2007-01-18 / News

Keen Footwear: a homegrown international success story

By Michaela Kennedy

Martin Keen Photo by Mary Keen Martin Keen Photo by Mary Keen Since its initial splash in 2003, Keen Footwear has blossomed from an island concept to a household name worldwide. Martin Keen, owner of the revolutionary footwear company, is still pinching himself.

Keen describes his success as "beyond my wildest dreams." Hoping for a modest growth the first three years, Keen's sales volume jumped twenty times his projections by the third year, "and it's possibly doubled that again in 2006," he says.

Keen, a competitive sailor and outdoor lover, wanted a shoe design that would be comfortable on a boat. "I love sandals," he notes, adding that traditional sandals are not practical on a racing boat, where an open toe waits to be stubbed. Building on many years experience as a shoe designer for established footwear names like Saucony, Timberland and others, Keen developed his idea for a new type of hybrid shoe.

He gives credit to the timing of his company start-up to economic events that followed in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy. He was working at the time for the Tommy Hilfiger Group as a consultant, but found himself laid off, along with many other workers and consultants. Acting on the Asian perspective of crisis creating opportunity, "I threw caution to the wind," he said. He teamed up with a partner who had factory relationships, and debuted the Jamestown, a sandal with a rubber toe guard. "I thought it was appropriate to name the first after a place I love," Keen added.

He followed in his father's footsteps as a designer in the shoe industry. He criticizes big name brands that put more money into marketing a sleek shape rather than into comfortable footwear. Keen relied on his expertise to develop a comfortable shoe shaped like a foot. He considered all sizes of feet before deciding on the right mold. "We cast a lot of feet. The molding has to fit the 90 percentile of the population," he explains.

Keen's dream has grown to be more than just a shoemaker. "People involved in an outdoor company are more in tune to the environment," Keen muses. All packaging used for the product is recycled, and all employees are required to do community service - paid, of course.

Keen can afford to think about doing good for the environment and other people. He shows pride in the money he and the workers at Keen Footwear have been able to generate. In 2005, the company had an advertising budget of $1 million. "The company was on fire. We didn't need to advertise," Keen admitted. He and his partner gave away the entire advertising budget to help numerous projects and people in need, such as the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Since the inception of Keen's new-generation style, Timberland was anxious for him to create a brand solely for the company typically known for boots. The result? A shoe designed for water sports called Mion (pronounced 'my own' with a long accent line over the o) that was introduced to the market in April. "Ergo-morphic foam is layered on the foot bed," he explained.

Keen uses the word ergo-morphic to describe a polyethylene blasted with nitrogen. The material, originally inserted in shoes made for diabetics, molds to conform to the shape of the wearer's feet after about 10 hours. The mold is permanent. Hence, the name, since no one else can comfortably wear the shoes.

Keen finds plenty of time to spend with his wife and two children, despite his frequent travel for trade shows and factory visits. The company of 40 employees is based in the footwear Mecca of Portland, Ore., but his design studio is in his back yard. "The company runs itself," he says, noting that the Keen styles are found in 1,800 stores throughout the country, and in 70 countries throughout the world.

Boasting 700 different models of men's, women's and children's footgear, Keen Footwear can be found in just about any store that sells outdoor footwear. For more information about the Keen brand, visit www.keenfootwear. com. For more information on Mion footwear, go online to www.mionfootwear.com.

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