Vibram is investing—big-time—in American manufacturing, and seeing results.
While many brands are struggling to find a balance between domestic and foreign manufacturing, outsourcing and keeping it in-house, Vibram seems to have it all figured out. Last month the company celebrated 100 years of manufacturing at its Massachusetts factory by showing off the $6 million in new equipment and efficiency improvements they’ve made in the last year.
Vibram first partnered with Quabaug Rubber Corporation in North Brookfield, Massachusetts in 1964 to produce the rubber soles it was developing for footwear manufacturers, but in 2015, it purchased Quabaug outright. As a result, the brand now owns and operates its facilities in Italy, China and now Massachusetts, a model which has allowed them to make large-scale improvements to the way those iconic lugged outsoles are made.
Last month, Vibram marked the anniversary of the first rubber tread to come off the line at Quabaug in 1916, and announced plans for even more investment in its American facility.
Capital improvements are key
In the 15 months since purchasing the 275,000-square-foot, brick factory, Vibram has replaced much of the 20- to 50-year old machinery, improved lighting and ventilation, converted some of their equipment from steam to electric power, and stepped up efficiency across the board. According to the company, these updates are only the beginning.
Next steps include reworking the floorplan to increase efficiency. One hundred years of renovations have led to additions that make the floors uneven, with steps up or down here and there. Vice President of Innovation and Operations Chris Favreau likens it to working on a “crazy NASCAR track.”
Vibram hopes to continue at the current rate, investing another $5 to $6 million in the facility every year, indefinitely.
But the benefits of ownership go far beyond equipment upgrades. Because it owns its three factories, the brand follows a different model than many other companies, which work largely with independent contractors to make the products that it develops.
Keeping manufacturing and other skills in-house, rather than outsourcing them, helps the brand immensely, Favreau said. With a wider breadth of expertise on-hand, Vibram has a greater flexibility to help its customers with more complex projects.
Along with producing all the soles for its U.S. customers, the Massachusetts facility led the development of the recent launch of Arctic Grip, a new compound that's super sticky on snow and ice. With a full research and development staff within arm’s reach, it also has the flexibility to work with its customers to make changes to their compounds and orders on short notice, rather than being forced to work with a third party.
Another benefit of ownership, explains Favreau, is having the ability to invest in factory employees with technical production skills, but he isn’t just referring to the company’s 100 years of experience in rubber and boot soles. Having on-site employees with basic shoemaking skills like lasting and patternmaking, as well as chemists and engineers, means Vibram can better support its customers throughout the design process and dramatically increase its response time to customer demands.
“Vibram owns its development and manufacturing facilities worldwide, so we get complete customer service support throughout product creation,” said John Ludemann, director of design and development at Danner, who also stressed the greater speed and efficiency that he sees when dealing with Vibram.
At Vibram, ownership really does have its perks.