares in Geox – listed on the London and Milan exchanges – have slipped from the year's high to €4.7 valuing it at €1.2bn, analysts reckon that any uptick in consumer demand will see Geox benefit immediately.

But Mr Polegato, who still owns 71 per cent, is not happy. Until this year, Geox had notched up double-digit growth in each of the previous five. He's also frustrated because 90 per cent of all shoes sold – including those worn by most of you readers – still have rubber soles which he takes almost as a personal affront. "It's really not good for you – rubber is terrible for your feet unless they can breathe."

That's why his new goal is to become the world's biggest shoemaker. "To be the biggest we have to take on the casual to sports market," he says, striding across to his shelves full of mini-Ferraris and Lamborghinis (the real ones are at home) to bring me a Geox key ring with four symbols, the latest being the running shoe. That means beating sports giants such as Nike, Adidas and Puma at their own game. It's going to be an uphill run as this casualwear shoe market is half of the world's annual shoe sales of about £7bn. Geox already has 13 per cent of what's called the lifestyle market but only a tiny fraction of the sports to casual one. It's kicked off with golf shoes, which are made using its Net technology, as well as the more basic running shoes which even I, the most amateurish of joggers, can testify are as light as feathers yet tough as boots.

"First of all, I produce the breathable shoe for comfort. Now we are bringing top Italian style to make them high fashion as well. We are also making the clothes which we will continue to develop. But the sports shoe is our big goal," he says. Taking on the high-fashion market is also on the agenda. And he's just rescued Diadora, the once top Italian tennis and football clothing brand, which nearly collapsed last year with big debts. His experience has made him obsessive about patenting, and the way Italians have thrown away some of their most brilliant designs really niggles him.

"We Italians have created some of the greatest inventions in the world – the espresso machine and the pizza, for example. But the men and women behind them have lost out to the Pizza Huts or Starbucks of this world. This," he says, slowly and rather sadly, "is terrible." It's why he's so careful about protecting his own products with patents, having at least 35 tucked away for new technologies. Down the road from his HQ is the Geox factory, where his scientists test new Geox products – metal legs wearing the shoes pound away for days at a time while steam chambers pump out heat to test the breathability of his new garments.

"I tell all my students to make sure they patent their ideas. After all, one idea is worth more than a factory," he says. With that, he stands up to call it a day, revealing more sweat bands in his waistband and natty black leather shoes, and, of course, with holes in his soles.

...and raise a glass to Giancarlo too

Mario Moretti Polegato is not the only member of his family who likes to invent – or who is keen on insulation. His brother, Giancarlo, who runs the family's Villa Sandi winery, close to Montebelluna, has been making his own ripples in the wine industry with his invention of the Claxa bottle – which uses an insulating system to keep wines at the perfect temperature.

And yes, it's patented. It's one of many developments introduced by the younger Polegato at the Villa Sandi estate, which is named after the stunning Palladian villa (above) – built in 1622 by a rich Venetian lawyer to hold his summer parties – which has been in the family since the early 1900s. During restoration, they discovered a second level of wine cellars, with wartime motorcycles – and kilometres of tunnels which, they think, were closed up in the First World War when the villa was used as an Italian army command post. It's here, some 17 metres below ground, that I saw more than 1.5 million bottles of ageing Opere Trevigiane, musty and mouldy, carefully stacked into wooden racks with names denoting their final destination: Pope Benedict and President Silvio Berlusconi, among others.

Villa Sandi is Italy's biggest maker of the sparkling white prosecco wine – Treviso is the main centre for growing the grape – and it makes about 10 million bottles a year. Of the 17 million bottles of white and red wines, the Polegatos sell about half to Germany, the US and the UK, where it's particularly popular in Tesco. Like his brother, Giancarlo has notched up a number of record-breaking awards. It runs in the family.