even more interesting, almost completely unautomated.
I counted just two robots on the floor, which were busy
preparing the uppers just before injection. Otherwise
the boots are completely constructed by hand, all the
way down to a knife-wielding flash remover cleaning up
the excess PU.
This should all seem extremely outdated, I know. It
should feel achingly old-fashioned and inefficient—an
obvious attempt to create jobs in a setting that should
be lights-out. But honestly, it seemed right.
KEEN Utility isn’t a brand defined by mass production
and low prices. It’s defined by quality, fit and utility.
“People are living and working and putting food on the
table in these products,” Fuerst Jr. says. “These people
have to have great products, which means we have to
provide great solutions.”
Part of that is taking time to create quality boots,
hands-on if necessary, to ensure every pair fits the needs
of those customers.
It also means innovation, he says. Of constantly struggling to find new, better solutions, from the way the boots
are made to the materials they use, to the very nature of
And that is not a task they take lightly at KEEN.
FORGING A NEW PATH
When I met him in the lab, Fuerst Jr. was fresh off a
long, exhausting mission to reinvent the very concept of
shoes. The final product of this effort—the UNEEK—is a
sandal made almost entirely out of meticulously knotted
cord. It’s a project, he says, that started at the local hardware store and eventually expanded to pull in robotics
experts from Idaho to Japan to develop a system capable
of creating this bizarre deconstruction of footwear, and
swallowing six years of his life in the process.
“Every night, I would go to bed thinking, ‘this isn’t going
to work,’” he recalls. “But it was such a fun process. By
changing the cookbook, we weren’t held captive to the
same rules that most shoe developers were; we were
creating a new path.”
And the result is strong. Totally unique, totally weird,
and—as I can personally attest after stomping around
in a sample—almost unnaturally comfortable. They feel
like no other shoe; they feel like nothing at all, in fact.
The customers, Fuerst Jr. says, are already eating
On the Utility side, Heffernan is just coming off his own
innovation saga—a journey to take the weight, heat, and
cow out of a traditional rugged work boot without losing
the strength and durability they require.
“It took six months of going back and forth trying
different materials,” he recalls. “We needed a fabric
that was breathable and light, but also super tough
and super durable.”
Finally, his team settled on a “Kevlar-esque” material,
TUFF-TEX, which replaces the standard leather body of
the uppers. The Concord boots, as they’re now called,
outperform leather and scratch tests and offer a base
that even concrete can’t seem to stick to, all the while
feeling like a running shoe.
Together, these two projects really seem to capture
what this whole story is about. As a standard practice,
KEEN’s team constantly redefines the market. It’s normal
and expected here.
“If I go into a meeting with a design the team has
already seen somewhere else before, I get in a lot of
trouble,” Fuerst Jr. says. “There is constant pressure from
the executive team to innovate. We need more than just
a new KEEN shoe; we have to bring something special.”
But this is absurd, right? It doesn’t make sense to
start fresh on every new design. It doesn’t make sense
to build wacky new designs in a country as expensive as
the U.S. It doesn’t make sense to do any of the things
But that is exactly where the whole story comes
THE CASE FOR AMERICAN MANUFACTURING
In most companies—particularly, but not exclusively, in
the footwear industry—there is a vast disconnect between
R&D and manufacturing.
“A lot of companies are essentially just outsourcing
design and concepts to third parties, making that product
and getting it back,” Fuerst Jr. says. “They just make a
cool design and hope someone else can make it.”
That’s where KEEN has a distinct advantage.
The Portland factory houses the manufacturing side
of the process and Fuerst Jr.’s design and innovation
team. That means every new concept, every new pro-
totype or mold configuration can be tested right on the
manufacturing floor in real time.
“In manufacturing, there’s nothing worse than coming
in with something that everyone wants only to find that
you can’t make it or you can’t make it for the money,”
Fuerst Jr. says. “By working through these things effec-
tively live, we can see that coming and quickly address
the issues when they come up.”
As a result, he says, “we’re doing things that honestly
would have taken two or three weeks or more to work
out in just days on-site in Portland.”
So there’s that element. U.S. production enables
faster, more effective and far more profound levels of
innovation. Makes sense. But Heffernan sees something
possibly more dramatic—and more counter-intuitive:
Shifting production to the U.S. makes financial sense.
“When companies outsource, they have this huge lead
time for their products,” he says. “That means it’s going
to take six or eight months. So you have to buy that much
inventory to cover yourself in the interim.”
Inventory turn, of course, is an obvious indicator of
a business’s health and success—one Heffernan notes
Wall Street watches closely.
“People are starting to put the math together that all of
this inventory is not financially sound in general because
it’s tying up a lot of cash,” he says. “So the whole idea of
building closer to market is really becoming attractive.”
I’m painting a rosy picture here, I know. In this light,
moving production back to the U.S. seems easy and
smart and obvious for any company to pursue. But, of
course, that’s not the full story.
The fact is, Heffernan admits, it’s a struggle. It’s hard
work and filled with sacrifices. There have been down
times and layoffs, there are cost limitations, the factory
is still far from hitting full capacity. As creative and exciting as it is, it’s not immune from the reality of American
Currently, Heffernan says the Portland factory is churning over 20% of the KEEN Utility line. If needed, he said,
he has plenty of current capacity and space to add new
manufacturing lines in the facility. But they are taking it
slow, measuring each step carefully so they can maintain
this whole American manufacturing experiment long
into the future.
“We’ve chosen where we can play and make that math
work; it’s definitely sustainable,” he says. “Honestly,
my biggest concern isn’t if we can stay here, it’s how
we can grow.”
Innovation in action: Part of its Fall 2017 collection,
KEEN Utility’s new 6-in. Concord lace-up boots
forego the heavy leather of traditional designs for a
lightweight, breathable fabric that offers nearly four-times the abrasion resistance of the industry standard.
These knots represent six years of Rory Fuerst
Jr.’s life. The UNEEK is a robot-made monster of
comfort and disruptive design that completely
disregards just about everything anyone knows