Sole-full Business

A shop making Danish-style clogs grew to a thriving group of shoe stores

by Anne Averyt

danformThe origin of Danform Shoes (a name derived from “Danish form”) can be found in wooden-bottom clogs, which were made for years by Dave Bailey and his partner Dave Deforge. Bailey bought full ownership in 1986. The company now has stores in Colchester, Shelburne, Burlington, and St. Albans. Dave Bailey is owner and chief executive officer; his wife, Helen, is owner and chief operating officer.

Hidden at the end of a winding dirt road on Coates Island in Colchester stands a large, rambling house on a rock ledge overlooking the Malletts Bay Boat Club. It’s the home of Helen and Dave Bailey, the owners of Danform Shoes, and they greet visitors to their home with the same warm welcome that customers receive at their stores.

Longtime family friend Linda Goodrum explains: “Helen and Dave are both wonderful people and good business people. They’ve always treated me like a family member and when I go in the store as a customer the staff treats me like a friend even though they don’t know me.”

Danform Shoes, with four locations in Chittenden County and St Albans, has been an iconic destination for Vermont shoe buyers for more than 30 years. The enterprise, which began with the card table sales of a few slightly irregular wooden-bottom clogs manufactured by Dave and a partner, has grown over the years into a million dollar business. But Dave Bailey’s philosophy of treating his customers as family has never changed.

“We treat our employees as family and they treat customers the same way,” Dave says. “In fact,” he adds, “sometimes we forget who we are actually related to.”

“Danform is built on three building blocks — great service, quality footwear, and great price — but customer service is the most important,” says marketing director Stephanie Bertoni. “We value each customer who comes in the door. We want a new customer to become a customer for life and that philosophy is what I really like. I was a customer before I was an employee.”

Danform Shoes is a Vermont business with Vermont owners — sort of. Helen is a native Vermonter who grew up summering at the Coates Island camp built by her grandfather, which is now the Baileys’ home. A 1964 graduate of Burlington High School, she worked for four years at Burlington Savings Bank (now KeyBank), before marrying and raising a family. In 1982 she re-entered the workforce as the bookkeeper at Danform Shoes. In 2000, both divorced from previous spouses, Dave and Helen married. Helen is buyer and chief operating officer.

Dave’s Vermont roots also go deep, though he admits that technically he is not a Vermonter. “My father’s family settled the town of Newbury in the 1700s,” he says, “and my mother is from Groton. Her family’s been there four generations.”

Dave’s parents moved to Newton, Mass., following World War II and Dave was born there. His family returned to Vermont when Dave was 15, and he graduated in 1966 from Essex High School.

After high school, he majored in art history at the University of Vermont. After college, he worked as operations manager for a Burlington janitorial company, and in 1978 he joined Dave Deforge as part owner of Deforge Industries, a company that manufactured fireplace heater inserts and wooden-bottom clogs. Every day, Dave says, “we’d make a few pairs of clogs that had scratches in the leather, so we put them for sale on a card table by the entrance. Pretty soon we had more and more demand for the shoes so we put up some racks and sold more wooden-bottom clogs.”

As the Colchester storefront gained popularity, customers began requesting a wider variety of brands and, Dave says, that was the birth of Danform Shoes. Wooden-bottom clogs originated in Denmark so the name Danform is derived from the “Danish form” of clogs.

In 1986, after eight years of making wooden-bottom clogs, they found that interest in those shoes declined, so Bailey and Deforge stopped making the them. Dave bought full ownership of the company and “pushed fully into retail business,” he says.

By that time the reputation of Danform Shoes was solidly established and the business, begun in Colchester, began to expand. In 1984, Dave had opened a new location on U.S. 7 in Shelburne, and for a while he also had stores in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and North Adams, Mass. Later, he closed the out-of-state stores and, in 1990, opened a store in St. Albans. In 1999, the Burlington branch of Danform Shoes was added to the chain, and in 2006, the Shelburne store moved into a new, larger building.

In those early days in the ’80s, Dave recalls, “things were tough financially. There were lots of lean years. We had stayed too long with the manufacturing, which was losing money, while the retail side was making money.” To take the financial pressure off the stores, Dave became a sales rep for other shoe companies, travelling around New England. In the process he learned the shoe business.

He talked with other store owners and saw what shoes they were selling and how they chose the brands to buy.

“I got to meet a lot of successful shoe retail people,” he says now, “and I found out a lot about the ins and outs of the business, things I never would have found out staying within my four walls.”

The lessons were well learned. “A lot of people who go into business don’t have a clue,” says Manny Gurowski, a local property manager who leased the Baileys their building in Shelburne. “After getting to know David and Helen,” he says, “I’m extremely impressed that they know all the aspects of their business. They know exactly where they are going and how they want to get there.”

Dave’s networking has been invaluable, but even more central to the success of the business, both Baileys say, has been the power of technology. “We worked really hard,” Helen observes, “and we still work every day, but the computer has taught us a lot more about the business.”

Controlling inventory is the key to the viability of their shoe business, Helen says. Right now she is in the process of buying shoes for the spring of 2014, and their Shelburne store alone has an inventory of 40 brands and 10,000 pairs of shoes. “The computer gives us essential knowledge that is helpful in analyzing and handling the inventory,” she explains, “which means buying what you need and not buying what you don’t need.” “I don’t know if we would be in business today,” Dave adds, “if our inventories weren’t computerized.”

The couple has worked hard over the years and they still work daily. “We used to joke, “Helen says, “that we would buy the shoes, unpack them, price them, put them on the floor, and sell them. It was hard, we did it all,” she recalls, but it was also satisfying. Helen still does all the buying for the company and oversees much of the management of the branch stores, which currently employ 38 staff.

Dave still spends his weekends in the stores, talking to customers and employees, finding out what works and what needs tweaking. He loves to collect and share vignettes from satisfied customers, particularly the story of the 6-year-old girl who got a pair of clogs for her birthday and wore them to bed. It’s that connection with your customers, he says, that really makes the business worthwhile.

Dave’s son, Sean; his son-in-law, Derek Hellyer; and Helen’s daughter, Betsy Brown, have grown up helping out at the stores — Betsy and Sean work in the Shelburne Road store and Derek is general manager over all the stores. Helen’s niece Shari Sheehey is their longest standing employee.

Much of their spare time revolves around family gatherings — the extended clan numbers 18 — and supporting their grandchildren’s sports events. Dave, who nurtured his love of art in college, is also a collector of the Vermont landscape paintings of Thomas Curtin and, more recently, bronze reliefs by the well known Colombian sculptor Guilloume.

One thing the Baileys don’t stockpile is shoes. Unlike Imelda Marcos, Helen has only about 12 pairs. In the summer, she prefers Birkenstocks and the rest of the year it’s Dansko. Dave admits he probably owns 20 pairs of shoes, although for this interview he was barefooted. He says his favorite shoes are a pair of Merrill sandals. “This is my second pair,” he admits, then adds with a characteristic laugh, “I love them, but they’ll be the last. They don’t make these anymore … and just as I was getting used to them.” •