Italy is a leader in the teetering heels that stalk fashion catwalks the world over. But far from the Paris-Milan-New York style circuit and deep in the Dolo-mite Mountains, little-known La Sportiva sits atop the world of rock-climbing shoes. Founded in 1928 by Narciso Delladio as a bootmaker for lumberjacks and farmers, the family-owned company is now run by Chief Executive Lorenzo Delladio, Narciso's grandson. It has pioneered new shapes, materials, and designs in shoes for rock climbing since the 1940s.
When the sport boomed in the 1970s and '80s, La Sportiva was right in step. It invested heavily in research and development -- 8% to 9% of sales -- to make shoes that helped people clamber more securely around the world's most dizzying overhangs and sheerest mountain faces.
La Sportiva led the shift from rigid soles to flexible, soft-soled climbing shoes, thanks to a suggestion in 1975 from Lorenzo's rock-climbing instructor, who had cast off his stiff boots for an old pair of boat shoes. The company experimented with soles made from rubber used in racing tires, testing new models on crags a stone's throw from headquarters. Flexible shoes took the climbing world by storm and have helped La Sportiva win 40% of the global market.
Another smart step: collaboration with world-class climbers, such as Austria's Heinz Mariacher, to produce innovative designs. A patented lacing system introduced in 1991 distributed tension more uniformly throughout the shoe. One of the latest innovations is a sole that extends around the top of the shoe to cover the toes, allowing climbers to "grip" the rock when they are upside-down. "We are more credible because we test our own products," says Delladio, 48.
Delladio's surefooted clan was left hanging when it sold a majority stake to U.S. outdoor giant North Face Inc. in 1998. A sudden management change at North Face hampered La Sportiva's planned collaboration in R&D, and sales started to slide. The Delladios bought the company back a year later, and the business has regained its footing. Sales were up 15% in 2003, and the reason is clear: Pass through the valley where La Sportiva churns out its shoes, and you may catch Delladio and his brothers climbing the crags in the company's latest models. By Gail Edmondson in Frankfurt