Behind the curtain at Keen: SNEWS® looks to dispel rumors and mistaken assumptions

It's good to be Keen right now. The clunky rubber bumper, closed-toe sandal look has, like Doc Martens in the '80s, become ubiquitous with the brand. You notice them immediately on feet as they wander by in the mall, at the beach, on the trail, in the airport. The style screams "cool" and this footwear design oddity, one that shoe companies were not ready for when Martin Keen began pitching the concept in late 1999, early 2000, is now a footwear powerhouse large enough to donate a $1 million advertising budget to social causes.
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It's good to be Keen right now. The clunky rubber bumper, closed-toe sandal look has, like Doc Martens in the '80s, become ubiquitous with the brand. You notice them immediately on feet as they wander by in the mall, at the beach, on the trail, in the airport. The style screams "cool" and this footwear design oddity, one that shoe companies were not ready for when Martin Keen began pitching the concept in late 1999, early 2000, is now a footwear powerhouse large enough to donate a $1 million advertising budget to social causes.

But who is Keen, really? You've no doubt heard any number of rumors -- many of you have shared some of them with us over the last year by email and phone: Martin Keen was just a figurehead. Angel Martinez co-founded the company in 2003. Keen was forced out of the company he founded in a bitter dispute. Keen is going to be sold soon. Rory Fuerst is the man behind the scenes directing all that goes on at Keen.

Who founded Keen?
Well, how you answer that depends on what you mean by "founding Keen." If you mean founding Keen LLC, the corporate entity, then that would be Rory Fuerst who filed a Statement of Information form with California on April 9, 2003, after initially filing corporate papers to launch the company as a legal corporate entity on Jan. 27, 2003. Fuerst is listed as the CEO of the company and as of now, the only name listed on the corporate documents.

If you mean who was the brainchild of the Keen concept, then that would be Martin Keen, the brand's namesake. From interview notes dating back to when we first saw the Newport sandal at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in 2003, and from conversations with numerous friends and business associates familiar with Keen's early efforts, we can say with certainty the concept sandal was first a reality in early 2000. Keen showed that concept to executives at Nautica, where he was employed at the time, but they took a pass on it as too fast-forward.

After showing the concept sandal many more times to various footwear companies, Keen was introduced while traveling in China to Fuerst by a woman many consider to be Fuerst's key business partner and right-hand woman in China, Jane Zheng. Fuerst, who has a stellar design and sourcing history in the outdoor footwear market few are fully aware of, saw the potential in the Keen concept sandal and agreed to finance the development and take the idea to market.

As happens to many inventors, Keen had the original idea, lots of passion and big dreams, but no money. Fuerst had the money to back the idea, and the requisite design talent and sourcing contacts to ensure he was the majority owner.

Fuerst is also listed as the inventor and Keen LLC the owner of design patents for an "ornamental design for a cleated sandal shoe," an "ornamental design for a shoe having an enclosed toe," and an "ornamental design for a sandal outsole."

Both Fuerst and Martin Keen are listed as inventors on an application for a utility patent (applied for on October 2, 2003) for a "toe protection sandal."

How does Angel Martinez factor into the picture?
Angel Martinez, who on March 15, 2005, announced that he was departing Keen to become CEO and president of Deckers Outdoor Corp., did not join the Keen/Fuerst team until after Keen LLC had been officially launched and shown its wares at two trade shows -- Outdoor Retailer Winter Market and WSA. Despite what a Deckers' press release stated, and we have heard whispered from around the trade show halls since mid 2004, Martinez was not a co-founder of the brand and he certainly did not launch it. What Martinez did bring to Keen was his name and his vision. Martinez told SNEWS® in a 2003 interview that he "discovered the company by accident at WSA after wandering by booth after booth of the same thing. I am a product guy at heart and had my product radar going when I saw Martin's ideas. I immediately saw them as a footwear concept and not just a sandal concept."

Shortly after announcing he was joining Keen, the little company garnered instant credibility among investors, footwear market analysts, retailers and industry pundits simply on the strength of the news that Martinez, a former Reebok executive and Rockport CEO, was on board. Perhaps Martinez's single greatest move for ensuring Keen's future came when he convinced friend Jim Van Dine to leave Vans and join Keen.

We do know that when Martinez announced he was leaving Keen, it caught Keen somewhat by surprise, according to insiders we spoke with. However, it is important to realize that for much of 2004, Martinez had been an email CEO and was commuting several times a month from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Decker's stomping grounds). From what little we know of Martinez, we suspect this role, for a man that historically likes to be hands on and in the trenches with product, was becoming more frustrating. Martinez declined to speak with us until after he begins working for Deckers on April 11.

In reality, for much of 2004, and certainly all of 2005 to date, it has been Van Dine, named president of Keen in August 2004, who has been doing most of the heavy lifting at the company. With Martinez now gone from Keen, the company loses very, very little in terms of momentum or management direction.

As for Martinez, he is a natural fit with Deckers. We do know that Doug Otto, the man now relinquishing the CEO and president's post to Martinez to become an executive officer "focusing on strategic initiatives and acquisitions" according to the Deckers' release, has been looking to step aside, according to insiders at that company. He's poured his heart and soul into Deckers for years now and he deserves the rest. Expect Deckers to be announcing an acquisition on the heels of Martinez officially joining the company -- perhaps Ariat, a company that Martinez is very familiar with and, coincidently, was the booth Martinez was seen basing out of when he happened to "notice" Keen back in 2003.

Why isn't Martin Keen at Keen anymore?
We sent an email to Martin Keen asking him what happened and to confirm that he was no longer with the company. We received the following in reply: "Martin Keen was a founder of Keen LLC and involved in the early stages of the company's development. He was creative director when he left in June of 2004 to pursue other creative and business interests."

Van Dine and Keen would only confirm that Keen had left the company in mid 2004.

As for the rumor that Keen was forced out, we are left with only hearsay and a bit of court paper fact. It is unlikely that a man, who founded a concept and worked so hard to see it launched, would leave a company named after him and a company that was manufacturing his brainchild voluntarily. Keen did file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, California Northern District, on Nov. 10, 2004, citing wrongful termination and contract dispute. Keen LLC and Rory Fuerst were named as defendants. The legal proceedings were terminated on Nov. 18 and the case assigned to arbitration.

Insiders tell us that a situation arose that meant Keen could no longer continue working at Keen LLC. What, exactly, that situation was, is not for public consumption.

Insiders also told SNEWS® that Keen was not paid any money upon leaving and that he still owns a significant, though minority, share in the company's stock.

Fact or fiction: Fuerst is the one really running the show at Keen
That is absolutely not true, according to Van Dine. Yes, Fuerst owns the company and yes, Fuerst could exert control if he chose to, Van Dine told us. However, Fuerst leaves the day-to-day operation of Keen LLC to Van Dine, and leaves the creation of line briefs, decisions as to what product the company will and will not launch, and the decisions regarding price points to both Van Dine and National Sales Manager Scott McGuire.

Fuerst's company, Rofu Design, has Keen as a client, for sourcing and product design work and, according to Van Dine, Fuerst treats Keen just as he would any other client.

Fact or fiction: With Martinez going to Deckers, Fuerst is going to sell Keen
This one is entirely speculative on our part, but we would have to believe, from all the people who have spoken with us over the last several weeks about Fuerst, that there is no way he is looking to sell Keen anytime soon. The immediate conclusion many jumped to when Martinez left to join Deckers is that he was simply going to Deckers to facilitate the final negotiations for buying Keen. We do know that Deckers was keenly interested in Keen (sorry, but that pun had to be used), and other companies have also expressed acquisition interest -- including Columbia if the rumor from last year is true. However, Fuerst is just getting started with Keen, and we suspect that for a man who has helped so many other companies since the '80s make good livings with his design ideas and sourcing connections, he's feeling it is high time he created something for himself.

What should retailers expect of Keen in the next year?
Van Dine told us, "Retailers can expect first and foremost a real partnership approach that we expect will result in an improved level of service. Even apart from the survey results (the 2004 SNEWS® Outdoor Retailer Survey, published in the winter GearTrends® outdoor magazine, revealed Keen among the "most difficult to work with" companies), we have been taking steps to ensure that we will be better able to serve our retailers."

Growth certainly took Keen by surprise, according to Van Dine, leaving the company scrambling to hire and train folks at a breakneck speed. To make matters worse, until recently, the company did not have the computer systems, programs or people support necessary to provide great service.

"I can tell you that while we still have a long way to go in terms of reaching the level of service we think is exemplary of the kind of company we are, we do want to be a great service company," said Van Dine. "We absolutely do not consider retailers simply a conduit to consumers. They are our partners in a business and we need to be treating them like it."

As for new product introductions, Van Dine told us that there will be no giant leaps into different product direction -- simply moves to fill in the gaps in certain product categories. There will be more product for trails and more product for sidewalks.

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