Ben Hertz was sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome when he looked down and noticed one of his shoelaces had snapped. He quickly bought a random red-colored pair at a nearby shop. As he walked through the Italian city, complete strangers began commenting on his shoes.
"I was just this guy from Minnesota, and they were all taking pictures of my shoes," he said.
Back home in Minneapolis, the red shoelaces continued to turn heads. A real estate developer by day, Hertz, 27, found that the pop of color gave his conservative business wardrobe a flash of personality. He wanted more options but had a hard time finding a similar high-quality, waxed pair.
So in July 2011, he started his own company, contracting with a shoelace maker to help manufacture his colorful product. He stored the initial inventory in his parents' basement. He called the colored laces Benjo's, a nickname his cousin used for him.
"It sounded better than Ben's Laces," he said.
A little more than a year later, Hertz said, he's sold about 100,000 pairs. He's been written up in GQ and Esquire. He has accounts with Brooks Brothers and Allen Edmonds.
Benjo's rapid growth suggests that this was a relatively untapped corner of the menswear market. Hertz fields orders from all over the world and is selling laces in almost 100 stores, from Martin Patrick 3 in Minneapolis to shops in Paris and Japan.
He's helped make shoelaces the new pocket square.
Zadie would be proud
Benjo's laces come in more than 15 colors, with such names as "Nemo Blue" (dark blue) and "Monster's Spit" (aqua-ish). They range in length from 27 inches for traditional dress shoes to 54 inches for boots. In the next month, he plans to debut a new two-toned nylon lace meant to be paired with Red Wing-style boots.
Hertz, who grew up on the west side of Lake Calhoun, always has been a business geek. He got his degree from the University of Arizona, spending part of his college career in Oaxaca, Mexico, studying economic development. When he started Benjo's he drew insight from his mother, formerly a buyer for the upscale Minneapolis store Harold.
But when he looks back on his metamorphosis from fashionable real estate guy to menswear trendsetter, he thinks of the example set by his grandfather, Mike Diamond, whom he called zadie (Yiddish for grandpa).
"He wore the nicest stuff," he said. "If he couldn't wear the nicest jacket, he wouldn't go outside."
That's how Hertz feels about shoelaces. When the budding entrepreneur began researching textiles, he set his mind on high-quality waxed cotton. He started with a manufacturer in India but now has them made in the United States. The laces are woven on 100-year-old machines on the East Coast.
While larger quantities are still stored in his parents' basement, smaller orders are shipped from his Uptown apartment. He's doing brisk business, but plans to stick with his real estate job at Nolan Co. He hired a part-time employee this year to oversee day-to-day operations. He estimates that 30 percent of Benjo's business comes from online orders, while the rest is generated by stores like Brooks Brothers, which might order 12,000 pairs at a time.
Color makes cents
Hertz is hoping to spark the shoe world's next eye-catching trend -- colored pennies. For your penny loafers, of course.
"I'm betting that the penny loafer will be the most popular shoe for men and women in spring/summer 2013," Hertz said.
Painting the pennies proved more difficult than expected. At first, he messed around with fingernail polish and spray paint. Nothing would bond properly -- something about the ion structure in the copper, he said. Eventually, he found a local guy who paints airplane parts.
Each pair of enamel-coated coins costs $16. For now, there are seven colors.
When it comes to "popping color" (as he puts it), Hertz has his customers' feet covered.
But here's a twist he didn't see coming. Every day Hertz receives e-mail from people with the same odd request -- customers want a traditional (read: boring) black and brown option.
Color might be king in Hertz's world, but there's no getting around the fact that a well-made pair of neutral-colored shoelaces will always be in demand.
And Benjo's will happily oblige.
"We're definitely going to do it," he said.