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Footloose

BY LINDA BAKER

Founded 12 years ago, Keen Inc. likes to push the envelope, starting with the debut of the “Newport” closed toe sandal in 2003. Since then, the company has opened a factory on Swan Island and a sleek new headquarters in the Pearl District. The brand’s newest offering, UNEEK, is a sandal made from two woven cords and not much more.

BY LINDA BAKER

Founded 12 years ago, Keen Inc. likes to push the envelope, starting with the debut of the “Newport” closed toe sandal in 2003. Since then, the company has opened a factory on Swan Island and a sleek new headquarters in the Pearl District. The brand’s newest offering, UNEEK, is a sandal made from two woven cords and not much more. 

Steve Meineke, a veteran outdoor industry executive, was hired as president in May 2014, a year of record sales. He tells us what’s in store.

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Purity of vision

The reason I came to this company is it is passionate about remaining true to the roots of the brand. I grew up alongside visionary Georges Salomon, founder of the ski brand. The company was originally French, then owned by the Germans, now Finnish. They’re all smart people, but it changes things. If you can keep the owner/founder’s vision alive and drive that DNA, that’s special. [Keen founder Rory Fuerst retains ownership.]

Elevator pitch

Versatility is a big part of the Keen vision. People use [the Newport] when they go to the beach or a summer picnic in the park. It’s their favorite travel shoe. It has become one of the key go to products that people are really attached to. Another thing: Keen has always found ways to give back. We work with different causes all the way from how we manufacture products to how we do things in Portland.

Corporate social responsibility

We call it “Hybrid.Care.” Keen has donated more than $8 million to nonprofits since 2005. We launched the “KEEN Effect” last year awarding grants to nonprofits that encourage responsible outdoor participation. Our fans and customers nominate organizations in their communities. It’s about engagement. It’s one of the key reasons people want to work here.

Upward bound

We grew globally 11% in 2014. We grew trail hiking shoes by almost 20%. In utility sales — essentially taking the Keen idea to the workplace for young men and women — we grew by 36%. We also are seeing double-digit growth in our international regions. In the U.S, still the lion’s share of our business, we grew ten percent.

Made in Oregon

A lot of our growth is due to American Built: the shoes we have assembled on Swan Island. Our goal is to build 1 million pair of shoes there. Right now it’s in the hundreds of thousands. It’s a big initiative and made money last year for the first time. Customers tell us American Built has real meaning. We build things.

Fine print

The shoes are assembled here. We find the finest materials and source them from around the world. We’re also investing in the best machines: DESMA machines, a direct attach automated technology. I remember meeting our owner before he started this in 1991 while I was building with another brand of high end hiking boots on the same machines in Montebelluna, Italy. You have to have the knowledge. We know how to design, develop and build shoes.

Don’t go there

We work with factories in Asia. We [the footwear industry] are way past anything to do with labor issues. Those issues have been resolved. It’s more about environmental responsibility. It’s about what’s going into the product; what’s coming back into our warehouse and onto our feet and into our environment. 

European made

We just launched Made in Europe: a joint project with Italian ownership and a Romanian factory. It’s the same as American Built; you can deliver in the same time zone. There’s likely not another American outdoor brand that has decided to do that.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 4.28.16 PMHipsters gone wild

As the outdoor industry grew up, [marketing] was about the outdoor enthusiast: the outdoors coming into the city. Today there’s a new trend: moving from the urban center to the outside. That requires different messaging. There are certain messages that resonate with urban young people. We have a lot of that going for Keen already and we need to amplify it.

UNEEK

Our DNA is about coming to the market with a disruptive move. UNEEK is open air footwear. No one has done this before. We did a front end launch last June and in Japan and on our website. They all sold out. We are now launching globally. What’s so special is the way it molds to your foot; it’s simplicity, elegance and all duty versatility.

99% perspiration

Sometimes products come together through spontaneous combustion. UNEEK was true grit and hard work: going from a design concept that no one had ever done before to a manufacturing capability that no one had ever done before. Most of us have been wearing [UNEEK] for a year — some, two and half years. That’s how long it took to develop.

Feet forward

We launched an innovation lab at the beginning of the year: it’s the engine for advanced technology development and product innovation. We’re in the process of constructing a long-range plan. It’s about what does the future hold as the consumer changes. Our brand is well positioned for that change. 

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