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Steve Van Doren, son of founding-father Paul, is the last authentic link between the Vans family and corporate tradition, the closest thing the company has to a Colonel Sanders.
"The name of the company is Vans, and my name is Van Doren," he says with grand solemnity. "Even though the company is not ours, if you cut my veins open, Vans blood comes out."
Don't look for his likeness on shoe boxes any time soon, however. Van Doren is a middle-aged man with a thinning thatch of tousled hair, an ample waistline, a foghorn voice and an even foggier sense of fashion.
It's hard enough to find his office at Vans headquarters. It doesn't have a window. This is the room where Vans' assorted images collide-the street-cred kamikaze, the adroit corporate player and the noble family traditionalist. Better yet, it's where these images evaporate.
Van Doren is holding court and trying to get a little work done, although it's hard to tell which is which. He is submerged in three conversations at once. He is surrounded by paraphernalia-from posters to a chair made of skateboards-and lots of people who are laughing. He is wearing a Cosby-era pullover sweater featuring a pattern that looks as though he has puked his gregarious personality all over it.
Van Doren grew up tending the equipment and painting the walls of the old Vans factory on Batavia Street and organizing outlet stores all over Southern California, depending on his father's orders. Now he is Vans' vice president of promotions. He loves it.
"When it was a family business, I was always involved in manufacturing and retail. I think my father did that on purpose," says Van Doren. "But my forte has always been being in front of the public."
Van Doren is the guy who translates Vans to the world one-on-one. He travels to promotional events-the skateboard and snowboard competitions, the bicycle motocross races, the spring-break parties and the convention exhibits-shaking hands and saying his name and handing out key chains and socks and caps. He throws barbecues and hangs big signs and generates good will.
"My dad didn't believe in advertising. Word of mouth is all he cared about," says Van Doren, who worked for minimum wage most of the time he worked for his father. "Our budget for promotion was me passing out fliers. 'Tell a Friend About Vans' was our little motto. We did the Pomona Fair for 20 years."
Van Doren has just returned from his third stint accompanying the Vans Warped Tour, which this year encompassed 76 alterna-punk concerts in eight countries on four continents and which has drastically expanded his view of the music and activities that make the world go 'round.
"Like when I was in Dallas at a Vans Wakeboarding event, and I saw a flier that said Blink 182 was playing with somebody on the Poo-Poo Pee-Pee Tour," he recounts. "A 42-year-old guy should have no idea what they're talking about, but I jumped in my car, ran over there and saw the guys. They wear our shoes, you know. And my name is on every shoe. I might not be the top-top person, but the Vans heritage is right there."
Perhaps nobody is more sensitive than Van Doren to the changes the company has undergone during the past decade.
"Sometimes I have to put blinders on because there are different philosophies in retail," he says. "I did certain things, and they do them differently. The No. 1 thing for me is people. The numbers and the computer systems and the boxes and whatever-they are all secondary to me. The person is the most important thing."
Vans was shelled with criticism when it shuttered its Batavia Street manufacturing plant in 1995, charged with contradicting not only its long history but also its new image.
"I think Vans' big shout about being rowdy, rebellious and anti-establishment is just a fucking marketing ruse," says Patrick Kelly, a local Teamsters union official who closely followed the failed union-organizing effort. "They didn't hesitate to throw away a lot of jobs around here when their own employees kinda rebelled."
The subject is evidently a painful one for Van Doren. "I stayed away from people for a couple of days, and that's far from my m.o.," he recalls. "I knew those 1,500 people by name. I talked to them every day. I still have a little difference of opinion about closing Batavia. I know business-wise, with marketing and stuff, it's better. But there were other mistakes made that were a drain on the company. We could still be making shoes in this country."
It's startling to hear a corporate vice president speak so frankly. Worrisome, in a way. You wonder whether Van Doren is talking himself into trouble with his bosses. You're amazed he's survived this long without fluency in Speak No Evil or Doubletalk, the preferred lexicons of so many executives and spokespeople. But Van Doren goes on and on, entertaining and inspiring those who lean into his office with his bombastic dedication to the ethics that built the family business, even though the business isn't in the family anymore.