Merrell Milestone: The Matis Touch

Over the past 30 years, Merrell co-founder Clark Matis has seen the brand grow into a global powerhouse and leading innovator in the outdoor category. For all his successes, however, his real passion remains designing product.

The brains behind such core styles as the Wilderness, Moab, Chameleon and hugely successful Jungle Moc, Matis is always thinking about his next big idea. A two-time Olympic skier and avid outdoor enthusiast, he relishes creating cutting-edge footwear and then heading outside to the slopes and hiking trails to test it. “I love getting outdoors and putting the product through its paces,” he said.

Matis and business partner John Schweizer got the inspiration to launch Merrell after coming across an article in Backpacker magazine about a custom boot maker in Utah named Randy Merrell.

“He’d made a leather hiking boot that was being called the best in the world, and I said, ‘We’ve got to call this guy,’” Matis recalled. “We ended up doing a deal with him, took his name and started a company together in 1981. And the rest is history.”

Although Merrell and Schweizer later left the company to pursue other interests, Matis stayed on, joining Wolverine World Wide Inc. when it acquired the brand. Today, he oversees technical footwear design and development for both Merrell and sister outdoor label Patagonia. And even with his strong track record, Matis still gets a thrill when he discovers he has another hit on his hands. “The great thing is we’re having fun doing it and then it’s like, ‘Oh, we just sold 100,000 pairs,’” he said.

1. When you founded Merrell, what did you hope to bring to the market?
When we first got started, we took the tagline of “The best in the world.” Our first product was the Wilderness, a Norwegian welded hiking boot that is still in the line and seems to be even hipper today. Back then, we competed against mostly European brands, which had unisex sizing. We took a different approach: From the beginning, we had a specific men’s last and a specific women’s last, which was pretty radical then and [something that was] key to our success. To this day, I believe that’s why Merrell has such a strong following among women.

2. What were some of the challenges you faced early on?
We had great product and we were able to get the distribution, but manufacturing was a huge challenge. Also, we were working with Italian manufacturers and had to meet certain minimums [in terms of volume], which was difficult as a small, independent brand. So having the money and resources to move forward was a challenge. That’s why we ended up selling to Wolverine.

3. How did coming under Wolverine’s wing change things?
It certainly gave us a huge advantage. They had the money for inventory and shipping. That really allowed us to take off because we had unlimited product. And we could tap into the company’s sourcing and product development in China.

4. What were some of the defining moments for the Merrell brand?
In 1995, we brought out our Eagle, Laser and Quest shoes, and that was really the start of multisport in the U.S. When they hit and quickly sold out, we knew we had something really hot. And then, of course, in 1998 we launched the Jungle Moc, which was my invention, my baby. I just checked, and we’ve sold more than 11 million pairs to date. You see everyone from kids to young women to 80-year-old men wearing them.

5. The Jungle Moc wasn’t an immediate success, though.
No, when we first introduced the style, we got a lot of hisses and people asking, “What is Merrell, which makes these heavy-duty boots like the Wilderness, doing with this Jungle Moc?” We were looked down upon when the shoe came out, but two years later, everybody had their version of it, so that was pretty vindicating.

6. How has your competitive skiing background influenced your work on product?
The biggest thing is that drive to be the best, that commitment to excellence. Obviously, my background as a skier has given me a better understanding of what is needed from the product [from a performance standpoint]. For almost 25 years, I personally tested all our footwear.

7. What are you working on now?
The big project now is our barefoot/minimalist product. The whole barefoot trend is really taking off. We’re making both technical and lifestyle shoes, and we’ve partnered with Vibram to offer Vibram soles on everything. I’m really excited about what we’re doing. It’s very cool stuff. I don’t think it’s going to hit Jungle Moc-type numbers, but we’re getting orders without people even seeing the product.

8. The outdoor industry is booming. What do you believe is driving the growth?
It’s the whole green movement and the push to get outdoors. There were more park visits than ever in the U.S. [in 2009]. There also is a lot of great innovation coming from the outdoor market, and that is exciting for consumers.

9. To what do you attribute Merrell’s huge success?
The beauty of Merrell is that it is a chameleon brand. No one really knows what Merrell is. Is it technical? Is it lifestyle? We succeed in capturing a really broad range of customers.

10. Did you ever imagine the company you started would become this big?
We knew we were going to grow, but I don’t think we had any idea how much. Merrell works with a major retailer right now and it alone buys as much as we sold the company for to Wolverine. I remember back when Geoffrey Bloom was the head of [Wolverine], he liked to refer to Merrell as the company’s Rolex brand. And he said, “Merrell will probably grow to be a nice $20 million to $30 million business.” Well, we proved him wrong.

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