New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. History

20 Guest Street, Brighton Landing
Boston, Massachusetts 02135-2088

Telephone: (617) 783-4000
Toll Free: 800-343-1395
Fax: (617) 787-9355

Private Company
Incorporated: 1906 as The New Balance Arch Company
Employees: 2,400
Sales: $ 1.3 billion (2004 est.)
NAIC: 316210 Footwear Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

Which would you prefer? Athletic shoes built around the belief that the marketing prowess of an NBA superstar can sell anything? Or athletic shoes built around the belief that better fit and technology mean better performance? We prefer the latter; that's why we adhere to a unique "Endorsed By No One" philosophy. Instead of paying celebrities to tell you how great our products are, we invest in research, design, and domestic manufacturing and let our products speak for themselves. By adhering to this philosophy, we are able to celebrate the true stars: every day athletes who choose New Balance footwear and apparel because they fit and because they perform.

Key Dates:

The New Balance Arch Company is founded in Massachusetts.
New Balance introduces the Trackster running shoe.
The company is acquired by James Davis for $100,000.
A new model, the 320, is worn by Tom Fleming during his winning run in the Boston marathon.
Sales reach $60 million.
Sales reach the $100 million mark.
A new manufacturing facility in Maine is constructed.
New Balance becomes a sponsor of major league lacrosse and purchases a manufacturer of lacrosse equipment.

Company History:

New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc., manufactures running, hiking, tennis, basketball, and cross-training shoes, offering its footwear in a broad range of width sizes. New Balance, in contrast to its larger competitors, manufactured nearly all of its footwear in the United States, as opposed to manufacturing its merchandise overseas. The company's five company-owned manufacturing facilities during the late 1990s were all located in Massachusetts and Maine. In addition to its lines of footwear, New Balance also produces a variety of athletic apparel.

Early 20th Century Origins

New Balance was founded in 1906 in Belmont, Massachusetts, where the company began operations as The New Balance Arch Company. Initially, the company manufactured arch supports and orthopedic shoes and, in fact, for much of the 20th century it continued to focus on this narrow, niche-oriented business line, rarely expanding and never moving beyond the boundaries of its native state. Like its physical growth, The New Balance Arch Company's financial growth occurred at a crawling pace as well, inching nearly imperceptibly forward as the decades passed. About the only notable achievement during the company's first half-century of existence was the establishment of a solid reputation, a renown forged by the quality of its specialty shoes and buttressed by decades of consistent high-quality craftsmanship. Though the work of the company was held in high regard, there was only a small circle of customers who could profess to the quality of New Balance's footwear. Beyond this tight circle, the company was unknown; it was a small, Northeastern enterprise blanketed in anonymity.

Widespread notoriety and a worldwide customer base eventually would come New Balance's way, but it would take roughly 70 years before the New Balance brand name stormed onto the national stage. One important step in this direction was taken in the 1930s, when New Balance began manufacturing specially designed orthopedic footwear for baseball players and track and field athletes. The foray into the athletic market was a pivotal one, moving the company into a business area that years later would provide plenty of fuel to drive its financial growth upwards. It also was an entry most likely forced upon the company by special requests from the athletes themselves, rather than arising from management's own initiative, but however the diversification originated, its occurrence planted the seed for further involvement. In 1961 the seed flowered, this time under management's directive, when New Balance applied its experience in producing specially designed athletic footwear to a new shoe dubbed "Trackster," a ripple-soled running shoe for men. The Trackster was unique, manufactured in a range of widths ranging from AA to EEEE, which set it apart from all other competing brands. Like its predecessor New Balance models, the Trackster gained a loyal following, winning over wearers who admired the workmanship and tailored fit of the shoes. However,, like all New Balance models before it, the Trackster enjoyed only a limited customer base. The majority of Trackster sales were made through mail order purchases from local high schools and colleges. No other attempt was made to market the shoe. Although New Balance had moved into a promising market, one that offered a greater potential for growth than the market for orthopedic shoes and arch supports, the personality of the company had not changed. New Balance remained tied to its demure roots, preferring a corporate existence in the shadows rather than a more ambitious life as an innovative trendsetter with mass-market appeal. New Balance's mellow and staid existence persevered for years after the introduction of the Trackster, but in the early 1970s an abrupt change took place, sparked by the arrival of a new owner, James S. Davis.

New Ownership in the 1970s

A 1964 graduate of Middlebury College, Davis was 28 years old when he acquired New Balance in 1972. Academically, Davis's interests were in biology and chemistry, but he only pursued these disciplines tangentially as a professional. His chief interests were in marketing and sales, and he learned these skills while working as a sales representative for a high-technology medical electronics company. After two successful years in sales, Davis was promoted to sales manager, but he did not linger long in his new position. By the beginning of the 1970s Davis was ready to fulfill his next dream: owning and managing his own business. A friend of Davis's suggested that he talk to Paul Kidd, who wanted to retire and sell his company, New Balance Shoes. Davis talked with Kidd and spent some time investigating the company by canvassing New Balance's small band of customers. His findings piqued his interest. "I felt that leisure-time products would be a high-growth market," Davis remembered, recalling his thoughts prior to purchasing the company, "and I found that New Balance had a good product. After running in them myself, I was very impressed with the shoe. I got the same reaction from other runners. The company had relied entirely on word-of-mouth advertising and I was confident that with some marketing, sales could be expanded substantially." Using his savings and money obtained from a long-term bank loan, Davis bought New Balance in 1972 for $100,000, the same amount the company was collecting in sales per year.

When Davis acquired New Balance, the company employed five workers who worked in a Watertown, Massachusetts, garage producing approximately 30 pairs of Tracksters per day. Davis was intent on dramatically magnifying the scale of the company's operations, but first he needed to establish a nationwide sales distribution system to support such growth, and he spent much of his first year establishing a network of geographically based sales representatives. After doing this, forces beyond Davis's control swept the company toward prolific growth, making his tenure of ownership overwhelmingly successful soon after he took control. The era of recreational jogging exploded with widespread excitement in 1973 and 1974, as vast multitudes took to the streets and parks and began logging miles in earnest. In a matter of months, running was transformed from an activity that attracted only serious racers and physical fitness enthusiasts into major leisure-time activity. The timing of Davis's acquisition had proved superb. Amid the sweeping passion for running appeared a collection of new magazines that catered to the jogging enthusiast, one of which was Runner's World, which in 1975 published its first annual supplement that rated the leading running shoes. In the first issue, New Balance placed third, an encouraging result in itself, but the following year, in October 1976, the New Balance 320 was judged to be the best running shoe in the world, with two other New Balance entries placing third and seventh. The notoriety received from being billed as the best tied New Balance to a rocket; at company headquarters in Watertown the telephone did not stop ringing with urgent requests for the New Balance 320. "Our biggest problem," Davis noted, "was getting enough of them out the door."

Energetic Growth Begins in the Mid-1970s

Quickly, Davis found himself marketing a highly popular product, the success of which forever altered the face of the once sleepy New Balance. As the company struggled to meet demand by increasing production, an order backlog swelled with each passing month. Annual sales leaped upward, jumping from $221,583 in 1973 to more than $1 million by 1976 and eclipsing $4.5 million in 1977. Everything was changing at the company that labored 70 years to achieve a sales volume of $100,000, but there were aspects of the company that did not change and, in the years ahead, would stand as hallmarks of New Balance. Chief among these qualities that tied the company to its 1906 origins were its attention to craftsmanship (something Davis continued to preach as his staff frenetically endeavored to meet demand) and to making shoes for a wide range of width and length sizes. Marketing shoes with widths stretching from AA to EEEE and lengths up to size 20 was something no other athletic footwear manufacturer did, not in the 1970s and not 20 years later when the athletic footwear industry represented a nearly $10 billion business. Another thread of continuity was the company's long-time presence in New England. As the athletic footwear industry grew by leaps and bounds from the early 1970s forward, registering robust growth through the 1980s and into the 1990s, nearly all of the manufacturers moved their production overseas where labor costs were an infinitesimal fraction of labor costs in the United States. New Balance did not make such a move. Davis, through the years, was steadfast about his refusal to establish manufacturing operations in Asia, preferring to keep his production operations close to home where he believed he could exert greater control over manufacturing quality. As New Balance moved forward from the early 1970s on, its domestic production operations and width-sizing choices would stand as two of the most distinctive qualities describing the company.

The massive surge in the popularity of running that began in the early 1970s and swept up New Balance in late 1976 pressed forward into the 1980s, never losing much of its energy. Though the intensity of the running craze suggested it might be a fleeting fad, the athletic footwear industry recorded numbing growth throughout the 1980s, distinguishing itself as a legitimate multibillion-dollar business. As the industry expanded at an annual pace of roughly 20 percent, New Balance shared in the riches, registering great gains in its revenue volume. By 1982, a decade after Davis acquired a $100,000-a-year-in-sales company, New Balance was collecting $60 million a year in sales, with its future prospects as bright as they had been during the previous six years. Three years later the company was generating $85 million a year in sales, but it was at this point that the perpetually growing athletic footwear industry and New Balance parted company. Though the industry continued to expand at an exhausting rate, New Balance no longer was sharing in the riches. The company faltered, and Davis blamed himself. "We lost our focus," he later mused, recalling the years when industrywide growth pushed the company forward. "Growing that dramatically, you're behind the eight ball all the way. It was out of control. We didn't execute well ... we tried to chase Nike and Reebok in terms of design, which we never should have done. The result was a lot of closeouts, a lot of selling below the recommended wholesale price." Between 1986 and 1989, New Balance's prolific financial growth all but vanished, leaving Davis searching for answers.

New Balance Falters During the Late 1980s

The bleakest point during the anemic late 1980s occurred in 1989 when Davis's leading executives urged him to shutter the company's domestic manufacturing operations and move production overseas. The benefits of such a move were easily identifiable. Instead of paying $10 an hour plus benefits to its U.S. workers, New Balance could conduct its manufacturing in Asia and pay manufacturing workers $1 dollar a day or less. Moreover, all of New Balance's biggest competitors had made the move overseas years before and were realizing startling financial growth--companies such as Nike, which was hurtling past the $1 billion sales mark while New Balance was beginning to flounder below the $100 million sales mark. Despite the overwhelming evidence, Davis could not be swayed. He insisted on keeping his production facilities close to the company's headquarters and, in fact, did the opposite of what his management team was prodding him to do. Davis began pouring money into his U.S. manufacturing facilities, entrenching his position as others persuaded him to move abroad. "The sizzle of the 1980s is gone," Davis proclaimed, "and the steak of the 1990s is here. We've never made sizzle. We've always made steak."

Davis reasoned that New Balance's strength was its attention to quality and the company's ability to respond quickly to retailers' needs, both of which would diminish if the company began subcontracting manufacturing thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean. His goal, as the 1990s began, was to shorten significantly the time required to roll out a new shoe model, slashing development time from one year to four months. Toward this objective Davis began investing heavily in capital improvements to increase efficiency and lift capacity. "What always sold," he remarked, "were our core running products and our tennis shoes. But we never had enough of them because we had spread ourselves too thin in all these peripheral areas." Accordingly, Davis narrowed the company's focus and began funneling money into its manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts and Maine. In 1991, as sales approached $100 million and profitability returned, Davis set aside $2 million for new equipment, spreading the investment over two years. In 1993 $3 million was earmarked for high-technology equipment such as automated cutting and vision-stitching machines. By the end of 1994 $6 million had been spent during the previous three years on new equipment, including a new computer-assisted design system that, along with other new machinery, enabled New Balance's research-and-development team to cut the required time for new product introduction from one year to four months. In addition, the investment in new equipment helped boost New Balance's gross profit margins from the mid-20 percent range averaged in the 1980s to the mid-30 percent range by 1993, a figure that compared favorably to the 38 percent reported by Nike, whose labor costs were much lower.

Flourishing in the 1990s and Beyond

By the mid-1990s New Balance was again a thriving enterprise recording encouraging financial gains. Revenues in 1995 were up to $380 million and successful forays into apparel and a variety of athletic footwear niches had been completed. At the company's five, company-owned manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts and Maine, running, walking, cross-training, tennis, basketball, and hiking shoes were assembled, giving the company wide exposure to a variety of popular recreational activities during the 1990s. When annual sales jumped to $474 million in 1996 and New Balance ranked as one of the top six best-selling footwear brands in the world and one of the top five domestically, Davis set his sights on reaching the $1 billion sales mark by 2000. Toward this end, the company made encouraging progress in 1997, when sales increased to more than $550 million. During the year, as many of the company's competitors recorded lackluster growth, New Balance exuded confidence that years ahead would bring continued success. The company established a new factory in Norway, Maine, and opened a $15 million distribution center in Lawrence, Massachusetts. To reach its goal of $1 billion in sales by the beginning of the new century, the company intensified its advertising efforts, setting aside $13 million for advertising in 1998 compared with the $4 million spent in 1997. On this ambitious note, the company prepared its plans for the future, confident that the awareness of the New Balance brand name would increase as sales climbed toward the $1 billion goal.

By the end of 1998 New Balance had transformed into one of the top five players in athletic footwear. Demand for New Balance shoes had increased such that in order to fill demand, the company had subcontracted a good portion of its manufacturing work overseas. Chairman and CEO James Davis planned to more than triple the amount of money put in to advertising New Balance shoes, focusing the ads on lifestyle and still steering clear of celebrity endorsements. In June 1998 New Balance made its first offering in the private placement market. Interest was so pronounced that the transaction rose from $50 million to $65 million. Come September 1998 New Balance purchased the Dunham brand name and prepared to launch into the business of boots, specifically outdoor, hunting, work, and sports boots. Davis announced that Dunham would become a new brand under the New Balance umbrella. Dunham would continue to manufacture their product, but New Balance would increase its distribution. All of Dunham's 33 boot models would endure.

Throughout 1998 athletic shoes were in a near universal slump, and all companies that produced them save Adidas and New Balance were losing money. New Balance was up 15 percent from their profits in 1997. While they enjoyed fiscal health, New Balance, like other show manufacturers during this time, found itself accused by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (Unite) of contracting out to Chinese workers employed in sweatshop-like conditions, in direct contrast to the claims of New Balance. A spokesman for New Balance countered that the company employed consultation firms to ensure that human rights were not violated in any of their production plants, that many of the shoes made overseas were sold overseas, and that some 70 percent of its manufacture still occurred in the United States, a comparatively high rate.

During this time, New Balance surged forward to become the fourth largest athletic shoe company. In March 1999 the company launched a new marketing campaign for their kids line of athletic shoes on Nickelodeon. Ground was broken on the company's new corporate headquarters in May 1999, although the company remained in Boston. By August 1999 it relaunched the Dunham boot brand with variable widths, one of the company's most successful features in its athletic shoe line. January 2000 saw two important additions to the company: a California manufacturing plant employing 250, and a new president and chief operating officer, Jim Tompkins, a vice-president with New Balance, who reported directly to CEO Davis. In fall of 2000 New Balance seemed poised to achieve some success with a new line of apparel. The market for apparel had been universally soft, but New Balance remained optimistic.

New Balance announced in April 2001 that a newly created division, Aravon, would specialize in the production of orthopedic shoes, product to be available by spring of 2002. As part of expansion efforts, CEO Davis also signed several licensing agreements for the New Balance logo, though, unlike Nike and other popular rivals, he and his company declined to sign sports stars to multi-million-dollar endorsement deals. Instead, Davis stayed the course that had built the company, emphasizing the quality and design of New Balance shoes rather their stylistic appeal. Nor did New Balance target young consumers with the same zeal of its rivals. By 2003, the company was ranked third among athletic shoe manufacturers, capturing an 11 percent share of the market. In February 2004, the company acquired lacrosse equipment manufacturer Warrior and became a sponsor of major league lacrosse in the United States.

Further Reading:

  • Abel, Katie, "A Balancing Act: Jim and Anne Davis Have Always Had More on Their Minds, and Hearts, than Athletic Shoes," Footwear News, December 9, 2002, p. 44.
  • Finegan, Jay, "Surviving in the Nike/Reebok Jungle," Inc., May 1993, p. 98.
  • Fonda, Daren, "Sole Survivor: Making Sneakers in America is So Yesterday. How Can New Balance Do It-and Still Thrive?," Time, November 8, 2004.
  • Gatlin, Greg, "New Balance Stepping Out from Its Sole Business, Boston Herald, April 1, 2004, p. 41.
  • Kurlantzick, Joshua, "New Balance Stays a Step Ahead," U.S. News & World Report," July 2, 2001, p. 34.
  • Melville, Greg, "Balancing Act; Bolstered This Year by Innovative New Products New Balance Continues To Buck the Odds in the Flagging Athletic Industry, Footwear News, December 15, 1997, p. 9.
  • "New Balance is Running Around Asia," AsiaPulse News, October 8, 2002.
  • Tedeschi, Mark, "New Balance Looks To Double Sales," Footwear News, January 28, 1991, p. 73.
  • ------, "New Balance Targets $200 Mil. Sales," Footwear News, June 29, 1992, p. 15.
  • ------, "The SGB Interview," Sporting Goods Business, February 4, 1998, p. 38.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.68. St. James Press, 2005.