It was already 102°, the air thick with smoke from some distant wildfire by the time I arrived at KEEN Inc.’s Portland boot factory last month. Perfectly
absurd conditions for a factory tour.
But the absurdity felt right.
I was, after all, walking into a shoe factory in the
United States. Moreover, at a time when around 99% of
the shoes worn in this country are made in another and
U.S. factory work is being steadily overtaken by robots
and automation, I was entering an American footwear
plant that is still dominated by real humans doing real
work to create real products.
That’s as absurd as it gets. But that’s also kind of
KEEN, though a relative newcomer in the industrial
footwear world, already has a long history of disruption
and innovation. Its lines of strange-looking, asymmetrical
boots, shoes, and sandals have grown a cultish following
based on the company’s reputation for its unique, ul-tra-comfortable fit. As one of our product reviewers once
commented, they are more comfortable than broken-in
boots, right out of the box.
The company accomplishes this fit and maintains
this reputation by doing things differently as a matter of
principle and pride. Building a real-life American factory,
they say, is just an extension of that.
“Innovation is ingrained in the culture here,” explains
Rory Fuerst Jr., director of innovation at KEEN. “As we see
it, you have to be comfortable in the unknown, otherwise
you’ll never move forward.”
This much was clear even before I got into the place.
Located on Swan Island, just across the Willamette River
from the company’s downtown headquarters, KEEN’s
PM (Portland Manufacturing) factory was opened in
2010 just as we bottomed out at the end of the Great
Recession—exactly when no one in their right mind would
open a factory here.
And, going back even further, the company got its
start 15 years ago with the bizarre, hard-toed Newport
sandal that founder Rory Fuerst Sr. was told no one in
their right mind would ever wear.
So absurdity is actually an integral part of the history
here. It’s where it all began.
And yet, in spite of that absurdity—or because of it—it’s
here and it’s thriving. Though it’s only one small part of
KEEN’s global manufacturing network, this factory makes
a strong point about what the company really values.
“This place is all about change,” says Chris Heffer-
nan, general manager of the KEEN PM factory. “It’s
constantly innovating, constantly disrupting. We want
to shake things up.”
And, as far as I could tell, they are certainly doing that.
Standing inside, seeing it all unfold, it’s seems clear
there’s a story here—one I think goes far beyond just
the boots on the line. By focusing on bold innovation
above traditional tactics, the company has found a way
not just to sell products and cultivate a growing army of
customers, but to do so in a way that creates jobs in an
impossible industry in an impossible setting.
The result is a mix that benefits the customer, the
community, and the country in one fell swoop. And that’s
a lesson any company could do well to learn.
And it all starts, as Fuerst Jr. says, with innovation.
TIME TO MAKE THE BOOTS
The first sign of this is right on the production line.
The line is set up in a U-shape, with teams prepping
the uppers and outsoles of unassembled boots on one
end, and a cluster of finishers polishing, inspecting, and
boxing the final product on the other. Between them, at
the bend, is a giant rotating injection molding machine
that puts it all together.
This is a unique, sustainable system that eliminates
the standard practice of gluing and stretching for a more
permanent, and less wasteful, solution.
“The outsole and the upper are merged together and
chemically bonded through molten hot PU,” he explains.
“That actually becomes the midsole.”
The process is fascinating and quick and, perhaps
FROM THE COVER
by Travis Hessman
Tucked into the hills of Portland, KEEN Inc. is quietly rewriting the rules for its entire industry.
In the process, it may have found a recipe to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.A.
Heart and Sole: A Case for