· Fashion&Accessories · · T. Maria Cruz · P. André Rolo

Fortunato Frederico

«Fly London is the only Portuguese footwear brand with an international foothold»

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He enters the room where we were waiting for him, smiling, infecting the moment with joy. He had just run up the stairs. A true inspiration, considering he is almost 80 years old. He sat down and the conversation flowed. We started with golf, one of his passions over the last four years. He spoke about his career, about the company and empire he has built in 38 years; about his friendships, about his losses – of his mother, of the nun who raised him and of his son –; about his memories, and about the projects he still wants to see accomplished. He recalled his best friend Marino, whom he met in the army, and of whom he has always been very proud; he spoke about true friendships. He hates «hypocrisy». On the walls of his office and meeting room we see moments and people who have marked his professional life. From the first online shop, in 2001; to his partners in Pakistan and Japan; the inauguration of Namibia, a month after independence; various diplomas, the presentation of the Order of Industrial Merit. In one of these portraits is a drawing of what the Kyaia world would be like when the brand was created, portrayed by art, jazz, war, sport, fashion and love... Fortunato Frederico served two terms as president of APICCAPS (Portuguese Footwear, Components, Leather Goods Manufacturers’ Association). Today he is the face of the footwear sector in Portugal. He has three assembly lines in Guimarães and two in Paredes de Coura. They can produce up to 4,500 pairs a day. He joined Metaverso, also as a way of keeping up with trends. In his opinion, the solution to the lack of manpower is to bring in workers from abroad or to replace them with robots.
Do you feel like a man of 80?
No. If I felt like an 80-year-old man I would be sad. I’m still a happy man. 

And what makes you happy?
Doing the work I love. I always dreamed of having a factory and so that gives meaning to my life. That’s why I’m still here, to face new challenges.

And is that head of yours always working?
If it wasn’t, there would be no point in living. That’s what fuels us. There are two things in life that are important: enjoying your work and being healthy.

Do you have those two things?
Yes, I have both. And I play golf twice a week.

As a way to clear your mind?
This is very important. One of the things the factory took away from me was time to learn to play golf. Inclination and time... Nine or ten years ago I told a friend that I had to start playing golf and we went to Braga to buy a set of clubs each. I got home, put the bag away in the garage and never remembered to use it again. My friend started to learn. Four years later he was already a good player. I didn’t even know how to hold a club. One day, as a joke, I took his set and started to hit some balls. I did two or three months of practice and it went well. I’ve hit a hole in one.

Did that motivate you to continue?
I’ve never hit one again. Now that I want to do it and I can’t (he laughs). This year I started to step back a little from work and I feel good. It’s wonderful. I go and play on my own a lot. I lose my temper. I argue with myself. 

When do you notice that the strategy you are using isn’t working?

Golf demands a lot of concentration and sometimes you get your head all mixed up. You have to take it easy.  

Speaking about your professional world, sometimes things don’t go as planned and you have to stay calm...
I insult myself a lot. Life is not always what we want it to be. We rebel against ourselves. We always fight to improve.

«There is an academic boost in industrialists, which, in the past, didn’t exist »
Ever since you were a boy, you have always dreamed of working in the world of footwear.
I left the seminary at the age of 14 and went to work in a shoe factory. I started by sweeping the floor. You wanted to learn, that’s what got you promoted. The more you knew, the more you earned. The interest in the factory was motivated because I knew, in fact, that I was going to be promoted. The boss liked to look after his workers. He managed to encourage 3/4 workers to become industrialists. That was our version of university, in the Campeão Português factory. 

Later the moment came around to set up your own.
I went to Africa for military service. There I asked myself what I was going to do. First, I was guaranteed that I would return to Campeão Português. When I returned, I thought I could also set up a factory. My boss at the factory, Senhor Domingos, encouraged me to think like that. I often tell this because I always had a lot of admiration for him. He even sent me an envelope with a lot of money while I was at the training academy. I came home from overseas, I went back to the same factory, Campeão Português. I remember there wasn’t a village that didn’t have Campeão Português shoes. I scraped up some money and bought land to build a house, and then I started thinking about setting up a factory. But then came the April 25 Revolution, and politics sent me a little off track. I was more involved in politics. I took a psychological beating and went back to my goal. Then I ended up becoming a shoe machine salesman. I had experience. In the meantime, a company in Leiria came to me and needed a technician to assemble its machines in the north. I grasped that opportunity. I left when two young industrialists suggested I set up a factory, in a partnership. So, we founded Tratick. It didn’t go very well, because we agreed on a three-way partnership and they decided to include brothers-in-law. Three or four years later I started up Kyaia, 38 years ago. I invited people to come with me: an economist and another guy I had trained to be a salesman.

Did you ever imagine creating this empire?
As the Campeão Português company had closed, I, as a local, wanted Guimarães to continue to have the largest footwear factory in the country.

And do you feel you’ll succeed?
If it lasts another 10 years like this, with this strength... This year we will already grow 20%, we have already turned things around.

Do you see yourself becoming the number one footwear factory?
Today, there are more people motivated to have good factories. The industry, these days, is going through a growth phase. I know companies that make a lot of money and have good projects for the future, because now there’s this second generation. Many of the children are already engineers, economists.... There is an academic boost in the level of industrialists, which, in the past, didn’t exist. 

You had the goal of reaching 2024 and making...
100 million. In 2014 we made 64 million and in 2015 65 million. We were on our way to being the best factory at the time. Hence, the goal of 100 million for 2024. But we have undergone some internal changes.

And now, what is the goal?
It is to grow. It’s to get the factory to reach turnover it achieved in 2014 and 2015, at the very least, because it dropped to 30 million.

A significant drop.
This alone is what justifies having removed a person from his position, who had been working with me since he was 15 years old. If it wasn’t for this, there would have been no reason at all.
 How do you imagine the company when you’re no longer here?
I have my niece, who’s taken over from a former employee. I have another niece who’s in charge of finance, and one or two other managers. As I don’t have any heirs to take charge of the company, I’ve created a foundation, which will be officially inaugurated next month. The future president of the association will be Dr. Cristina, my advisor. We are going to create a fund for the workers to have the supplementary pension that the factory will give them, but to be entitled they have to have been working for the company for some time, of course. The foundation has already been working for five or six years. We established a prize for the three best students in three villages. It started with 350 Euros and a pair of shoes, and this year we have already given 750 Euros. And it will go up even more. When I was in my fourth year at school, I lived in a village near here with a nun, the person who raised me, and she got me into the seminary. I spent my holidays with her in Donim. One day I received a prize, which the Martins Sarmento School gives every year to the best student of the schools in the municipality. I’d completely forgotten about this. One fine day, I was in the city centre and Professor Santos Simões, from the industrial school, passed by and he reminded me that my name was in the Martins Sarmento book, from the time I won that prize. That reminded me of the first time I went to the cinema, to the Teatro Jordão, where I ate some real fine treats. I remembered the joy I had experienced, and soon I set up a prize in the company to give to the three best students of the schools in Donim, where I lived, in Penselo, where I have the factory, and Paredes de Coura.

How many people do you employ?
We have employed 620 people. With the pandemic and the closure of stores (Foreva had 80 stores), we have fewer, around 500, counting Guimarães and Paredes de Coura.

You said that within the group there are several companies, in particular, the IT company.
We have a shoe factory, a sole factory, a factory that makes insoles and pads for the group, in Paredes de Coura. Then we have an IT company, a software development company, we have the Foreva warehouse, Overcube, and the real estate company, we have 51 apartments in Guimarães. All this is enough to keep me entertained. Within the real estate company, we also have Fly Residence, which are local accommodation and rental spaces, and the Eira do Sol farm, with 15 rooms, a swimming pool, sauna, gym... it’s tourism. I took the decision to make a padel court to add to the attraction for tourists.  

How did Fly London come about?
We had been looking for a brand for a long time. We had Kyaia, which was the group brand. But for a women’s shoe brand, it’s very symmetrical and we were trying to sell shoes, and we even tried to do another lettering, but it didn’t work out. Then, at a fair in Germany, our friend Carolina came along and told us about an English brand (the partners got upset on the trip). We spoke to one of the English partners and I asked him if he would sell me the brand. He made a deal and I kept the brand. 

And then the launch was an immediate success.
For years we only sold abroad, so the brand was known in London, but not in Portugal. After two or three years, people still saw the brand as being foreign. We did a lot of conferences, we travelled a lot... I even went to Oxford for a conference, where I met Tiago Brandão Rodrigues (former Minister of Education), a student at that same university. In 2014 and 2015 we sold almost a million pairs of shoes all over the world. It’s the only Portuguese footwear brand with an international foothold.

How many countries do you sell to?
51 countries. For many years, England was our main market. But we began to grow, and today I think it’s between Canada and the United States. 

How do you view the footwear market at a national level?
The footwear world is about image. The industrialists make good shoes, but you spend a lot of money to launch a brand. And our industrialists don’t have that vision. Raising the quality of shoes has been achieved; the only thing that’s not being done is raising the price.

So, what is missing to combat this?

«You spend a lot of money to launch a brand»
Don’t entrepreneurs invest in publicising the product?
They think it’s money poorly spent and don’t invest. And we were lucky because we launched Fly London at the right time. And, at that time, I wasn’t yet suffering from something I suffer from today: I don’t receive any subsidy from the state, from the European community, because I’m a big group and they don’t support us. I feel disgusted by that, I’m a victim here. Everything I spend comes from the company.

So, you’re a successful businessman, you spend a lot of money and you don’t get any support from the state.
Yes. If the company is big, why shouldn’t it receive money? There are groups that receive millions, but for other things. For some, there is money, for others no longer. The law benefits the swindler, because an individual tries to register a trademark and we contest it. He doesn’t get the trademark, but he laughs. We’re halfway through the year, and I’ve already spent 40,000 Euros on disputes.  

Everyone wants their trademark...
I’ve been told it's a category. A brand that has been on the market for many years and you still spend money on contesting people. We are wronged. It’s not my brand, it’s the country's. It is a good magnet for Portugal and I receive no support. That’s not right.

Do you feel that the country doesn’t value it?
Nobody values it.  

In the footwear world, how do you innovate to surprise consumers?
You have to follow the trends. Otherwise, you get left behind. Up until now we made two collections a year, at the moment we are working on permanent collections. We have to inject new products every few months. And online is a good way of advertising those products. For that we have developed two platforms and we are going to enter a project to launch products every month.

Do you sell more online or in stores?
I’ve given up on stores because of the rent. I made the decision three years ago to start reducing Foreva shops. I invested 10 million Euros over ten years to maintain the shops, and not to send staff away, nor to pay compensation to the owner, because I had contracts for six and seven years.   

Are you just going to keep the stores in Oporto and Lisbon?
In Lisbon we have a fantastic store, in Oporto also, and we are going to keep two or three more in the Algarve and Évora. We have between 20 and 30 shops at the moment.  

And abroad, do you have physical stores?
In London, we had two, now we are going to have just one. We closed the one we had in the United States. In Ireland it works well.

«Raising the quality of shoes has been achieved; the only thing that’s not being done is raising the price»

They also work very well online...
The advantage is that the stores themselves have an online site. By putting the two forms of sales together you start to balance it out a little bit.

How do you think we can combat this shortage of qualified labour?
There is only one way. It is to bring in outside workers. I have already spoken to the technology centre about a project I would like to do: Jules Verne, which would be to reduce staff by 75% and replace them with robots. This is the way to combat the lack of manpower.

Much is being said about sustainability. In what way does your company already think about sustainability?
We have now launched a model in the new collection that is self-sustainable, it’s called Fly Green, with the possibility of being able to restore the soles. The customer delivers the shoe to the shops, we give them a discount voucher, and then we reuse the soles and the leather and make carpets for houses.  
Maria Cruz
T. Maria Cruz
P. André Rolo
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