New Balance is one of the few shoe companies to still manufacture in the United States, where five factories produce a quarter of the shoes it sells today. Globe reporter Taryn Luna recently spoke with New Balance chief executive Rob DeMartini about the future of the American factories, expansion beyond running shoes, and the $500 million Brighton Landing project that broke ground recently.
You’re pushing the federal government to apply the Berry Amendment, which requires the military to provide soldiers with US made gear whenever possible. How would this affect New Balance’s US manufacturing?
We’re not making a push to do anything but get the military to enforce a law that has been on the books since the ’40s. US-made athletic shoes are available. It’s the only place on the uniform, head-to-toe, where the Berry Amendment is not enforced. The commitment we’ve laid out is if Berry will be enforced, we’ll hire up to 250 more workers into our five factories.
New Balance has been very vocal against changes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could remove a tariff on shoes exported to the US. If this happens, would your domestic factories remain open?
We’ve been making shoes in the US since 1938. No single piece of legislation is going to stop us, but it’s going to make it harder and harder.
New Balance seems to be at the forefront of 3-D printing technology in footwear. Why invest so much in 3-D printing when the technology is still in such a primitive stage?
We’re continuing to invest heavily in 3-D printing and all other methods of advanced manufacturing. We think that 3-D printing and some of the more innovative manufacturing methods, especially lean manufacturing, are really the future.
How far away is New Balance from creating an entirely 3-D printed shoe?
Conceptually, not that far. The problem is how to commercialize that model. You’ve heard of some of the department stores that take your body measurements and keep a private file to know exactly what fits you. The only next step is to translate that into mass customization. It’s coming fast and we want to be a part of it.
New Balance is churning out more casual shoes than ever before. Why?
Our casual shoes are coming out of our Made in the USA program. You can command a premium for it and consumers flock to it. I was in Mexico recently and some of our casual shoes are commanding $150 to $200 US dollars because American still means quality.
The New Balance brand is still a performance brand at its heart, but lifestyle is very popular. It probably makes up 35 percent of our total sales. It’s sports shoes worn on Friday and Saturday nights. The casual work environment has helped us. People don’t dress as formally anymore.
The brand has also made strides in baseball. How was this accomplished and why?
Three years ago, we didn’t make a Major League Baseball spike. Today we have 350 players, or almost 30 percent of MLB players, in our spike. If you can prove your product performs at the highest levels, schools, colleges, and kids down to 6 years old will want to emulate the stars of the sport.
We do it a little differently than some of our competitors. We don’t sign big athletes and put them in our ad campaigns. What we do is make great product and get them to wear it, and when they like it, they continue to wear it and tell their friends.
Brighton Landing just broke ground. Why invest $500 million in the project when many of the facilities won’t be used by New Balance and the current headquarters are more than adequate?
It’s a complex and complicated project that is bigger than New Balance the company. From a business standpoint, we’re preparing to be a $5 billion company. Our headquarters will be significantly bigger. The rest of the buildings, whether it be the medical-oriented office parks, the retail, the T stop, or the sports complex, that’s about giving back to Brighton.