From Saving Souls to Selling Soles
At 87, industry veteran Tom Adams is still innovating with his latest brand, Fit2 Shoes.
It’s a beautiful late February morning in San Antonio when Tom Adams walks into the board room of his local patent attorney to discuss Fit2 (pronounced Fit Squared) Shoes, and the journey that led him to spend more than eight years and invest capital from nearly a dozen investors on two patents.
Tom Adams is in exclusive company: At 87, he’s one of only a handful of active octogenarian “shoe dogs” still in the footwear business. What makes Adams’ story different than his counterparts in the 80-plus set (including Phil Knight, Jerry Turner and Rusty Saunders) is his inventive spirit and unrelenting drive to make one more deal. It’s been an unlikely career in the shoe business for a kid who grew up poor in Brockaway, PA and who spent eight years as a Roman Catholic priest — including two as a MaryKnoll missionary in South America.
Today, after starting three footwear companies, Adams is working daily to sell or license two closure-system patents he says can revolutionize how the foot is locked down, and do away with the need for shoelaces, a product he says is in dire need of replacing. Actually, Adams’ obsession with the shoelace is more than a half-century old. In 1966, as he transitioned to civilian life (Adams was granted permission to leave the priesthood in April 1966 due to health issues), the lifelong tinkerer obtained a patent for a double-laced shoe and wrote to nearly all athletic shoe makers at the time. When four years passed without any serious interest, he began devising a plan to create a company around the concept, which had come to him during a 1962 tennis match where one of his laces snapped.
The result was Kaepa, founded in 1975, which sold a split vamp, double-lace athletic shoe in the cheerleading, volleyball, tennis and casual athletic segments and surpassed $100 million in revenues in the early 1980s before being sold to Wolverine Worldwide in 1985. Subsequently, and with varied success, the one-time real estate agent started two other footwear companies in his adopted hometown in southern Texas: In-Stride, focused on cheerleaders, healthcare workers, expectant mothers and casual-athletic consumers; and USA Retama, a shortlived footwear company that launched in the early ’90s. Adams also established Innova Inc., focused on researching ideas, patents and new products for development of domestic and international marketing and acquiring exclusive footwear rights to a thermo-plastic tie that can serve as a replacement for Velcro.
Today, it’s the “Single Pull and Double Pull Fit Adjustment For Shoes” and “Single Pull and Double Pull Squared-Cord Shoe Closure System” patents that he’s betting on. It’s been a process: The first patent took four and a half years to secure, the second, two and a half. In between, a small batch of prototypes were made and sold in the local market to test and to gauge consumer interest in the technology. Now, Adams is hopeful the patents pique the interest of a major shoe brand or two looking to ditch the lace and offer something new to consumers.
“In the past, the shoe business has stayed away from medial side closures for fear people will trip,” says Adams. “But we addressed that issue with the first patent. The concept makes it easy for all to get into their shoes.”
Over the last few years, lace options, foot scanning systems and customized insoles have all reached new heights. Boa and Hickies are just two of the many brands addressing closure systems with devices. And companies such as Aetrex and Volumental, along with Dr. Scholl’s, are focusing on the foot-scanning device market, all in an effort to help the consumer secure the right size and style best suited for their feet. Meanwhile, Nike is expanding its HyperAdapt technology, which uses a pressure sensor in the heel to detect a foot’s presence and a motor in the sole and a network of cables that tighten over the bridge of the foot, all for the cool retail price of $720. In February, the Swoosh introduced its $350 Adapt basketball shoe with an advanced power lacing system controlled by a mobile app. And Puma will introduce its new Fit Intelligence (Fi) concept in a $330 training shoe for workouts and light running in 2020 after a beta testing program this year. The technology, an evolution of the 1991 Disc cable closure system and 2016’s AutoDisc, allows wearers to monitor, adjust and fine-tune through a smartphone app.
Fit2’s two patents are technical in nature — but are not digitized like the Nike and Puma’s concepts. But they were developed and tested for the same reason: to give the wearer a better ride and easier in-and-out experience whether he or she is elderly, an athlete or in the third trimester of pregnancy.
Adams thinks the new concentration and emphasis on how the end product fits the customer are steps in the right direction for the footwear industry.
“It hurts me when I see or hear of older people falling, in many cases due to slipping of the foot inside the shoe,” he said. “I would like to see more concentration on the practical aspects of shoes, I mean, we’ve had the lace for 5,500 years. There have been changes to it, but it still has its imperfections and a lot of people can’t adjust them.”
He says the strong consumer reaction to Kaepa back in the day and the brand’s two-lace concept taught him to look more closely at the configuration of the foot, the adjustment, the tension of the lacing and the negative aspects of “lacing up” and “coming loose.”
“These thoughts haunted me after Kaepa, and when I could no long resist the siren song to ‘find the better way,’ I plunged headfirst into the impossible task — and it took only eight-and-a-half years to meet the challenge,” says Adams, adding, “But I found the challenge to do the impossible was much less boring than to endure the thankless challenge of retirement.”