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Santa Cruz County profiles: Eric and Ellen Gil, founders of Sockshop Shoe Co., talk about the future

Time:2018-05-14 10:40Shoes websites Click:

Shoe Talk Future about Sockshop

Ellen Gil, seated, is the co-founder of Sockshop & Shoe Co., which has A socks-only retail store on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Behind her, brother-in-law Jesse Velazquez, sister Letitia Velazquez and son Hunter Gil also work in the family business. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Ellen Gil, seated, is the co-founder of Sockshop & Shoe Co., which has A socks-only retail store on the Santa Cruz Wharf. Behind her, brother-in-law Jesse Velazquez, sister Letitia Velazquez and son Hunter Gil also work in the family business. (Dan Coyro -- Santa Cruz Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ >> When Eric Gil got the idea of a store with nothing but colorful socks, it took a few years to convince his wife Ellen.

They opened a 450-square-foot sock boutique on Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz on April Fool’s Day 1988. But it was no joke.

The retail business survived the 1989 earthquake and the 2008 recession and inspired the Socksmith brand of quirky and colorful footwear, designed in Santa Cruz with two collections coming out each year and sold worldwide.

Last year, the Gils opened new stores on the Santa Cruz Wharf and in Seattle.

In April, the couple closed Legs, their lingerie boutique on Pacific Avenue, after a seven-year run, moving the merchandise most in demand to Sockshop, and sold Sockshop Haight Street to the longtime manager, financing the deal, and keeping Shoeshop Haight Street, which opened in 2015.

“It’s kind of our model,” said Eric Gil, 58, noting the couple first sold the Carmel sockshop 20 years ago and then Old School Shoes in Santa Cruz three years ago.

“We’re putting retailers out into the world,” said Ellen Gil, 57.

The company employs 25 people in retail stores and 40 at Socksmith wholesale, with daughter Sarah, 28, and son Hunter 27, working at the family business.

With 30 years of retail behind them, Eric and Ellen Gil spoke to the Sentinel about how they got to where they are, their challenges and what’s on the horizon. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What’s on the horizon for Sockshop and Sockmith?

Eric: We’re really focused on wholesaling. We’re growing 50-60 percent a year. We’re in 3,500 doors at this point. We just signed a deal for European distribution.

Ellen: We opened a store, Sockshop Santa Cruz, on the Santa Cruz Wharf last May. It’s 400 square feet and we sell just socks. My brother-in-law Jesse Velazquez works there. He’s in love in with Santa Cruz. He tells everyone where to go, what to see.

We opened a store in Seattle, Sockshop University, in September. Our daughter Sarah Gill runs the shop. She moved to Tacoma. She had opened a lot of stores with us, Haight Street in San Francisco and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. She’s an artist and Tacoma is very art-friendly. She’s going to take a class in the software we use to design socks.

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Eric: The main reason she moved up there was so she could afford to buy a house. Tacoma is booming but Seattle already overpriced like San Francisco. We decided to open in a university town.

Q: Are you expecting to retire at some point? What’s the succession plan?

Ellen: We have such great employees, we give them ownership. There isn’t really a reason for us to ride into the sunset. We just hired someone we’ve known for many years, Henry Tushar, at Socksmith. He was a sales rep of ours for years. He’s a standout in the field.

Eric: He’s a brand builder. He’s worked with Reebok, Kuhl, REI and Nordstrom.

Ellen: And Patagonia. We hired Henry so Eric can stay the entrepreneur, do the big picture stuff. We need someone to do the day-to-day operations and be a big thinker. He’s already doing that and he’s only been with us three weeks.

Eric: My job is to make sure I’ve got the right people doing the right things. We’re building teams.

Ellen: Bring your best idea.

Eric: I need to make sure the best ideas rise to the top and are implemented.

Q: We talked in 2015 when your employee health insurance premiums going up 85 percent. How did you resolve that situation?

Ellen: We took the hit early, It feels like it’s leveled out because of Kaiser Permanente coming. That offered a nice alternative. Premiums have increased 2-3 percent.

Eric: If you’re successful and you care about providing health insurance you can do it, it’s just going to hurt your bottom line a little.

Q: How has the housing crisis affected your employees?

Ellen: Students are willing to pile into a house but we have employees with us for 10 years. They’re getting to be 30 years old, and they’re saying ‘I really don’t want to live with three other people any more.’ I don’t know what the answer is.

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