Why New Balance, Chaco + More USA Shoe Companies Have Halted Production to Make Masks

For Allen Edmonds SVP of product development and manufacturing Jim Kass, aiding in the fight against COVID-19 has been a top priority — so much so it’s become his full-time job.

“We realized since stores had shut down, we didn’t need to run the factory,” Kass told FN, adding that he reached out to parent company Caleres Inc. for the go-ahead to halt all shoe production on March 30 to instead focus exclusively on making protective gear. To determine where the need was most dire, Kass asked a former co-worker on the board of Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital in Rhinelander, Wisc., along with a friend serving as alumni director for the Medical College of Wisconsin, for direction. It didn’t take long before he received a call from St. Mary’s hospital and Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisc., which helped provide the necessary materials for mask production.

Kass then got the factory up to speed, retooling its sewing machines to handle the new materials, a job executed by its staff mechanic of 20 years. Next, a team of 11 sewers began turning out masks, 1,800 on the first day. “We don’t want to stop until we have all the [hospitals’] needs covered,” said Kass, who’s been making hand-deliveries. “When it ends, we’ll be happy to close up and make shoes again.”

Like Allen Edmonds, Chaco put its sandal production on hold to focus on mask production for health-care facilities in its home base of West Michigan.

“Many of us have friends and loved ones that work the front lines of the pandemic,” said Joshua Weichhand, managing director of marketing. “We started looking at our factory and equipment in a different light, and whether we might be able to put our resources toward an essential common good.”

In addition to retrofitting its Michigan factory to make masks, the company utilized its school-bus- turned-mobile-factory for the job. “The response from [employees] was immediate,” said Weichhand. “We quickly shifted into an all hands-on-deck approach to source the required materials and began training to prototype and produce masks.”

Chaco expects to produce 1,000 masks a week in its factory, with another 400 on its bus stationed in Portland, Ore., where it will distribute those masks locally.

As the rest of the footwear industry continues to rally for the aid of health-care workers around the country during the coronavirus crisis, with many offering donations of essential protective equipment including life-saving masks, athletic giant New Balance has also taken up the cause.

According to the company, it was able to utilize its 75-plus years of domestic manufacturing experience and input from local medical and lab institutions to tap into its supply chain for materials to produce general-use masks.

In addition to obtaining materials from vendor partner Deal Inc., which also supplies goods to the medical industry, New Balance used materials, including no-sew and performance laces, it had on hand at factories in Lawrence, Mass., and Norridgewock, Maine. It is also pursuing break-even pricing and/or donations for the production of these masks.

The company reported it’s on track to produce 100,000 a week, which will be distributed to medical facilities in areas surrounding its factories.

New Balance is also responding to calls for other personal protective equipment, such as gowns and foot coverings, which will in turn explore opportunities using its U.S. 3D printing capabilities.

With a shortage of face masks escalating, L.L. Bean got creative, too, tapping employees that typically stitch and sew its Bean boots and boat totes in its Maine manufacturing facility. Now, the brand is producing sneeze masks made out of its dog bed liners, with capabilities of producing 10,000 a day for distribution to health-care organizations.

Based on the properties of the material — which is soft, liquid-resistant, durable and washable — L.L. Bean is working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other labs to determine if it can also be used for surgical masks.

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