They know a thing or two about finish lines over at New Balance. Crossing this particular one is a good reason to throw a victory party.
The Boston shoe company just shipped its first order of 100 percent American-made running shoes to the Defense Logistics Agency, some 6,000 pairs. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King and Representative Bruce Poliquin toured New Balance’s factory in Norridgewock, Maine, on Tuesday to celebrate with the 300-plus employees there.
This race was a marathon, not a sprint. The company, led by owner Jim Davis, has been at this for more than seven years.
First, New Balance pushed the Department of Defense to honor the 1940s-era law known as the Berry Amendment, which requires military recruits to be outfitted with apparel made in the United States. Defense officials had long argued there wasn’t enough competition to apply Berry to running shoes; the supply chains for domestic footwear manufacturing, the argument went, have long been broken apart.
New Balance set out to prove them wrong. The Pentagon relented in 2014 and agreed to buy US-made shoes. But two years passed, and no orders were placed.
New Balance CEO Rob DeMartini, who is leaving his job Dec. 31, publicly tangled with the Obama administration in 2016 over the delays. So New Balance’s champions in Congress, including Poliquin and Representative Niki Tsongas of Lowell, inserted language in a military spending bill that essentially forced the DoD to comply.
The federal bureaucracy’s wheels usually turn slowly, regardless of who is in the White House. Finally, the Maine delegation announced in March that New Balance had won a $17 million contract. Work began on the midsoles in Brighton in August, with the bulk of the manufacturing taking place in Norridgewock. And New Balance began shipping supplies of the finished shoe — known as the 950v2 — out of its Lawrence distribution center in mid-October. The company expects to ship 92,000 pairs by the end of next year.
Another Massachusetts company, Waltham-based Saucony, was supposed to be in the running. But its parent, Wolverine Worldwide, sold its military contract business, including the Michigan factory where it made combat boots, to Original Footwear last year. That prompted Saucony to drop out of the race.
But other competitors did land athletic-shoe contracts alongside New Balance: San Antonio Shoemakers and Propper International.
New Balance, a spokeswoman said, will ship roughly 25 percent of all Berry-compliant athletic shoes to military recruits over an 18-month period.
For a company with $4 billion in global revenue, the military contract seems like barely more than a rounding error. But every little bit counts for the 1,300 workers at New Balance’s five shoe factories in New England, and their 15-plus domestic suppliers. While New Balance makes the bulk of its shoes overseas, its executives continue to preach the importance of domestic manufacturing. These are important blue-collar jobs, in places that have seen too many disappear over the years.
Davis and his team probably never expected this race for military business to take so long. But their endurance has finally paid off.