I have a formula that works whenever I host panels. In the days leading up to the panel, I send out an email to the attendees so that they can submit questions for me to ask the panelists. Generally, I end up with about a dozen questions, and every question branches off into different topics. Well, a funny thing happened this time.
I was invited to host a panel on business growth at the PowWow Business Expo, arranged by Joel Wolh, Mechy Schlesinger and Yehuda Susskind. It took place at the auditorium at Bell Works in New Jersey. So far, so good.
I invited Larry Paparo of Floafers fame; Aaron Wolko, a venture capitalist and founder of virtual reality company Nivra; and David Pilchick, founder of BLVS (Brooklyn Low Voltage Supply), one of the largest providers of low-voltage security products. This was the first time I had Larry and Aaron on stage, but I’ve had David on several panels in the past, and he constantly delivers with new insights and advice.
As I do before most of the panels I host, I explained to the audience what would happen during the next hour or so. I said that although I do come to my panels with some questions prepared, the best insights always come from the organic back-and-forth discussion that follows the inevitable unprepared questions.
Well, I was in for a surprise. As I invited the panelists to the stage and reached for the notebook where I had written six questions to use as starting points, I realized it was nowhere to be found. With an audience waiting for the panel to begin, I couldn’t exactly take a break to go search for my notebook. Larry said to me, “Okay, Nesanel, let’s see how you do without any questions.” (I love Larry.)
It ended up being a fun, free-flowing conversation that yielded great insights into business life and life in general. From delegation, motivating employees, branding and marketing, to work-life balance—we covered a lot without those prepared questions. I found myself re-listening to parts of our conversation several times, trying to practice what these gentlemen have managed to make part of their daily lives. Enjoy!
Nesanel Gantz: This is the first panel I’ve had in a long time where all three panelists were already featured in the Lunchbreak column in Ami. That’s great, because I’m constantly asked to do follow-up articles on people who were featured in the past, so here we go—three in one. Our panelists all have great insight into growing one’s business. I’d like to ask for a warm round of applause as we call Larry Paparo, David Pilchick and Aaron Wolko to the stage.
We’re now going to give the panelists a few minutes to share their background stories. One of the reasons that I delve into the background stories of the people I feature is that it allows the reader to connect with the entrepreneur on a personal level. In general, interviews and panels involve telling the readers or audience that this person is an expert, so you should listen to what they have to say. But that doesn’t connect the reader with that person. However, once they read about their journey and struggles, the words the expert says resonate and have more of an impact. Larry, let’s start with you. Tell us about your background.
Larry Paparo: Thanks Nesanel, and thanks for having me here today. I really appreciate it. It’s an honor to be part of this.
Nesanel Gantz: Larry and I have become good friends, even though we just met in person for the first time today.
Larry Paparo: Yes, since the article came out, I have met so many wonderful people. It’s been really special.
I’ve been in the shoe business my entire life. I started in high school, stocking shelves in a shoe store in Brooklyn. You guys all know Brooklyn, right? I became the manager and eventually the buyer of the store, which was really cool. That store went from $200,000 from the time I got there, and it was almost at $1 million by the time I left. There was this magazine called Footwear News—
Nesanel Gantz: Not Ami?
Larry Paparo: No, not Ami, this was in the 1970s, before Ami was born. As a matter of fact, it was before you were born.
Nesanel Gantz: Yeah, I wasn’t born in the ’70s.
Larry Paparo: So Footwear News was the leading trade magazine, and the people featured there were all industry superstars who I wanted to meet one day. I remember thinking it would be phenomenal if I could actually meet them.
Now, I wanted to grow my career, and I knew I had to venture out of the small store I was in. Plus, my son was born, so I had to get out of retail and move on if I was going to make more money, right?
I had the good fortune of meeting a sales rep for Elefanten who pulled me out of that store to take on bringing the Elefanten brand from Germany into the US. These shoes were European sizes and had flexible bottoms, and nobody had seen that yet at that time. I went on a mission with those shoes. I ran around the country, and after five years, it had become a household name. From there, I went to work for a couple of major public companies…
Nesanel Gantz: Name them, please. Don’t be shy.
Larry Paparo: Me, shy? One was Kenneth Cole. It was publicly owned back in the early ’90s. When I got there, they were doing about $200 million. By the time I left, I was an executive in the company. I also started their children’s line, which was doing about $600 million by the time I left.
Kenneth recruited me because he wanted to take what I had done with this solidly engineered European comfort casual type of shoes and incorporate it into his very uncomfortable fashion shoes. I took what I had learned and incorporated it into the first designer casual shoes as well as a children’s shoe line, which was a first. Until then, kids’ shoes were only kid brands. They soon introduced me to other areas. I was doing the men’s shoes, the women’s shoes—all different tiers of distribution.
Nesanel Gantz: You basically took over divisions within different companies and built them up.
Larry Paparo: Exactly. The first time I worked for a large company, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. I would listen to them talk in the meetings, and they would use all these abbreviations and say all these things about business, and I would be like, “Yeah, yeah, sure.” And then I’d go and look up everything later. It was a “fake it till you make it” situation.
From Kenneth Cole, I went on to run a large division at Nine West, and then I went to Steve Madden, where I was the president of the board. As I transitioned from retail to wholesale, I learned a lot about the manufacturing business. I tried to learn all I could every step of the way.
Nesanel Gantz: And eventually you retired, right? You felt like you reached your peak.
Larry Paparo: Uh, no, not yet. Hang on, hang on. You should go and get Ami so you can read the entire story—wait, you wrote it! [audience laughs].
I was doing many things, and I was doing well. The truth is, you don’t have to stop. You can just keep going, going, going. If you have the hunger and the passion and the drive, nothing can stop you. You will win.
For me, I got out of wholesale and moved into my own company called LJP International, where I was manufacturing, sourcing and designing shoes for lots of different brands. I did that for about five years, making shoes for companies all over the world. I had shoes made in Brazil, China, Italy and more. By that time, I had about 200 people in my China office and several showrooms in New York. Then the brands started to call on me to come and license their brands.
So now I’m making shoes, designing shoes and licensing brands for men’s, women’s and kids. One of the brands was an Italian brand, a very famous one called Bruno Magli. I ended up doing significant work for around ten brands. I did that for the next five years and by the time it was 2015, I thought I was going to retire. I was about to hit 50, and I had just made it into the “Power 100” of the most influential people in the shoe industry. It was my dream to meet one of these Power 100, so now that I had actually become one, I thought I was done. I retired.
But then I had the opportunity to grow my own company, Floafers, and I was intrigued because the foam space was becoming popular at the time.
Nesanel Gantz: Because of Crocs.
Larry Paparo: We don’t use that word.
Nesanel Gantz: I’m sorry.
Larry Paparo: This guy is killing me. We knew that the foam space was really growing, and today, 30 percent of the global footwear space is foam footwear. But the shoes that existed pre-Floafers are kind of odd and big. I won’t get too technical, but foam expands. It’s not a friendly material, which is why you see them so big and ugly and wide. We figured out a way to control it and shape it to be more like a traditional shoe [points to the leather-looking Floafers he is wearing]. This is a Floafer shoe in patent leather. I wore them to my son’s wedding in August. They’re the only pair in the world.
COVID turned out to be great for our brand, because the world changed to more of a comfort lifestyle. Not too many people were buying dress shoes during COVID. For us, getting into the comfort world with an antimicrobial shoe that you could wear from daytime into the night was a game changer. What was impressive to me was that big brands like Cole Haan and Sperry tried to copy us and failed. The fact that they copied us made me want to go stronger.
Nesanel Gantz: By the way, for those of you who don’t know, Larry is a Brooklyn-born boy. What’s your Hebrew name?
Larry Paparo: Laibel.
Nesanel Gantz: That’s great. David, let’s go to you. Tell us your background story.
David Pilchick: I don’t know if I can beat Larry’s story.
Larry Paparo: I’ll help you if you need it.
David Pilchick: Alright. You back me up. It’ll go a lot quicker, though. [laughs] I have a company called Brooklyn Low Voltage Supply. I’m a wholesale distributor of security products. One of our customers, Yehuda Fleischer, is exhibiting here at the show. We’re very proud of him and we came to support him.
Nesanel Gantz: That’s interesting business advice—supporting your clients.
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