The unlikely journey from high school dropout to sneaker industry pioneer

Paul Van Doren is one of the cofounders of Vans, a shoe brand beloved by skateboarders, creatives, and "off-the-wall" fans everywhere for its laid-back, Southern California aesthetic.
May 1, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC
Authentic Paul Van Doren-Vans-Memoir
“Authentic: A Memoir” by Paul Van Doren
Courtesy of Vertel Publishing

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I am 90 years old. It’s hard to imagine how the America I grew up in became the one we live in today. As a young man, I spent hours working in my father’s barn churning out sparklers. My dad was an inventor and entrepreneur. He perfected a process for making the sparklers kids play with on the Fourth of July. My job was to attach a few dozen sticks to a wooden frame and dip them into a barrel of flammable compound. I was the assembly line.

The day came when my father could afford another worker. The new guy was three times as slow and got paid three times as much (30¢ a frame). So, I quit.

Shortly after, I was fortunate enough to get a job at the Randolph Rubber Co., “Randy’s.” I was 16 years old, and for the next two decades I would learn everything there is to know about making shoes. I got the education that would allow me to open the Van Doren Rubber Company, which would go on to make Vans Sneakers. My mentor was a great guy named Bob Cohen. He was the owner’s son and the smartest man I had ever met.

I’m certain that if you sat down the top entrepreneurs in the world—Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Oprah Winfrey, or Phil Knight—they could each tell you the moment where it all changed for them.

For me, it came on a freezing night in Boston. That’s the night Bob Cohen taught me to never catch pigeons.

Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of my new book, Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans.

All I needed to know about making canvas shoes I learned at the Randolph Rubber Co., in Randolph, Mass. My mother got me my first job at Randy’s, as we called it, as a service boy (a kind of runner or material handler) when I was 16. I went on to spend the first 20 years of my career learning the trade. 

Soon after I had been promoted to a supervisory position at Randy’s, my boss, Bob Cohen, invited me to attend the industry’s semiannual trade show. The Boston Shoe Travelers Association show was the place where retailers scout lines and preorder shoes for the following season. In the shoe manufacturing world, this was the big time. 

I was still very low in the pecking order, so the invite was contingent on the fact that while the “suits” wined, dined, and entertained each other, I would do the grunt labor of setting up, arranging, organizing, and breaking down the display booth. I didn’t mind skipping the cocktail events and industry dinner, not a bit; I was just excited to witness deals being made. Besides, my boss, whose father owned Randy’s, had a Buick convertible. Traveling together meant I would have a chance to drive it. 

That first industry trip turned out to be the most instructive in my 20 years at Randy’s. I learned a few things about the business, of course, but more important, I had one of the defining experiences of my career—and it didn’t have anything to do with shoes. 

At the time, Randy’s wasn’t exactly the darling on the shoe block, but given the company’s longstanding relationship with Keds, they were a minor player. Back then, Keds and Converse were the heaviest hitters, and we were far from being a Keds or a Converse. 

The first day went about as I expected, with buyers from different department stores and retail outlets perusing our wares, along with aisle after aisle of our competitors. Bob chatted up folks while I tidied things. 

One of the people Bob made a point of talking to was a major buyer named Harry, who worked for a big retailer that represented more than 50% of Randy’s business. He and Bob left at some point in the afternoon, and when they returned much later, when it was time for Bob to collect me and drive home, Harry was sideways. Bob was tipsy toasted, but Harry was smashed. 

If Bob wanted to call it a day and hit the road, he didn’t show it, and Harry certainly didn’t seem as if he was ready to part ways, either. He stumbled around a while, then he got right up in Bob’s face and slurred, “Bob, I want you to go out to Boston Common and catch me a pigeon.” 

Bob might have been baffled, but he replied good-naturedly, “Come on, Harry, let’s do something else, something more fun.” 

Harry was not having it; there was no convincing him otherwise. “Damn it, son,” Harry insisted. “I want you to catch me a pigeon.” 

I was stumped. These men were round about the same age. In present company, no one was anybody’s son. Besides, surely Harry was joking. Surely, he’d come to his senses, or, barring that, Bob would knock some sense into him. 

And yet the next thing I knew, I was leaning on a lamppost on Tremont Street, watching a man I admired nearly as much as my father falling over himself trying to catch a pigeon. 

My reaction was visceral. I was disgusted. Maybe Randy’s would have lost half their profits that year if Bob had told Harry to take a flying leap; we’ll never know. Clearly, Bob wasn’t about to jeopardize the account. He was intimidated. 

Try as I might, I could not put myself in Bob’s position. I could not imagine letting some jerk humiliate me. It wouldn’t have mattered to me that Harry bought more than half the shoes Randy’s made. He could have bought every last one. I would never let one person have that sort of control over me. 

In fact, damn it, there had to be a better way. Why were we de- pending on a handful of buyers, anyway? Someday, someway, somehow, I would figure out a way to get rid of the middlemen. Because no amount of business would ever be worth my integrity. 

I will never forget that hour in Boston Common watching Bob Cohen chase pigeons. Not only did it help me figure out what sort of folks I wanted to work with, but it crystallized for me what I would be willing to work my ass off to avoid. I would never work with jerks. I also credit that experience with giving me the courage, many years later, to start my own company. By then I had worked my way up to run Randy’s most successful factory. I had learned the essentials of shoe manufacturing and a thing or two about business. 

One day, in an effort to appease management, Bob—still my boss, many years later—decided to promote to top positions a bunch of guys who had just driven an entire manufacturing operation into the ground. As far as I was concerned, asking my team to report to people who didn’t know how to run a business—who, in fact, had proved only that they knew how to ruin one—sounded a lot like a request to go catch a pigeon. That was my last day at Randy’s. 

A few fortuitous turns of fate later, I found myself establishing my own shoe company. 

The Van Doren Rubber Co., as it was first known, wasn’t perfect, but for me that’s what it felt like. 

From the book Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans. ©2020 by Paul Van Doren. Published on April 27 by Vertel Publishing. Reprinted by permission.