In keeping with the company’s track record of giving back to the community during times of crisis, KEEN Footwear recently implemented a program during the COVID-19 pandemic called “Together We Can Help.” In the new program, KEEN sent 100,000 pairs of shoes — about $10,000,000 worth — to workers on the frontlines and families at home.
Chris Heffernan, senior vice president and general manager for the KEEN Utility and KEEN Outdoor brands, shared with CoatingsPro his views on how personal protective equipment (PPE) may change. Chris also explains how KEEN is continuing to support the industry and coatings contractors.
[This podcast was recorded on April 20, 2020.]
Stephanie Chizik: Chris, thank you for joining us.
Chris Heffernan: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
SC: Can you start by giving us a brief overview of what the Together We Can Help program entails?
CH: Sure. I would say this really hit us hard as a company, but we’re about 45 days into when we realized the impact this was going to have. It’s funny, our owner’s first thought was not so much ourselves, but it’s hurting the economy, the people, the country. There’s going to be people who need help. There was just an across-the-board, unanimous decision to see what we could do as a company and how we could add value in our own unique way and try to help some people in some rough times.
We came up with this Together We Can Help program. The idea was if you submitted someone you knew who’s having a tough time as a result of the situation that’s going on, whether it be somebody who actually works on the frontlines like healthcare workers or police and firemen or even just families that are suffering at the moment, just feel free to submit their names, a little bit of a story so we can evaluate the merit. We went through and donated all those pairs rather quickly. We did that on a global level, too. That was across the globe. It was actually a lot of fun. It was a fun program. We got some amazing feedback from the consumers and folks that submitted those who needed help as well as from those who actually received the product.
SC: That’s awesome. I definitely have seen KEEN as a company seem to want to be proactive when there are these types of issues going on in the world. I’ve seen other programs similar to it with hurricanes in the past.
CH: Definitely. It’s a big part of KEEN. Kind of a values-led, family-owned, private company. That’s really at the forefront of everything we’re trying to do.
SC: You guys also have a unique take on the whole COVID-19, how everyone’s experiencing it, because not only do you sell to individual consumers, but you also do the work boot line, the utility line. Does that give you a unique viewpoint?
CH: Definitely. We hear and talk to them frequently, so we kind of understand the perspective of what they’re going through. But also I think it’s just the nature of being a family-owned business who has always been trying to do the right thing, quietly, in our own way. It goes back to our first marketing campaign here at KEEN. We were about to invest pretty heavily for the first time during all the issues that were happening in Japan way back when, with the tsunami, and we formulated everything immediately, on the spot almost, for the tsunami relief efforts. Helping people is really at the heart of KEEN.
SC: You guys are based out of Portland, is that right?
CH: We are. Portland, Oregon.
SC: What is the take going on over there? How has the outbreak been affecting you guys locally or even globally?
CH: Well, we’re kind of sandwiched between Seattle and California, both of which are hotspots here in the U.S. So everyone’s running scared but everybody’s doing what they need to. I think Portland’s doing a pretty good job of holding the numbers down. Everyone’s definitely observing all the right rules and staying at home. But as you know, that’s a pretty radical shift in our day-to-day. But we do what we have to do, and keeping everyone safe is definitely a mantra of the company. We’ve been following it pretty religiously.
SC: Has it affected how KEEN does business as far as warehouses or production? I think a lot of your production facilities are based in the United States.
CH: We have a factory here in Portland. We actually have factories in Mexico, Thailand, and elsewhere. But for the most part, we’ve obviously had to change how we operate, how to make sure all workers are safe. You can imagine all the dynamics that adds to the operations. But we’ve been able to stay open during that time. Still making product, but obviously we’re a lot slower. But doing it safely is priority number one. Our warehouse is still open, and that’s in the Kentucky area. A lot of other warehouses are open alongside, too.
But again, a lot of different procedures. There’s definitely a lot of quarantining, making sure everyone’s healthy, wearing masks, following all the protocols, you can imagine. Like I said, things move at a slower pace, but that’s fine. Safety of the workers is number one in doing what we can, but not risking anything here at all.
SC: And probably quality, too. You want to make sure you're doing it the right way the first time.
CH: For sure.
SC: For the office staff like you guys, does that mean changing to working from home? Are you able to go in the office at all?
CH: No, office has been shut down and probably will be for a number of weeks until the state authorities deem that it’s safe to go back. Everyone’s working from home, other than the warehouse folks, so that’s a good majority of us here at KEEN. It’s different. You get used to it. You learn new tools. If anything, we’re finding that it’s really making us a lot more efficient in how we’re interacting. We all feel like we’re working harder. But it changes the focus.
Right now, e-commerce is the one big distribution channel that’s open. Except for our work distributors. There’s a few of those that are open just because they fall onto essential companies that are still open, like farm and food accounts. Work boots are deemed an essential product for all the workers out there doing really critical work. So some of our distribution’s open, but for the most part, the majority has shifted primarily to e-commerce. That’s really had to change how we think, how well we’re prepared for driving that.
SC: Is that also, for our coatings contractors, if they wanted to get KEEN boots at this point in time, it sounds like the best idea would be to look online.
CH: Yes, online’s not a bad idea. Their stores might be open where they traditionally shop. It’s definitely worth checking. Our partners, basically our accounts we sell products to, we view them as partners. They’re still open. They’re fighting just like everybody else. Some are closed. They may have a website to use as well. I would definitely try and shop local first. Worst case, you can always look at the places you'd expect, the Amazons of the world. But for the most part, we’re trying to help our partners through this as well.
SC: Have you heard anything from those end users, the clients or people in industry, of challenges that they’re having right now? Maybe even some silver linings that they’ve experienced?
CH: Most stuff we hear is really positive stories. I think the giveaway for shoes and boots really brought that home. We got some amazing letters and feedback. People are just really thankful and appreciate what we did there, which is so nice to hear, that some people could benefit from that. Just the engagement we normally have with our consumers on our social media, Facebook pages, things like that, have all been really kind, kind words, because they’ve taken note of that effort and appreciate that we’ve done that. It’s been great to read.
SC: That is great. Another nice benefit of being able to connect with people remotely is all the socials that can be positive and negative, but it seems like there’s a lot of positives going on right now, which is great.
CH: The business seems tough right now. Everyone’s feeling it. We’re feeling it. It’s always nice to remember that we’re human and taking care of each other is really important. This will pass. We’ll get through it, and we’ll remember those who helped us along the way for sure. It just builds a stronger relationship going forward.
SC: I think it’s also interesting, working in the construction industry, the term PPE is something that we very frequently use, at least in CoatingsPro. Every coatings job — every construction job, for that matter — you have to wear proper safety gear. But now everyone knows what PPE is because of this, which potentially could be a good change for the construction industry moving forward.
CH: Even here at KEEN — initially, I had been here previously for five years, working on just work boots. I just recently picked up responsibility for the outside and outdoor hiking portion of the business. But it’s interesting, I’ve always been saying PPE just naturally, and every time I’m talking to those who don’t work on work boots, they’ve always stopped me and keep reminding me, like, “What is that? I don’t understand what that means.” It’s a word they never understood, and now everyone’s using it in our company. So it’s just funny to see it have a transition.
SC: Hopefully a positive change. One of the maybe many silver linings that comes out of this is that more PPE, or proper protective gear, is worn moving forward. I know that’s always been a challenge in the jobsite workplace.
CH: Yes, and we’ve just started making masks. We’re donating a large number of masks out there as well. Honestly, most of them will go to our accounts. We’re trying to offer to them at cost as they begin to reopen. Because obvious wearing a mask is really important these days. It’s critical. It’s how we’re going to keep the spread down, especially as things begin to reopen. We’re trying to help our accounts think about that. Everything’s going to change. Shopping and retail’s going to be different. Till there’s a vaccine, we’re going to have to operate differently. So we got into that business. That’s helped with the PPE conversation and terminology for sure.
SC: Kind of a one-stop shop, maybe. Are you using the same materials that you would use for work boots, kind of how people are using t-shirts as protection? Or are you actually able to switch gears and start putting out the N-95 masks or something along those lines?
CH: We did not go with the N-95 side of things. There’s just so many people who are so much more capable of making that than us on a much larger scale. But since we do have our own factories and we have workers, we have parts and pieces, it’s amazing how much of our spare materials we’ve been able to reutilize and recreate — and actually do it in a fun way. We’ve got kids masks. We’ve worked patterns into them. We’ve built a smile on the outside. It makes it a little bit more human, a little bit more fun. We actually have them to match shoes. It’s been weird that we’re not coordinating our attire with the mask that we wear, but kind of a fun dynamic.
SC: That is fun. That’s a great opportunity to realize during this time. There’s definitely areas of growth that we probably never would have considered before but you have to see where you can pinch hit now.
CH: You got it.
SC: I know we don’t have any crystal balls. That would be wonderful at this point in time. But do you have any ideas about how this might affect the PPE industry or the construction industry moving forward?
CH: Yes, it’s going to be really interesting here to see how quickly we get back up to full speed. Obviously, the blue collar consumer, those jobs are going to be first and foremost, given all the changes in the economy. My guess is the government will be jumping in here to help at some point to make sure those jobs are prospering once again. We’re all going to have to act a little bit differently. Again, until that vaccine comes, we’re really going to have to think about how we’re handling each other, ourselves, all the precautions that are necessary, and all the impacts that’s going to have on the everyday, blue-collar worker’s job. It’s going to be different.
SC: Yes, I think life will definitely be different from now on, that’s for sure. We also will not be forgetting this anytime soon.
CH: No. It will wake us up. We’ll be prepared for the next one for sure, so that’ll be great.
SC: Have you seen any strategies or feedback from leaders, either from KEEN or outside of the industry, that may be worth sharing?
CH: Yes, it’s funny. We talk to our accounts to learn more, just checking to see how business is going. It’s interesting to think how are retail and shopping and all of those behaviors going to change. Everyone’s focusing on e-commerce right now. That’s really going to help the mom-and-pop store be competitive long-term. But it’s really getting them up to speed, how to use all this new digital marketing and those tools.
There’s so many changes happening, in even how they’re going to reopen their doors, how people are going to shop within those doors. It’s a time for innovation and it’ll be very interesting and exciting, but at the same time, everyone’s just coming around to realize, wow, things are really going to be different. I have to start thinking differently. I just noticed a lot of people are starting to come up that learning curve and we’re trying to help them get there for sure.
SC: Help them catch up to what’s going on now, yes. Any other virtual opportunities that you can think of for the end user? Obviously, the e-commerce, like you were saying. I know there have been a lot of things we had to move online, so I know there’s contractors who are not able to work due to not being considered essential, although that’s unfortunate in some cases. Any other ideas, virtually?
CH: Honestly, we’re finding the more — it’s almost like the new marketing medium is online. We used to get it through TV, print, radio. We’re still getting a little bit, but so much is coming at us now digitally. Everyone’s impacted by that. It just changes the way you're engaging your audience. You're finding new business opportunities or new customers.
There are some great tools out there. It’s almost like a science unto itself. But jump right in. If you’ve got time, it’s a great time to learn all that, get really savvy, because you're just going to need it going forward. The world’s changing. The consumer base is getting younger. The working blue-collar audience — 90 percent of them are going to be under the age of 37 in a couple years here. That’s a pretty significant shift from where we’ve been. And they all know how to use that phone and that computer incredibly well. Maybe it’s a great time to expand your skill set. It can only help your business long-term, for sure.
SC: Or look for that younger workforce who can help you catch up, if that’s not your forte. I know we all have our different fortes.
SC: Anything other than the exciting face mask movement that’s going on at KEEN that you want to share with our subscribers?
CH: Like I said, face masks is first and foremost that we’re pushing here from a marketing standpoint to our accounts to help them get back. We may be selling them to the consumer. It actually might become, for a while, something we all definitely need. Might as well accessorize as you do it. But for the most part, we’re still making great work boots. We’ve got some really innovative stuff happening there. Hiking business and sandal business has some really exciting news as we begin to expand those offerings. It’s not like we’re slowing down from an innovation and new product standpoint. So keep your ears and eyes open and see what else is out there from KEEN.
SC: Where should they go to check that out or to reach out to you directly?
CH: KEENFootwear.com, great place for everything KEEN. Whether it’s KEEN or KEEN Utility, we’re both located in that same spot. I can be found at KEEN as well, at any time. Email’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
SC: Thanks so much for your time, Chris. Hopefully we’ll be able to talk again soon. Maybe during better times, but we’re all making the best of it that we can now.
CH: Thanks, Stephanie. Really appreciate it.
SC: Have a good one.
CH: You too. Take care.
Editor’s note: Listen to all of the other interviews in CoatingsPro’s COVID-19 podcast series.