Josh Fairchilds Q&A: Oboz co-founder nurtures business relationships near and far

If you're looking for perspective on the evolving manufacturing scene in Asia, talk to Josh Fairchilds, who is more bullish on Vietnam these days.
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It’s the little hiker that could. Oboz Footwear started small in Bozeman, Mont., but with the help of outdoor specialty retail it’s gained a lot of traction in a few years.

The company’s co-founder, Josh Fairchilds, sees his relationships with retailers as critical to the health and growth of his business — last year he and his partner John Connelly logged about 100 retail visits between trips to their manufacturing plants.

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Even though you had deep relationships with Asian manufacturers from previous jobs, was it a challenge to approach them as a start-up brand?
There is always some reluctance for a supplier to jump into business with a start-up brand. Start-ups require more effort, money and time on their part. And, of course, there’s the risk that it won’t succeed. What we offered to our suppliers was a clear business plan, a deliberate process for development and commercialization and — most importantly — a controlled and focused line plan.

What made you move your manufacturing from China to Vietnam?
Over the years, as I’ve watched the economic growth in China, I was always confused by its boundlessness. While there are those who looked at it with amazement and interest, I looked at it with skepticism and confusion. I don’t think it is sustainable (in an economic sense — to say nothing of an environmental sense), and at some point there is going to be a major re-set. I didn’t want Oboz’ supply chain to be vulnerable to that re-set. We’re too small to weather something like that. And yet, our small size and agility is what made it manageable and relatively easy to move our production to Vietnam. In Vietnam there is a more stable and viable long-term economic system for a company like Oboz.

In addition to cost, some companies manufacture in Asia partly because manufacturing rules are tightening up in Europe and the United States. Is that something you’ve encountered?
Our decision to manufacture in Asia is driven by the footwear manufacturing knowledge base and supply chain that exists there. Yes, there is the cost side of it, but it isn’t as most people imagine. There is the cost of labor, which obviously is lower in Asia than it is in the United States. But the reality is that the investment in manufacturing facilities, the supply chain and footwear manufacturing know-how and skill is well-established in Asia. We tap into that. In order to manufacture in the U.S., the entire manufacturing system would have to be re-created. For a small brand like Oboz, that simply isn’t an option. With regards to environmental regulations, I believe that the outdoor industry is more conscientious about this than any other industry. The expectations and demands we place on our suppliers are very high.

Are some East Asian factories overtaking those in other parts of the world when it comes to the sophistication of their manufacturing techniques?
This is a tricky question. Shoe manufacturing is a decidedly hands-on, labor-intensive process that relies to a certain degree on skilled, experienced workers. There are simply too many parts, too many sizes, too many styles to automate much of the process. For that reason, a modern shoe factory is not a very sophisticated place from a technological standpoint. One place we are seeing significant advancement is in no-sew technologies. I think there is a lot of opportunity there.

How do you cultivate your contacts at specialty retail?
Without specialty outdoor retail retailers, our industry would be a decidedly different place, and frankly one that few of us would recognize or enjoy working in. Indeed, I think without specialty outdoor retailers, it would be very difficult — maybe impossible — for brands like Oboz to get a start. When you begin with that premise, then we must value our relationships with our partner-retailers. They are our lifeblood. To maintain that relationship, co-owner John Connelly or I visit as many of these stores as possible, tell our story, nurture our relationships and hear how we can help ensure the strength of the specialty outdoor retail world. We also support our own face-to-face efforts with a strong customer service and sales team that puts a high value on the personalized connections it has with retailers.

What has been an unexpected pleasure of going down the entrepreneurial path?
Our employees. Being a good employer that provides for our employees and their families, seeing how that affects their lives and our local community has been the most rewarding thing about starting Oboz.

--Megan Mulligan

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