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Glimpses of Greatness - Margot Fraser

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Glimpses of Greatness - Margot Fraser

In this space, we would like to profile “Glimpses of Greatness,” the stories of people who bring the “Ordinary Greatness” principles to life and have used them to achieve success.

We can think of no better story to begin “Glimpses” than that of Margot Fraser.  Margot’s story was profiled in the June 2009 issue of Inc. magazine http://www.inc.com/magazine/20090601/how-i-did-it-margot-fraser.html, and she is amazing!  

Margot is the founder of Birkenstock USA.  You are probably familiar with the ubiquitous sandals and the amazing loyalty the wearers of the sandals have, but you may not know the story of the lady who brought the sandals to America.

Margot was an only child living in Berlin during World War II.  Her father was able to somehow get the family out of Berlin six months before the war ended, and she eventually found her way to Canada.

She became interested in natural health, and in 1966, with her husband, she went on a tour of German health spas and manufacturers of supplements and vitamins.


“At one of the spas, I first saw the Birkenstock sandal. During the war, we didn't have good shoes, and so I had foot problems. The yoga teacher at this spa showed me her shoes. She said, ‘This is what you should have. It's made of cork. It's flexible. You exercise your foot while you walk.’ Two months later, I said to my husband, ‘Look. My toes have straightened out.’ He said, ‘Yes, they really have. Maybe these are an item we should sell.’

“We wrote to the manufacturer of Birkenstocks in Germany and asked if we could distribute the shoes. He wrote back and said, ‘We'll give you a try.’ It was clear that the shoes would be my project. I went to the little shoe store in town -- just walked in off the street -- and showed the guy the sandals. He said, ‘Oh, no. No one would ever buy anything like that.’ My husband knew a store in Berkeley where the owner was European. This man was very polite. He spent an hour and a half explaining why no one would ever buy anything like that.”

Undeterred, Margot displayed the shoes at a convention of health-food store owners.  It took a few years, but of course, the sandals really took off, and sales improved every year until the 1980’s when with “dress for success,” sales went flat.

“We had a very generous pension plan. One year I couldn't fund it, so I gave shares instead. By the mid-'90s, employees owned 10 percent of the business. Later, I sold another 30 percent to them. Then, in 2002, I sold the entire business to the employees and retired as CEO but stayed on as chairman.”

Sales improved, and the employees remembered Margot’s loyalty to them.  She knew that the key to taking care of customers was taking care of employees.

Margot Fraser is a tremendous example of Ordinary Greatness.  She was a girl from a war-torn country with a product no one wanted at first.  She didn’t listen to the naysayers – instead she found a way, built a great company, and gave it back to the employees.  She is a living example that greatness can be found where we least expect it: everywhere!