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.