By Cory Mimms
PHOTOS BY JUAN-CARLOS DELGADO
When James Curleigh became the CEO of Keen Footwear in 2008, he found a monster lurking in the cubicles of the corporate office in Portland. Keen had an innovative product — a sandal that protected your toe — but innovation without results leaves hope as your strategy, and according to Curleigh, “Hope is not a strategy.” He didn’t focus on the recession, which was in full swing; he focused inward on what he named “Operation Slay the Hydra.”
“The energy was there but the execution was not,” Curleigh says. He identified nine areas that needed improvement and — like the nine heads of a hydra — each problem area would regenerate unless the monster was killed for good. Curleigh formed an action team with nine members, each of which was responsible for slaying one head of the monster. As a result, Keen’s processes were streamlined and Curleigh was able to focus on growth.
|Number of shoes:||20 million sold in 50 countries|
The 7-year-old company grew between 15% and 40% per year and is on its way to hitting $200 million in revenue. It not only survived the recession but managed to expand during its worst months. Regions, such as Mexico, remained out of reach. Curleigh and his team concluded it wasn’t feasible to expand there but Curleigh kept it in the back of his mind.
In the months following, Curleigh focused on managing Keen’s growth and shifted from using distributors to subsidiaries. “Strategically, it worked,” he says, and they came out of 2008 with the most intact balance sheet they had ever had; inventory was low, receivables were under control and management was efficient. Curleigh then focused on the product and brand.
Keen has products for young people, old people, men and women, every season and every region. This large demographic allows them to maintain a steady revenue stream. Curleigh balances the needs of the brand against the needs of its leadership. When the leadership is too strong they make poor decisions for the brand and try to force growth, and when the brand is stronger than the leadership the team can’t direct the growth intelligently.
Keen opened its first retail store in August in Portland’s Pearl District. Curleigh uses the store as a think tank. All the corporate employees spend time working in the store to help them learn what customers want. Above the store sits Keen’s corporate office. A drum set rests in one corner, the employees are dressed casually, and bicycles sporting Keen license plates are parked in the reception area. Curleigh promotes a relaxed work environment where his team has the freedom to develop new ideas.
They are also analyzing the company’s environmental impact. Keen did not begin with sustainability in mind, but as the company has grown so have its goals. Companies born this century are finding it easier to be sustainable because they are “growing up” with it in mind, Curleigh says.
Not only does it make their brand appealing to environmentally conscious consumers, it also saves money. Keen’s corporate offices cost very little to furnish because Curleigh used repurposed materials such as pallet wood and bleachers from a high school he acquired for free.
Curleigh sees the company’s youth as an advantage. When you’re young, you’re not afraid to take risks. After months of listening to why Mexico was too difficult a market, Curleigh had had enough. The words of Bob Dylan echoed in his mind: “When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Curleigh launched the brand into Mexico in early 2009, partnering with sporting goods retailer Deportes Marti, which is based in Mexico City. The region’s revenue went from zero dollars to a few million in a relatively short period. Roughly 65% of Keen’s business is in the U.S., 10% in Canada, 10% in Europe, and 15% is spread through other regions. The company this year began making its Portland Boot at a manufacturing plant in North Portland.
Keen’s brand is still developing, but the shoes are selling and the corporation is growing. Still, Curleigh wants to keep the attitude of a young, scrappy company. “We want to stay David among the Goliaths,” he says.