One of the titans of the outdoor industry returns from semi-retirement to take on the role of President at KEEN. Sheahan began his career at Powder magazine before assuming leadership roles such as category manager at Nike ACG, Vice President of Marketing at Merrell, President at Kelty and President and CEO at Patagonia. Now, he joins a growing team at the Portland, Oregon-based company, which is making a push to become an even more influential global lifestyle brand. At the tail end of a sabbatical he spent serving on advisory boards (including KEEN's), but mostly fly fishing across the globe, he took the time to talk to us about the road he sees ahead.
SNEWS: Why did you decide to come back to the outdoor industry? Why KEEN president in particular?
CASEY SHEAHAN: I have been deep in the outdoor industry ever since I left Patagonia [in February 2014], first as senior advisor at Backbone Media, then serving on the boards of KEEN, Vibram, Johnson Outdoors and Grundens. KEEN is the only brand I considered coming back to full time. Their values from an environmental/sustainabilty standpoint are deep and real. I have known owner/founder Rory Fuerst and current president Steve Meineke for decades and I have great respect for both of these leaders. Plus, while I love making apparel and gear for the outdoors, there is something about footwear that's under my skin. I am very honored to have been chosen for this new role.
SNEWS: What did you miss most about working in the industry?
CS: I love the healthy, happy people that make up this industry: skiers, climbers, hikers, bikers, campers and fly anglers are my tribe. I will always want to be around these folks, be a part of the adventure and fun. It would kill me to miss even one Outdoor Retailer Show.
SNEWS: What makes KEEN different from other brands?
CS: KEEN is successfully making the transition from being solely an outdoor company to being a brand for life outside. It has permission to be both activity-specific and experiential. The important thing is to just get outside. KEEN is also one of the last, big, family-owned private companies (we all know the other one!), so there's freedom to be disruptive, innovative and different. When was the last time a public company hosted a beer and log-rolling party with a 60-foot Ferris wheel and stuffed polar bears to bring attention to the effects of global warming? This is the power of KEEN Effect and efforts such as the recent Live Monumental campaign to designate more public lands to national monument status before Obama leaves office.
SNEWS: How fast is the outdoor industry changing?
CS: I am a believer in great teams working together fearlessly to create great product and better outcomes for our planet. Transparency, openness, collaboration, curiosity and great communication are characteristics of all the organizations I have been fortunate to be a part of. KEEN has a lot of opportunity still ahead—in women's, kid's, younger casual, classics, you name it. I think the recent strong acceptance of the Trail Fit concept shows what can happen when you build a new collection with a strong point of view and solid consumer insights. We will be looking directly to our customers—how they live, what they do—to innovate new product ideation, rather than just trying to fill factory capacity.
SNEWS: What's your driving philosophy for steering a successful brand? What are your goals here?
CS: Some of the industry is stuck hoping that people will still want big crampon-compatible backpacking boots. Younger people are more interested in trying new things rather than accumulating a closetful of stuff. More and more people live in urban environments. Most colleges are in cities. The days of defining oneself as a one-activity expert are waning. Product that is lightweight, versatile and comfortable will always win.
SNEWS: What do you think the industry is missing, where can it work harder?
CS: The industry needs to get deeply involved in the issue of global warming and take real steps to turn it around. A planet in serious climate upheaval will not be good for all its inhabitants, and certainly not good for our business. If climate change seems too big a problem to solve, then pick an aspect of it—water, soil, habitat, whatever—and do what you can there. Start in your backyard.
SNEWS: What challenges do you see ahead for the brand?
CS: We need to bring more shoe-making and manufacturing to the US. KEEN has been assembling Utility product, hikers and sandals right in Portland for many years. You have to work hard to successfully manage a factory here in the States. You have to maintain steady capacity and flow your raw materials at the right times. But just because something is hard, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Our American work boot customers appreciate the quality and workmanship of American-built product.
SNEWS: And what challenges do you see facing the entire industry?
CS: A big issue for our industry is the privatization of public lands. For example, almost 300 acres of the Comb Ridge in southern Utah were just sold at auction by the state of Utah to a private enterprise. No one knows what the intent of this company is—run cattle through the archaeological ruins, lease it to oil and gas, or just roadblock the effort to protect more of the Cedar Mesa area as part of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument. The point is, private property can no longer be enjoyed by hikers, photographers, campers, archeologists etc. It becomes no longer our land, no longer public land. That is not good for the outdoor business. KEEN's Live Monumental campaign addresses this issue head on.
SNEWS: How can KEEN and other outdoor brands make an impact on the way people shop? The way people consume? They way people treat the planet?
CS: Buying high quality, durable product is one way for all off us to keep our consumption footprint smaller. I see a ton of original Newport sandals in the airports, on the river, in mountain bars at night. They seem to last forever, and while that's tough on sales, I can live with it!
SNEWS: How was the fishing on this last leg of your sabbatical up in British Columbia, anyway?
CS: Cold but good. There are big fish this time of year, 28 to 34 inches. My pal Mike Moore and I landed about 30 between the two of us and had grabs or lost another 20 to 30 after a fight. That's a good week. I'm still recovering.