Italian winemaker Mario Moretti Polegato had just finished a summer marketing swing through the U.S. in 1992 when he decided to stop in the Rocky Mountains for a hike. As he laced his boots, Polegato began imagining how hot his feet would be tromping along a mountain trail. Then, suddenly, he got an idea: Why not design shoes with high-tech soles that can let in air--but not water?
It took just three years for Polegato to make his vision a reality. He gathered information on new materials from the space museum in Houston and enlisted the help of the chemical department at the University of Padua. By 1994, he had secured a worldwide patent, but major shoemakers such as Nike (NKE), Puma (PMMAY), and Adidas (ADDDY) weren't interested in buying it. So in 1995, Polegato decided to leave winemaking to the rest of his family and start making shoes.
Now, Polegato's shoe company, Geox, boasts revenues of $204 million, up 55% last year while growth in the shoe industry worldwide stagnated. Geox exports 25% of sales and ranks No. 9 worldwide among makers of "comfortable shoes," according to a March ranking by U.S. market researcher Shoe Intelligence.
Comfort doesn't come cheap. Geox shoes average $110 a pair for women's models and $230 for men's. But Polegato is convinced shoes with breathable soles have a huge, untapped global market. "We've started a technology revolution in shoemaking," he says. That sounds like boasting. But clad in his own comfy black Geox shoes, Polegato no doubt is making tracks that others will follow.