Head 30 minutes or so outside of the bustling metropolis of Munich, Germany, and before you know it, you're in the graceful green hills of the Bavarian countryside. Farms scattered here and there, cows, pigs, sheep and a little village with a church steeple occasionally appears on the skyline.
This is Lowa country. Just 25 miles north of Oktoberfest-Central on the autobahn, and in a tiny village called Jetzendorf, population about 2,700. That's where Lowa was brought into the world in 1923 by shoemaker Lorenz Wagner (Lo-Wa, the first two letters of his names, get it?). And this is where it stays, in the heart of the town, although the company has been owned by Tecnica since the early '90s.
Updating a Classic
But things have changed inside the walls, especially since former Raichle General Manager Werner Riethmann grasped the front-line reins in 1992 to guide Lowa out of debt and return it to profitability, while growing, streamlining and modernizing it.
And that he has -- taking Jetzendorf's jewel in 10 years from sales of 2.8 million German marks (USD $1.58 million) to more than 30 million Germany marks (USD $16.9 million), from 245 employees and 280,000 pairs of shoes sold a year to 210 employees and 1.5 million pairs sold annually.
Riethmann, housed in a corner office that oversees the grounds, analyzed the company closely when he arrived, then began his work that helped Lowa make that turnaround. For one, he said the company found stashes of leather and uppers and shoe parts in various corners of the small town that lacked in storage space, including in the cow stalls of the local castle and in the former brewery. From those parts came about 2,000 pairs of shoes alone. He also began plant consolidation. He told SNEWS how he'd sit in his office and watch workers pushing and pulling shoes on carts back and forth across a street and through parking lots between buildings to get to where they needed to be on the production line â€“ no matter what the weather. That had to stop. First, he planned a warehouse, and then they redesigned and rebuilt manufacturing -- never stopping production for one single day, he said proudly. Instead, they moved parts of manufacturing around between shifts so they could keep going while new floors or foundations were put in.
Today, the quaint village remains, likely looking much like it did in Wagner's day -- only perhaps a bit larger. But now Lowa's headquarters is a sleek modern steel building with angular industrial lines in grays, and highlighted in blues and pinks.
"This is Lowa town," Riethmann said, with a sweep of his arm. Actually, the entire region is Lowa-ized. The company runs eight buses around the area to pick up employees and take them home each day. Without a true company cafeteria, a local restaurant across the street cooks a daily lunch hot plate partly underwritten by the company, which attracts workers there for a warm mid-day meal for a couple of bucks.
German Born and Bred
Meanwhile, German quality and workmanship remains with 80 percent of the leather still coming from Germany and all the Classic series boots being made in Jetzendorf still. The ATC (All Terrain Collection), including the likes of dayhikers and travel shoes, are made in Slovakia. Some parts for uppers are sewn in Poland and Croatia. Why not go east like other companies? Because the customer "expects 'Made in Germany' and German quality," said Christian Ludy, quality control manager. The plant there turns out about 2,000 pairs a day, he said.
"We're focused on comfort, quality and fit," said Heinz Feuerecker, manager for design and development. "It's not just about how much more we can make, but for everybody to understand our roots and that we stick with them."
When it comes to market share, Lowa can't really get much higher in the core German-speaking countries. Take a look at the list of top-selling models and, well, it's a Lowa world there, too. Not much place to go -- except other categories.
Like many outdoor footwear companies today, the edges for Lowa too are "blurring" between pure backpacking and hiking, and more casual footwear, Riethmann said. ATC is where the growth seems to be (and is the largest category in the United States), and the company is putting more of an emphasis on some casual models introduced in Europe last year â€“ some not yet available in the United States. The surprise of this line, he said, and its strength, was its younger, trendier, hipper image -- done to counter the image that Lowa was only traditional and "old." See the graphic showing how the brand sees its continuum from the casual and active traveler collection for the city on the left, to its mountaineering collection at the far right. (Graphic not viewable in the Digest format.)
What other lines might come? Golf is a no-brainer since golfers are on their feet in sometimes cool, wet conditions for hours and, Riethmann pointed out, "Lowa is renowned for comfort." But, he added carefully, "We'll see." Mountain biking? Maybe, but first the other categories need European expansion. To spark even more U.S. growth, the consumer there wants to hear about innovation and technology -- comfort isn't enough, it seems.
But Riethmann strikes forward with his team, plotting the future -- and believing. "I have to believe in myself," he said, "and move forward."