An interview with George Spiteri, President of SP-Teri Boots. SP-Teri has been making boots since 1963. We talk about the history and evolution of the skating boot, the worst pair of boots he’s ever seen, and dealing with stinky feet. 39 minutes, 36 seconds.
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Thanks to Fiona McQuarrie for transcribing these interview highlights:
On his most embarrassing skating moment: I’ve got several times where I thought I knew the skater and called them by the wrong name. Or talking to a coach or a skater and asking questions about their parents, and then realizing I was thinking about the wrong person. But other than that, I haven’t had anything where the boot fell apart or anything like that. So I’ve been lucky [laughs].
On the history of SP-Teri boots: My father was a shoemaker on the isle of Malta, and he migrated to San Francisco, because he had an aunt that lived here. This was right after World War II, and Malta was bombed very heavily by the Germans. So a lot of buildings were destroyed and apartments were hard to find. And my mother’s father required that my mother and father have a place to stay before they got married. So my father’s aunt said that she had a place for him to stay in San Francisco, and she knew a guy who made shoes, so my father could probably get a job there. So they put in their papers to get immigration to the United States, and when they got that, they were able to get married, and they came here to the States.
And my father, Joseph, started working for a company that was part-owned by a Maltese guy, making ballet slippers, flamenco shoes, riding boots, that sort of footwear. By 1948 the two gentlemen had the opportunity to make some skating boots for local skaters, and it became a lucrative business. One partner bought out the other partner, and that company became Harlick. Then in the 1950s Joseph became a partner with Louis Harlick in making the skating boots, and then by the early 60s Mr. Harlick found that he had cancer, and so he wanted to sell his interests in the business. And two gentlemen, Jack Henderson who was already in the business and his brother Bob Henderson, bought out Mr. Harlick’s ownership, and they had 80% ownership of the company. And then six months after that Joseph sold his share of the company to the Hendersons, and in 1963 he started the SP-Teri company.
It’s amazing because nobody had planned to make skating boots, or that there would be a business making skating boots in San Francisco. Back then they were just shoemakers and there was an opportunity, and they made them basically because it was a job and they were making money and they were able to raise families. None of them had anticipated becoming large companies or expanding, and they just grew and just added workers to their locations. And we are where we are now because of the skating market of the 1970s through the 1990s.
On the company name: The last name, Spiteri, sometimes gets tied up on the tongue, so SP-Teri was much easier to pronounce for the Americans. I had a tough time at school because some of the teachers couldn’t pronounce my name, so when they took roll I knew it was my name when they were in the Ss and they were fumbling with a last name, so I knew it had to be me [laughs].
On his own skating: I know how to skate, but I don’t skate. It’s not a passion of mine, because I realize that skating is difficult. And it does take some talent. So I choose not to skate [laughs] because I don’t have the talent.
On his family working in the business: My son Aaron helps with sales and some repairs and production. My youngest son Ryan married a gal from St. Louis and moved to St. Louis, and she is an ex-skater, and his sister-in-law is a skating coach. So he’s still involved in the industry. And Bryan met this girl at the ISI [Ice Skating Institute] conference in Las Vegas. He met two other coaches at the same conference, and ended up dating one of them and living with them in San Francisco. And they broke up, and then he dated a coach in Chicago. And then they broke up and he ended up with this coach in St. Louis. So there’s something about Midwest girls [laughs].
On modifying the original last for the boot: In the 1960s, the last looked very similar to the Harlick last, about the same length and same width, but we had a little rounder toe. But since then we narrowed out the heel because we found that a lot of kids were complaining about the heel moving up and down. We also dropped the arch a little bit because of changes in the human foot – we saw more skaters coming in with lower arches so we dropped the arch to make it a little more comfortable. And the last change, we increased the toe box. People have rounder wider feet, so we kept up with the changes in the boot as we see the population change.
On making a boot: For a custom boot, once we have the tracing and measurements and decide on a size — or sizes, because you could have a half or full size between the two feet — and the width for the heel and the ball, then we create a pattern for the upper based on the measurements of the foot. And then from the pattern we cut out all the leather, and then build up a last based on the size we want to make. The last is a plastic form that replicates the foot. Then on that we would build up bunions, heel spurs, ankle spurs, hammer toes. Then we pull the upper over the last, so it will have a certain shape and size. And after that we put on the soles and heels. And sometimes also at that point they might want something like a higher heel, or they might want the soles and heels to be longer because they want to put a particular blade on that boot. Or they might want different covers for tongues. And at the very end, some skaters might want us to do waterproofing or lacquering, or in some cases we send them to the skate shop who will then do the waterproofing.
For a stock boot, we don’t have a pattern because that’s all set up on dies. We just select the materials from the dies. We still have to stitch them the same as a custom boot, on a last, and the soles and heels are put on very similar to a custom boot.
We make upwards of 13 pairs a day, 55 a week, 260 a month. It’s a lot.
On differences between the brands of skating boots: Compared to Riedell and Harlick, our boots are rounder in the toe box, so it is more ideal for a wider foot. But we also accommodate the narrow feet because we make stock boots right down to an AAAA, and in a custom boot we can make up to an AAAAA, or even an AAAAAA. And we make boots all the way up to an EE.
On trade shows: I currently go to about 12 a year. I also go to roller skating Regionals and shows.
On the worst boots he has ever seen: It was the Russians. Working with the Americans and Canadians, they would buy boots when they needed them, on a regular basis, and didn’t wait until they were totally falling apart. But with the Russian skaters during Soviet control, they could not get boots whenever they wanted to. They would apply for boots and it would take them maybe six months or nine months to get a new pair. The other thing was, they always requested boots larger than their foot, sometimes a whole size larger. It didn’t make any sense to me at that time, but they told me, if they get a pair of boots and it doesn’t fit, they couldn’t just send them back and get another pair — they had to wait in line all over again. So if the boot is too small or too narrow, they can`t get their feet in there and skate in them, but if the boot is too big, they can get their feet in there and stuff them with paper to make them fit. And if they were chosen to skate and didn’t do well, and they fell out of favor with the Soviet authorities, they had to go back home and work in factories. So skating was a lot better than working in a factory and living in a two-bedroom apartment with two families in there.
It was unbelievable, not only the fitting, but how long they kept the boots. Sergei Ponomarenko`s boots [at the 1990 World Championships] were duct-taped. The blades were bolted on the boot and they had no rocker on them. But he still managed to win the world championships. And when you look at something like that, it’s just raw desire and raw talent to win a world championship with that kind of equipment. I also fit most of the Russian team then [in 1990], and I realized how fortunate we are in the United States and western Europe, that they could get equipment any time they wanted, and have several pairs a year, and still not do as well as Russians in boots that are two years old and falling apart.
My dealer in Great Britain, Les Westaway, who knew the Russians because he had worked with MK Blades for many years, called me at my hotel [at 1990 Worlds] and asked me to meet him at his hotel and meet two of the skaters who needed boots. So we arrived at midnight to fit two skaters, and by the time I finished I had measured eight or ten of the skaters and it was four o’clock in the morning. And both Les and I were so hyped up and excited by then that we went for breakfast [laughs].
On breaking in boots prior to the introduction of heat-molding ovens: We didn’t recommend getting the boots wet, but show skaters, who didn’t have the luxury of spending two or three weeks breaking in boots, when they got boots on tour they had to break them in that night or the next day. So they would put on heavy wool socks, wet them, and then put their boots on, and then go skate around. And the wetness of the sock would help stretch out the boots. Some of the stories I heard, they would put the boot on, and then step into a bucket of water, and then go out and skate. Some skaters just have more strength so they can break boots in quicker. Some skaters get stiffer boots that take longer to break in. It just depends on who the skater is and what level of skater they are. We have some skaters that take three weeks to break in a boot, and we have some that take two days.
On boot materials: We have microfiber material, which is a lightweight leather, on several of our stock boots. We use cow leather for our stiffer boots and our custom boots, but we do have people request the microfiber upper on their custom boots. With skaters nowadays being younger and smaller, they want a stiff boot but they don’t like the upper leather because it’s too heavy and stiff. So the microfiber is a good compromise for those skaters. They can get a boot that is solid around their feet, has some firmness to it, but doesn’t take as long to break in.
On changing boot designs as the sport changes: We sort of have two issues. How stiff can we make a pair of boots, but then we also have to look at the skater’s feet. Humans’ bones are not getting harder, so we’re still looking at bones that can break or tendons that can rip. So we can only go so stiff, because a skater can develop tendonitis, or shin splints, or stress fractures, and we have to be conscious of that. If you’ve got a 110-pound girl who’s doing triple axels and maybe a quad loop or quad salchow, she’s going to go through two pairs of stiff boots a year. And maybe a guy who’s 150 pounds and doing a quad toe, quad loop, maybe a quad flip, maybe he’s going to go through three or four pairs of boots a year, rather than get a pair of boots that is so stiff so that it lasts a whole year. It’s like in the Indy 500, you’re not going to get a set of tires to last the whole 500 miles, you know you’re going to go through a certain number of sets of wheels, that’s just the way it is. And the families are going to have to budget for the equipment just like they budget for hotels and travel and coaching.
I get these people who want lightweight boots, but want them to last for two years. And I tell them, it’s like you want the luxury of a Cadillac, with a good steady solid ride, but you want 60 MPG, you want maneuverability, but at the same time you want to go up a hill at 80 miles an hour. You don’t get both. The boot is going to break down, the water is going to get into the soles, so you should be planning for a new pair in the next six or nine months.
On the craziest boots he ever created: For a coach in Houston, who is no longer coaching, I created a pair of boots with the American flag on the outside of one boot and the inside of the other boot, and the British flag on the opposite side. So when he had one foot forward from the other, if you saw him from one side you saw an American flag on both boots, but if you saw him in the other direction you saw a British flag on both boots. And we’ve made boots that look like ostrich, and alligator, and fur — that’s the hair-on leather — zebras, tigers, and baby giraffes. But that’s slowed down. People now want artwork on their boots. We do a lot of rhinestones. My dad made a pair of boots for a coach back in the 1960s, Mabel Fairbanks, with rhinestones in the heels. That was the first time they had done something like that, and I remember him telling me that she had one of the first pairs with colors and rhinestones.
On working with the competition: At Liberty Cup, we were at this trade show, and there were five of us boot manufacturers, all connected — three of us were in a line and two of them were facing us. We were in this little area looking at each other, and watching the customers go to each one of us. That is not an ideal situation to be in [laughs] but we’ve been in that case before. There is no boot manufacturers’ conference, but we all go to ISI and PSA [Professional Skaters Association] and we see each other at those shows.
On the stinkiest feet he’s ever encountered: I’m not going to put a name on one, but I get so many of them. It’s very common for me to be at a competition, and they’ll come up to me to be fitted right after they’ve skated. So we get that all the time. And we get a lot of kids who come in to the store, and it’s not like they’ve skated that day, but they come in with tennis shoes, and as soon as they take them off you can just smell it [laughs]. I’ve never thought about who would have the stinkiest feet, but it’s just part of our industry that we’re going to end up with some kid with really bad-smelling feet coming to us.