Keen Eyes: Q&A With James Curleigh

He is the consummate showman.

Whether James Curleigh is presenting on stage or engaged in a one-on-one conversation, the charismatic and loquacious president and CEO of Keen pulls out all the stops to tell the brand story, with props, anecdotes — and even the occasional song. But no matter what the method, he’s always clear on exactly what Keen is and where it’s going.

“We love the fact that there are some people out here — I won’t ask for a show of hands — who would never put this shoe on their foot, no matter what happens,” Curleigh said at the recent WWD Summit in New York while brandishing the brand’s signature Newport sandal, the Martin Keen-created style that launched the company in 2003. “But there are plenty of people who value the protection and breathability.”

Curleigh, who took the helm at Keen in March 2008 after prior positions as president and CEO of Salomon N.A. and as VP of TaylorMade Adidas Golf Europe, likes to compare Keen to an 8-year-old: passionate about what it loves, not afraid to try new things and always ready to play. (Curleigh also has an 8-year-old son, so the parallels are close at hand.) But Keen is serious about its business, too.

The privately held firm doesn’t disclose exact numbers, but confirms that annual sales are north of $200 million, with average growth of more than 20 percent year over year.

Last year, the company launched its biggest brand-awareness campaign to date, the grassroots focused “Recess Is Back.” And according to Curleigh, in the interest of “making it easy to do business with Keen,” the firm invested in an SAP system to coordinate customer orders and inventory.

“It’s working from an internal perspective and we’ve started to see the early benefits, but more importantly from an external service perspective, customers are seeing more solid service levels,” Curleigh told Footwear News in an exclusive conversation late last year.

And the brand has put a new focus on making its now-expansive product line cleaner and more cohesive, hiring Ron Hill for the newly created position of VP of merchandising in November 2011.

“We’ve gotten smarter with our merchandising, smarter with our collections,” Curleigh said.

For their part, retailers said Keen, which has been working to become a more year-round player, gets consumers excited.

Peter Martin, owner of the Plum Creek Shoe Station, said the brand is a winner at both his store and its sister shop, Moose Creek, where the line dominates the mix. The stores carry a full range of Keen styles, he said, covering sandals, hiking product, casuals and winter boots. And the shoes appeal to a wide variety of shoppers. “[They] are comfortable right out of the box, and they’re decent-looking at a reasonable price,” Martin said.

Here, Curleigh tells FN about the importance of balance, sending the right message and carving out a U.S. manufacturing presence.

In the outdoor industry, most brands are built on the principle of pinnacle performance for top-tier users. Does Keen get pushback for not doing that?
JC: We do, but [just because] we don’t have a specific usage for the highest level of performance doesn’t mean we’re not a performance brand. We put our performance in what we call all of our hybridology. Hybridology for us is really our concepts and innovation and very specific features and benefits we put into products.

Keen saw strong growth in 2011. What’s the blueprint for the brand’s progress going forward?
[We want] to make sure we’re focusing on balance — and balance [means] by season, gender, style, channel and international [distribution]. We had an excellent spring ’11, and obviously the stage has been set for spring ’12, where we have [improvement] in the making because of our order book, our channel distribution and our improved marketing. You know, I wouldn’t go on record saying growth is guaranteed, but certainly conditions for growth in spring ’12 [are good], which is important, and we see that with the increased confidence in our fall range, [which is] moving more toward an improved seasonal balance throughout the year. We have a goal of making every season Keen season. And I can tell you we are in excellent shape for fall. Our autumn transitional range has been really well-received, and sell-through has been great. And more specifically, our winter product has started to resonate in the functional [arena], but also in the lifestyle area, and we’re seeing heightened levels of sell-through.

But spring still dominates?
It does, but we’re about 60 percent spring and 40 percent fall, and within the next three years, the opportunity to hit that 50/50 balance is very real.

You’ve made a point of saying that product — especially outdoor product — has become too specialized. How are you addressing that in your strategy?
What we’re seeing is [customers saying], “Give us everything we need, but streamline it so I can take it wherever I need to go.” [For example], for fall ’12, we have this new product we’re launching: the Bryce. We’re calling it the streamlined trail shoe for global exploration. It’s truly a more athletic approach to authentic trailhead or hiking [gear]. So we’ve now got the [more traditional] product that has always been in our range and now this more athletic product.

The company made a move to be more visible on the advertising front in 2011. Do you plan to expand that outreach?
We’re going to take the whole “Recess Is Back” campaign to another level and connect it to the seasons better. [Last year], we purposely didn’t make an overt connection, but this year we’re going to make more relevant product connections. That’s a big message.

How are you making more of an impact at retail?
We want to have a defined space for Keen that speaks to who we are as a brand in a really fun, clever and impactful way, but that also features the products in more of a compelling way to play up some of the hybridology and performance characteristics. We’ve completely reengineered and redesigned our in-store [materials] with a new program we’re calling Scrappy Yellow, a “repurposed for a purpose” approach. It’s our biggest investment and our highest-impact project to date in stores, and it launched in earnest on Jan. 2. It will be across all channels.

You have some first-hand knowledge of what it takes to succeed in retail, yes?
[My brothers and I] started life in specialty outdoor retail. All three of us ran a store in Halifax, Nova Scotia, called A1 in the mid-1980s. I [know what it means] when you talk about customer engagement, differentiation, building loyalty and offering service choice. We were buyers. It truly taught us the meaning of brands, retail and service.

Keen’s sales are still strongest in North America today. Where are you in regard to international growth?
We’ve truly set ourselves up to be global. We have our offices in Canada and in Europe, and [business in those areas] continues to grow at above-average levels. Our Pan-Asian business is getting more attention just because we see opportunity from South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and we’re solid, but we’re going to grow even faster there. And we have attention on Latin America. We just don’t say domestic and international anymore. We are a global brand and we prioritize accordingly.

After opening your first U.S. factory last summer, you recently met with President Obama and other business leaders to advocate for domestic manufacturing. How will you expand operations here in 2012?
The first year was really the “let’s settle in and see what we can do here” year, and truly we realized the benefits of “built in America.” We’ll start to turn up the volume in terms of our built-in-America story. It was originally a utility play, but we have plans in 2012 to expand [production] to our Trailhead and Market Street and Boulevard collections, so both casual and hiking will come out of that. And we’re going to be putting more and more attention on utility.

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