Mario Moretti Polegato: How poking a hole in a shoe made me $3bn

A keen runner, Mario Moretti Polegato needed a shoe that didn't make his feet sweat. After hitting on a brilliantly simple idea, he now heads his own shoe empire, Geox.

From espresso and pizza to ice-cream and pasta, menus across the world owe a great deal to Italian ingenuity. "But very few Italian businessmen make any money from their innovations," says Mario Moretti Polegato, the 54-year-old founder of shoemaker Geox (GEO). "Starbucks has opened 10,000 coffee outlets in the US alone and Pizza Hut 25,000. Italian ideas. American businesses."

But Polegato, who is by reliable accounts worth more than $3bn, has bucked the trend. Born into a third-generation family wine business near Treviso, in Italy's North East, he spent 15 years developing the family's Villa Sandi and La Gioiosa labels across the world. It was on a 1992 trip to a wine convention in Reno in America that he hit upon the idea that eventually made him one of the world's wealthiest men.

A keen runner, between meetings Polegato would head out into the Nevada desert, but his rubber shoes made his feet sweat. His solution was simple but effective. He borrowed a knife from a petrol station attendant and "punched holes in the rubber sole" to let in air. He began thinking about how he could develop the idea of a shoe that breathes' for Europe's wetter climes.

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Back in Italy, Polegato enlisted the help of technicians at the University of Padua. Inspired by a design similar to that used by Nasa in spacesuits, they spent six months on a prototype shoe with a breathable membrane' basically a series of tiny holes in the sole that expelled sweat but kept water out. The design was patented in more than 100 countries something he says it's vital for any entrepreneur with a "good idea" to do. He hoped to sell the licence to the big shoe firms, but the likes of Nike and Adidas didn't share his faith in the idea.

Undeterred, in 1995 Polegato borrowed €500,000 from his local bank. He recruited five staff to work from a small factory near Venice, leaving the wine business to younger brother Giancarlo. Initially, he worked on children's shoes, which needed replacing most frequently. Polegato tested the shoes on local primary school students. Their positive reviews helped him convince store owners not only to sell them, but also to stock his nascent line of adult shoes.

The shoes took off. By 1998, Geox was selling 1.4 million pairs a year. It entered the US market in 2002, and shifted 6.5 million pairs in 2003, before listing on the Milan stock exchange in 2004. The move was about raising the group's profile, but it also made Polegato, who still owns 71% of the company, "one of the richest men in the world", he says. Geox's market cap is around e2bn, and last year it racked up sales of e770.2m across nearly 70 countries. It must be pretty hard keeping a sense of reality? "Oh yes. But money is not so important to me."

Sure, he owns a dozen or so racehorses and a garage full of Ferraris, but "inventing is the basis of my life". A full 4% of Geox's revenues is pumped into research every year. The company patented a breathable' jacket in 2002, and Polegatto hopes to grow clothing's share of revenues from the current 7% to 50%. This is one Italian inventor who plans to reap the rewards of his efforts.