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A Toe Above The Competition: KEEN's Story

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 1:16pm
Tia Nowack, Associate Editor, IMPO

In a Portland, Oregon headquarters that feels more like a tech startup than a shoe manufacturer, you’ll find one of the most innovative outdoor and utility footwear companies in the country. 

The floors and walls are made of reclaimed materials and some company meetings are held on old wooden bleachers reminiscent of an elementary school assembly. In the basement there is room for an impromptu jam session, racks to hang your bicycle after your morning commute and a shuffleboard table to release some stress. It feels like a mini-Google. 

This atmosphere exemplifies the out-of-the-box thinking, and “HybridLife” mantra, that has come to define KEEN, a manufacturer that has gained a fanbase much more passionate than you’d expect of its short life. HybridLife refers to the company’s belief in splitting time between work, play and giving back. “Internally, it’s a pretty flexible environment,” says Mark Reilly, utility division director. “They encourage people to get out and use the products. It’s a fun place to work.” 

The company is best known for its sandals and hiking boots, distinguishable by their rubber toe protection and colorful designs. Reilly says that this toe protection and comfort lent itself easily to the industrial market. 

“We just drafted on what the outdoor division had been doing for seven years and we were able to leverage the fans that they had and let them know that we have work boots for their 40 hour work week,” Reilly says. He explains that the addition of bright colors, styled after their most popular hiking boots, also gave them a leg up on the competition. “Prior to that, it was just brown and black all leather boots, and the [store] wall was just a sea of sameness. KEEN arrived and you could pick it out from a good distance away.”

Manufacturing in Portland 

KEEN was founded in 2003 by Martin Keen and Rory Fuerst in Alameda, California. In the spring of 2005, the company moved its headquarters to Portland, where it also opened a production facility just a few miles away. To furnish the facility, they sourced equipment from around the world, including China, Poland, Thailand and the United States. By September 2010, the operation was up and running, and shoes started leaving the facility in November of that year. Since that time, the facility has produced 80-100,000 pairs per year. This year, that number will jump to 300,000 pairs. 

“The problem we faced is that there aren’t people in the United States, at least in this area, who know how to make shoes,” says Tom Fitzgerald, factory manager at the Portland facility. 

Technical Manager John Madsen curated the equipment in the facility and had the task of bringing people on board and training them. As the company grows and production ramps up, this is an ongoing task that Madsen says can be a challenge. “It’s about finding people that fit into the system. And when they fit, they like it,” says Madsen. The Portland facility has grown from 24 to 80 employees and runs on two shifts. 

Madsen says in this plant it’s all about the culture. Employees have Bagel Fridays, both in the headquarters office and production facility. And when production targets are met, there may even be a pizza in the break room to acknowledge the team’s hard work. 

The Portland facility works on a month-to-month cycle. First, KEEN’s sales team places an order for several months down the road. Once all of the components arrive at the plant, the team takes twenty days to manufacture the shoes and ship them out for distribution. 

Much like the equipment in the facility, the product components come from all over the world. “When we opened the facility, we couldn’t even get our components in the United States because all of the footwear manufacturers that use polyurethane in the United States went offshore,” explains Fitzgerald. KEEN worked with an American company to develop the polyurethane (PU) component for the mid-sole of their shoes. This component is what the team says makes their shoes more comfortable for longer. Unlike the material used in competitor’s heels and soles, the PU compresses less over time, retaining the cushioning base for more steps. 

The leather uppers arrive already sewn and ready for inspection. They are divided by style and size and put into plastic bins for movement to the production machines. Then, once they are steamed and dried, it’s onto the loading station. 

The uppers are matched with rubber outsoles, which are adhered with the heated PU component. The PU expands between the rubber outsole and the leather upper. The chemical reaction is very hot, and as it starts to cool the material cures. This PU provides the cushioning for your foot and creates a perfect seal between the upper and outsole. The direct-inject molding process allows KEEN to create products more efficiently with fewer materials and adhesives. 

The PU cools very quickly and once it’s set the shoes head to the finishing team. Here, the overflow PU is cut off by hand and workers finish the remaining final touches. Fitzgerald says that most of the process is done by hand, with the roughing machine used to treat the leather as the only fully automated process. 

While much of KEEN’s production is done abroad, the Portland plant is an effort to begin manufacturing some of their products in the United States. Many of the footwear lines in the utility division are even named after ubiquitous American manufacturing cities, including the Milwaukee, Louisville, Flint and Detroit lines. Shoes that are manufactured in the Portland facility are marked with KEEN’s “American Built” logo. 

Kevin Kious, director of utility sales, set up the sales operation for the utility division. He was recruited from Timberland Boot Company, where he worked for a decade, before coming on board with KEEN in Portland. “The shoes that [KEEN designers] are coming out with now are so market relevant, and at retail we need more and more and more,” says Kious. “So as you ramp up, you try to start out slow, but we’re to the point where we’re just trying to keep up with production. And that’s always a good position to be in.” 

Kious says that as the push for American built products continues, the Portland operation just keeps getting bigger. “We’ve got a lot of synergy going here. We’re starting to build additional styles. It’s going to be a whole different ballgame going forward, and we’re really excited.” 

Aside from the popularity of buying American, Fitzgerald says there are also practical reasons for producing in Portland. 

“There’s a benefit to being so close to your corporate headquarters. Now we don’t need to get on a plane,” he says. “Everything in research and innovation is here, and the quality lab is here, so we can engage faster than overseas. We’re here to stay and we really do want to make an impact.” 

Focus on Quality 

KEEN’s products are bought for hiking, white water rafting, construction work and plant floors, so it’s important that they can stand up in rugged environments.

Directly off of the plant floor you’ll find Connor Fuerst, quality control manager. Fuerst has been at the facility for four years and is responsible for ensuring that all of the shoes that leave the facility meet the company’s strict standards. 

The facility is equipped with five testing machines that can measure things like the amount a hole in the rubber outsole will stretch over time, the strength of the steel toe on impact, and how the PU material will age. For each of these tests, the KEEN testing standards go beyond industry regulations. On the Cut Growth Flex Machine, for example, Fuerst has tested soles for up to 900,000 flexes, compared to the industry’s 30,000 flex standard. The company also tests 100 percent of their proprietary KEEN dry booties, a lining material designed to let moisture out but not in. 

Fuerst also monitors the molds used to make the texture on the midsole of the shoes. Each left and right pair is very expensive, so maintaining the molds is an important, money-saving job. 

“It’s more efficient for us to do it here than sending it to an independent lab,” he says. “Typically, before we start production, there’s about an eight month development phase...when production comes it’s really just a quality assurance measure.” If something does come up, however, he knows exactly which batch the shoe came from and he’s able to tell if it’s really a serious problem or just a single mistake. 

Staying Ahead of the Competition 

KEEN has become a nearly household name in just over a decade, especially on the West Coast and in the outdoor communities. “Every year is a new record for the company, which says a lot because the outdoor community has been pretty flat to declining the past three years or so,” says Reilly. And the utility division, while much smaller than the outdoor division, has been growing at an even faster pace. 

Reilly says research and development is a collaborative effort at the company. “You’d love to have a patented idea every year, but I don’t know if that’s realistic,” he says. “But the goal at the start of every season is to develop something that differentiates you from the rest of the competition and keeps them at bay for a little while, until they can design around it and catch up.” 

Right now, much of their product development is focused on making materials lighter, faster and stronger. But the trend towards lighter materials can be a challenge for the utility division, as Reilly is concerned about materials getting too flimsy so they sacrifice some of the protection that customers need. “It’s about striking that balance and pushing the envelope with new materials and new construction processes to get the weight out of the product without sacrificing the things that people count on KEEN for, which is protection and comfort.” 

But even as the products expand and evolve, Reilly says one thing will probably never change. 

“I don’t see us ever getting away from the toe because that’s our signature piece — you can just pick KEEN’s out on the wall, and it’s also a very functional feature that translates very well to any jobsite, whether it’s indoor or outdoor.”

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