Birkenstock Footprint Sandals, Inc. History
Novato, California 94945
Telephone: (415) 892-4400
Fax: (415) 899-1324
Sales: $60 million
SICs: 3149 Footwear Except Rubber Not Elsewhere Classified; 3100 Leather & Leather Products
Birkenstock Footprint Sandals, Inc. is a shoe distributor best known for its clunky, comfortable orthopedic sandals. The Birkenstock family of Germany has a long history in the shoemaking trade. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the company marketed orthopedic shoe inserts. In the 1960s, Birkenstock used the principles behind these appliances to create a homey-looking sandal, designed with comfort foremost in mind. After these shoes were introduced to the United States they gained popularity with "hippies" and academics before reaching a mass market in the 1990s.
Birkenstock traces its roots to the late 18th century, when a German cobbler named Johann Adam Birkenstock, who was born in 1754, was first registered as a "subject and shoemaker" in the church archives of Langenbergheim, a town in the duchy of Hesse, Germany. By the end of the 19th century, Konrad Birkenstock, a descendant, owned two shoe stores in Frankfort, the capital of Hesse. These stores would become the foundation of the modern Birkenstock businesses.
Konrad Birkenstock had the inspiration that would form the basis for his family's business for the next hundred years. At the time, shoes were made with flat soles, despite the fact that the bottom of the human foot is curved. Birkenstock realized that a sole curved to complement the shape of the foot would be more comfortable than a flat surface. In 1897, he designed the first contoured shoe last, a tool used in shoe-making, to help his cobblers make customized footwear for patrons.
On the strength of this innovation, Konrad Birkenstock began to spread the word of his new kind of shoe. He gave frequent talks to other leading members of the shoemaker's guild, explaining his fully contoured shoe. Birkenstock traveled throughout Germany promoting his new idea, and licensed other cobblers to produce shoes made with his technique. By the start of the twentieth century, he had moved beyond the borders of his native country, traveling to Austria and Switzerland as well.
By 1902, however, the popularity of custom-made shoes had begun to wane, as factory-manufactured footwear began to be more widely distributed. Adapting the essence of his idea for this new and growing market, Konrad Birkenstock developed flexible, contoured arch supports, which could be inserted into mass-produced shoes to make them more comfortable. Birkenstock's arch supports, which bent to accommodate the foot, differed from the other supports on the market, which were made of unyielding metal. With the rise of mass-produced shoes, the Birkenstock family business moved away from the crafting of custom-designed shoes to concentrate on the production of shoe inserts.
In 1908, Birkenstock pushed forward with the foot support when he developed his own substance, and built molding presses to manufacture the flexible orthopedic insert. Four years later, the firm continued its technological innovation when it created a new method for using rubber, a material just beginning to be developed, in shoe inserts. In 1913, Konrad Birkenstock's son Carl joined the family firm, insuring that continuity in the company's activities would be possible. In the wake of Carl's arrival, Konrad Birkenstock committed the bulk of his family's considerable assets to research and the development of rubber as a material for foot supports.
In the same year that Birkenstock undertook these efforts, Germany entered World War I. The company's contribution to the war effort was the design and manufacture of orthopedic shoes to be worn by wounded soldiers in a large military hospital in Frankfort. As a result of these activities, Birkenstock's products came to the attention of the doctor in charge of the hospital, who praised his efforts and encouraged him to market his orthopedic inserts more widely. In 1915, Carl Birkenstock began to travel throughout Germany, introducing the family's products to new buyers.
Two years after the end of World War I, a second Birkenstock brother, Heinrich, entered the family business. Though Germany's economy suffered following the war, the Birkenstock business thrived. The family opened a branch in Vienna, the capital of Austria, in 1923, and soon expanded its distribution to countries across Europe, selling orthopedic inserts in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. To accommodate this expanded customer base, Birkenstock opened a larger factory in the town of Friedberg, in Hesse. When demand for the Birkenstock product necessitated even greater manufacturing capacity, the company added night-shifts at the factory.
The late 1920s and early 1930s saw the company make many changes and additions to its product line. In 1926 and again in 1935, Birkenstock expanded its line of footbeds, adding different widths to better fit the foot and to accommodate fashionable shoes. In 1937, Birkenstock further altered the footbed, adding a "ring," which it patented, that allowed the insert to be easily adjusted to fit each foot. By 1928, Birkenstock's success had attracted the notice of its competitors, and other companies began to market non-metallic arch supports. For the first time, the company had competition for its products.
With the start of the 1930s, Birkenstock expanded its education and promotion efforts beyond people who made shoes to the public itself. The company published 70,000 copies of "The Foot and its Treatment," a heavily-illustrated pamphlet of 50 pages, in an effort to inform customers about the company's theories of orthopedics. Two years later, in 1932, Birkenstock stepped up its education efforts when it began to offer training seminars and lectures to orthotic appliance sellers in most European countries. These sessions lasted a week, and included more than 5,000 people in the mid-1930s.
Germany's defeat in World War II changed but did not seriously disrupt Birkenstock's development. With the coming of peace in 1945, the company transferred its operations from the Frankfort area in Hesse, to the town of Bad Honnef on the Rhine. Innovation and education continued apace; in 1946 the company introduced a toe-free insert and in 1947 it began to distribute a pamphlet for shoe sellers titled "Footorthotics System Birkenstock," with 112 pages and 55 illustrations. In 1950, Konrad Birkenstock, the creator of the flexible footbed and the company's driving force for half a century, died at the age of 77.
The decade following Konrad Birkenstock's death saw a number of changes in the venerable company. In 1956, Birkenstock introduced an insole made of shaped foam that was created through thermoplastic compression. Two years earlier, in 1954, a new generation of Birkenstocks had joined the family firm, when Karl Birkenstock, Carl Birkenstock's son, came aboard. Although his father envisioned the company's future exclusively in terms of orthopedic shoe inserts, the younger Birkenstock had more ambitious plans. He hoped to create a shoe that provided all of the benefits of walking barefoot. To do this, he experimented, combining his grandfather's techniques of flexible, contoured arch support, with his own understanding of how the foot works and moves.
Within a decade of Karl Birkenstock's arrival at the family firm, the company had re-entered the shoe business. In 1964, it began to manufacture a shoe whose design was based on the shape and function of the human foot. The new Birkenstock shoe was built from the inside out, starting with an orthopedically-based footbed, which gave firm support to the bottom of the foot. The company's goal was to make the wearer feel that he or she was walking on a surface that would yield, such as wet sand. In order to accomplish this, Birkenstock designed a footbed made of cork, latex, and jute, which absorbed shocks to the foot. The company also added a raised toe bar, to facilitate the instinctive gripping motion of the toes, and a heel cup, to cradle the heel and better distribute the body's weight. In 1965, Karl Birkenstock attached this sole to two simple leather straps to create a clunky, but comfortable, orthopedic sandal.
One year after Birkenstock began to market its new sandals, the shoes came to the attention of Margot Fraser, a German-born dress designer who had emigrated to the United States. While vacationing at a German spa, workers suggested that she try Birkenstock sandals to ease her chronic foot problems. Several months later, her foot pain had greatly improved. Fraser was hooked, and she believed that other American women would also want an alternative to the uncomfortable high-fashion shoes typically marketed to women. She spread the word about Birkenstock sandals to her friends, bringing them shoes from Germany. Finally, along with her husband, a cookware importer, Fraser arranged with Karl Birkenstock to market his sandals in the United States.
When Fraser approached the owners of shoe stores about selling Birkenstock sandals in their stores, she was universally rebuffed. Repeatedly, shoe sellers assured her that no American woman would ever wear shoes that ugly, regardless of how comfortable they might be. Seeking alternate marketing channels, Fraser turned to the health food industry. "We had to sell to people with a different vision," Fraser later recounted to People magazine. "It was very tough at first," she told the New York Times. "But it was when I went to a health fair, and people there wanted them that I got a start. They were interested in fitness." At a trade show, Fraser sold her first pair of sandals to a woman who was limping among the booths, holding her high-heeled shoes in her hands. After trying the Birkenstock sandals, this woman began wearing them constantly, and also bought several pairs to sell in her health food store.
Fraser set up business in her home in Santa Cruz, California, using her garage as a warehouse. Sales of the sandals through health food stores increased, and the shoes gained a reputation for their comfort. In addition, Fraser sold the shoes through the mail. Throughout her early years in business, Fraser was unable to convince the German Birkenstock company to make her its sole American distributor. Instead, she bought shoes directly from the factory, often in lots of 20 pairs, and had them shipped parcel post to her house.
In 1971, Fraser moved her business out of her house, leasing a small office on top of a San Rafael, California, health food store for $25 a month. At that time, she incorporated her company under the name Birkenstock Footprint Sandals, Inc., and formally became the sole American distributor of Birkenstock products. Fraser hired a part-time bookkeeper and packer. "We made enough money to survive," she later told the Sacramento Bee. "We were pinching out pennies, but we managed." By the end of that year, the company had sold 10,000 pairs of shoes to the American market, promoting the product through homemade fliers, small ads in health food publications, and booths at trade fairs and shoe shows. Often, the shoes were first bought by the owners of health food stores, who had to stand behind a cash register all day. With their recommendation, the popularity of the shoes spread through word of mouth.
While Fraser was working to sell Birkenstock products in the United States, the German parent firm was furthering its efforts to develop its line. In 1966, the company introduced a special paper, on which a customer's footprint could be marked, for a better fitting shoe. In the following year, Birkenstock developed and began to use "Birko-Cork," a natural thermo-pliable product for use in footbeds. Two years later, the company also began to sell insoles that massaged the feet, called "Nappy-Fit."
During the 1970s the popularity of Birkenstock footwear exploded, as the shoes became associated with the Bohemian lifestyle popular with young people. In the United States, sales of Birkenstock sandals grew dramatically, and the company introduced a number of new styles. In 1970, a sandal called "Roma," with a strap that encircled the heel, was sent to stores. In the following year, "Arizona," designed by Fraser with two classic wide straps, was introduced. Overall, there were 12 different varieties of the basic Birkenstock shoe, all sold in natural earth tones.
In Germany, the Birkenstock company expanded its production facilities in order to meet the new demand. The company leased a factory in the town of St. Katharinen that housed punching presses to cut out the leather pieces for its shoes in 1974. Two years later, Birkenstock introduced "Birko Foam," yet another new material for use in its shoes, and in 1978, the company began to use superelastic light material to make new specially contoured soles.
At the start of the 1980s, Birkenstock modernized its production processes further, installing computerized last-making machinery to make the molds for shoes. Two years later, Birkenstock introduced its first significant variation on the basic sandal, the thong-sandal, which it began to sell in five different styles. In the next two years, the company received nearly 40 different design protection rights from the German Patent Office for its products, including two developed for the thong sandal. In 1984 Birkenstock opened a larger warehouse for its products.
Despite the innovation of the thong sandal, sales of Birkenstock shoes began to wane in the early 1980s, as fashions shifted away from the functional and down-to-earth. "We were struggling with the image ... that we were a hippie shoe," Fraser later told Forbes. "We wanted to change that." In 1989, her company ditched its old, chunky logo, replacing it with something sleeker. In addition, the company joined with Birkenstock's German designers to increase the number of styles and colors offered to customers. Gradually, the number of Birkenstock sandal styles available grew to 125, with colors such as mango, moss, fuchsia, and cognac. In addition, Birkenstock sandals for children were introduced, under the name BirkiKids.
In 1990, Birkenstock's American branch began to sell its shoes through a glossy mail-order catalogue, which it updated every six months. Soon other catalogue merchants, such as L.L. Bean and the Sharper Image, were marketing the company's wares. By the early 1990s, popularity of Birkenstock sandals was once again soaring, as the baby boomers aged and comfort became chic. In 1992, Birkenstock's American arm purchased a large warehouse to distribute its products, which were shipped from Germany to Houston in containers, and then moved by rail to Novato, California. This facility used a mile of conveyor belts and a computerized bar-code inventory system to control stock after a $1 million renovation. From this warehouse, shoes were sent to more than 100 Birkenstock specialty stores, large department stores, and other vendors. As Birkenstock moved into the mid-1990s, the company's niche in the functional shoe market appeared secure. With more than 100 years of experience in cradling feet, the enterprise run by descendants of Johann Birkenstock seemed assured of a comfortable future.
- Chan, Gilbert, "Step By Step," Sacramento Bee, May 2, 1994, p. C1.
- "Deja Vu Shoe," People, August 26, 1991.
- Magiera, Marcy, "Woodstock's Kids Slip into Birkenstocks," Advertising Age, August 24, 1992, p. 12.
- Patterson, Cecily, "From Woodstock to Wall Street," Forbes, November 11, 1991, p. 214.
- Stengel, Richard, "Be It Ever So Birkenstock," New York Times, August 30, 1992.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 12. St. James Press, 1996.