He started his career in the petrochemical firm his father founded, but when Ben Walters, 38, (pictured, right) moved to Shanghai to set up an office he started a rather different business – selling sneakers based on the classic Chinese construction worker’s Liberation shoe.
My dad, who is 76 now, was born in the Bronx, the child of Polish immigrants, he grew up in Mosholu Parkway, which was a working class neighbourhood back then. When he was in high school he used to work at Yankee Stadium hustling beer and crackerjacks. He went to the City University of New York and graduated with a degree in psychology. At that point plastics were the big thing, and he went to work for the biggest player in the secondary market for petrochemicals. He worked for them for 20, maybe 25 years and then in the mid-70s he went out on his own and started Triad plastics, reselling and distributing basic commodity materials to large end processors in houseware and packaging goods. We had eight regional offices throughout North America, in all the industrial centres in the US, and also in Montreal and Toronto.
I finished a history degree in 1997 and joined the family business in 1999, although I had spent some summers helping out when I was growing up. My father put me as close to the bottom as he could – I wasn’t quite taking the garbage out, but it was a ground-up learning experience. I started selling in 2000, 2001 and covered the Eastern US, the Rust Belt in Pennsylvania, and some business up in New England. I quickly realised that the industry was changing and we had to make a move.
Many of our customers started to outsource their production to China. I’d always thought of living abroad and so I said to my dad, “Let me go out there”. The initial idea was to set up an operation there to be a conduit between the two markets, to provide materials for our North American customers who were manufacturing here and find opportunities for them, either finding factories or potential sales markets in China and the greater Asia Pacific region. I got here at the end of 2003 and I spent eight hours a day trying to get some foothold on the language and then I set up an office in Shanghai. It was busy, I was travelling throughout the region, in Thailand and Korea as well as in China. I realised I had some creative strengths that I hadn’t really tapped into, and then I decided to put my energies into Ospop instead.
The idea for Ospop predated my arrival in China, really. I’d thought of creating a fashion brand and developing a consumable fashion product based on workwear from less familiar locations, and then using the workers who actually wear this product as a visual identity behind the brand. At the start it was a hobby, really. For seven months I would do nothing on it, and then I’d spend 60 hours a week for a few weeks, really trying to develop a brand concept and working on some products. I had no background in fashion, retail or footwear at all so it was a matter of learning it as I went along. I got the total support of my family when I said I wanted to do it – a little bit of financial support, but in terms of emotional support and encouragement, 100% all the way.
When I arrived in Shanghai there was construction literally on every block, and all the workers were wearing this Liberation shoe. You couldn’t miss it. Aesthetically it has clean lines, it’s a simple design, and is a well-made product. The big shoe brands of the past 10 years – Uggs, Crocs, Toms – have a very recognisable silhouette that they modify. It was the same idea. The Liberation shoe is a vulcanised shoe, with an outside toe-cap, heel cap and outside foxing. It was just a matter of modifying colours and materials and so forth. I’ve handled all the design and development of the brand myself. The name Ospop stands for One Small Point of Pride.
We manufacture the shoes in China and we are sold worldwide. I’ve been focused on selling to the Chinese market, but we are not neglecting our fans in Europe. We’ve also branched out into apparel and we have a Chinese actress as a brand ambassador. I have big plans, well-developed plans, for expansion and now it’s a matter of executing and financing the growth. I’m talking to investors – I am looking to grow the company and some added resources would be great. Is Ospop making me the living I want? I hope it will be soon. I’m an ambitious guy.