Living The HybridLife
Kirk Richardson B.S. ‘75 leads Keen Footwear in its sprint to success.
by Shelly Meyer
Like a shoelace crisscrossing through eyelets, the concept of the HybridLife runs through Keen Footwear’s marketing efforts. What is the HybridLife? (And yes, that’s a trademarked term.) It’s about balancing play, work, and caring in today’s complex, time-crunched world.
The embodiment of the Keen Footwear ethos is its president, Kirk Richardson B.S. ‘75. A 27-year Nike veteran, Richardson landed the top spot at Keen in 2006. Since that time, he has continued to propel the four-year-old company to a respected position in the highly competitive outdoor footwear industry.
Richardson, who sports a short-sleeved shirt, shorts, and buzz-cut hair (along with his Keens, of course), is the classic hybrid. He’s an intensely focused CEO; a committed outdoor athlete; and a passionate environmental activist–all rolled into one.
“Kirk is the Chevy truck of the footwear industry–‘like a rock,’” says Skip Lei, director of footwear integration at Nike. “He is direct, straightforward, and he always puts the needs of his team and the ultimate goal first. Our industry could use a couple hundred more Kirk Richardsons!”
Richardson’s first outdoor footwear may have been a pair of ski boots. He has a photograph of himself in skis at Timberline Lodge, taken sometime before his third birthday.
His father, Don Richardson, grew up in Maine and was a highly decorated ski racer. In fact, the U.S. Army tapped Don to teach at the ski academy in Colorado during World War II. He eventually became a lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division, which helped track down Nazis in the Alps of Europe.
As part of his military training, Don and his fellow recruits were sent to learn ice climbing in Denver, Salt Lake City, Tacoma, and Portland. It was during this period that Don became enamored of the Pacific Northwest.
He met his future wife, Marianne, in her native Utah. She, too, had a Northwest connection: she had spent several summers in Oregon working at Leon’s, her uncle’s chain of clothing and footwear stores.
After Don finished his degree in architecture at the University of Denver, the young couple settled down in Salem.
“We’re a little bit from the June and Ward Cleaver carbon,” says the younger Richardson of his family and childhood friends.
“We all had stable families, went to the same grade school, junior high, and high school. And my parents were great role models. I had everything.”
Because his parents were newcomers to Oregon, they made a point of exploring the state with their kids. “I got immersed in the outdoors really early … it’s in my DNA,” says Kirk Richardson. He remembers family camping trips in the mountains and the high desert, as well as Boy Scout campouts with his father. “I knew the Donner und Blitzen [River] before my ABCs!”
In addition to his love of the outdoors, Richardson has always been a natural athlete. In junior high and high school, he ran competitively (mostly middle distances) and played football. But his real love was basketball. Even today, it’s not hard to imagine him driving the lane to the basket.
“Sports was so pivotal to me then–it was who I was and what I did. And I was good at it,” he says.
But a bad experience with a coach during his senior year soured him on organized sports. Even when Eldon Fix, Lewis & Clark’s legendary track coach, asked him to run for the Pioneers, Richardson wasn’t tempted. “By the time I got to college, I was absolutely done with team sports.”
I got immersed in the outdoors really early … it’s in my DNA.Kirk Richardson
But fortunately, his background in outdoor recreational activities led him to pursue independent sports: back-country skiing, cross-country skiing, touring, ice climbing, kayaking–and his longtime passion, rock climbing.
Sometimes called a vertical chess game, the sport of rock climbing engages both mind and body in some of nature’s most rugged locales.
“There’s really no way to explain it unless you do it,” says Richardson. “It’s such an adrenalin thing, it’s such a joyous thing. It combines intricate, sequential problem solving with the ultimate in physicality. It leaves you physically, emotionally, and intellectually satiated–all in one activity.”
In his young adulthood, Richardson says, he “rolled through the West” with his buddies, climbing in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming.
To this day, he still goes climbing every month–often in the Clackamas River Gorge or the Columbia River Gorge.
Richardson and George Schunk, an environmental consultant and lifelong friend, have been climbing together for more than 30 years. Their list of climbs is filled with flashpoints in western geography: the Wind Rivers and Tetons of Wyoming, the Sawtooths of Idaho, the Uintas of Utah, and the Bugaboos of British Columbia.
Richardson is particularly proud of a recent climb: Mount Garfield in Washington around the time of the summer solstice. “We did the west face of Garfield–it’s 23 pitches, 2,500 vertical feet. We did our last three raps with headlamps. It was an 18-hour trip, car to car.”
His climbing partner says Richardson has a characteristic common to the best climbers: perseverance. “Kirk knows that once you’re on a route, you’re committed,” says Schunk. “You err on the side of continuing up in bad weather or past rotten rock–even if you’re not sure you’re ‘on route,’ don’t have all the right gear, or have forgotten your sleeping bag, mountain boots, or whatever.”
Schunk goes on to describe a climb he and Richardson took together in the 1970s in the Washington Cascades. Richardson slipped crossing a log and impaled his right hand on a tree branch. After Schunk patched him up with a first aid kit, the two continued. “Going back down the three miles to an emergency room wasn’t an option he or I considered.”
For hard climbs to be successful, says Schunk, you sometimes have to break the rules. “Kirk has never let convention get between him and something he wants to do.”
After high school, Richardson first enrolled at the University of Oregon. “For me, it just didn’t work,” he says. “Large class sizes were the biggest problem.”
Richardson transferred to Lewis & Clark, where he majored in psychology. He thought at the time that he wanted to go into counseling. “I think I’m a good problem solver,” says Richardson. “I always seemed to be a pretty good sounding board for people’s issues.”
But during a senior-year internship with at-risk youth, he began to rethink his career goals. “I certainly put my heart and soul into making the most impact I could with the kids,” says Richardson, “but I concluded at the end of it that there are bigger influences in their lives than I can overcome.”
After college, the business world beckoned.
For a while, Richardson worked in sales for the ESCO Corporation, a manufacturer of metal parts for industrial machinery.
But he also kept running. Long distances. Marathons, in fact.
About this time, in the late 1970s, Richardson took notice of a small, up-and-coming company: Nike. Richardson realized he could wear-test for them. “Nike needed goofballs like me who put a lot of miles on shoes quickly to tell them if their products were working or not–in a quantitative and qualitative way.” Richardson did this for a few years after college and officially joined the company in 1979.
Richardson’s career at Nike began in sales (specifically, a customer service call center), but during his tenure at the global giant, he held several leadership positions within the company’s footwear and apparel product marketing areas, including general manager of Nike Outdoor. He also held a variety of international marketing and merchandising positions at Nike in Europe and Japan. During what he describes as the “high-water mark” of his Nike career, he managed four different businesses for the company.
“I think Kirk will always be remembered as the champion of the Nike outdoor business,” says former Nike colleague Skip Lei. “Starting with the All Conditions Gear launch in the mid-1980s, and through its many iterations over the years, Kirk always found time to support the outdoor business and the need for greater corporate responsibility and activism for the environment.”
Life was good at Nike.
Then, in late 2005, Richardson got a phone call out of the blue from Rory Fuerst, principal owner of Keen Footwear. The two had met 25 or 30 years before and bumped into each other from time to time at industry events. Fuerst wanted to approach Richardson about becoming president of Keen Footwear.
The origins of Keen can be traced back to 2003 to Martin Keen, a footwear designer from Rhode Island. His first product was, in fact, a hybrid: a closed-toe sandal that successfully navigated both land and water. The shoe’s rubber toe cap, or what Keen calls “patented toe protection technology,” continues to be one of the distinctive features of the company’s footwear line.
Keen is a company with a great vibe–honest, true, and absolutely reflective of its brand.Skip Lei
In short order, Keen attracted top industry talent to its management team, based in California. It farmed out key aspects of its operation, from logistics and billing to sales and manufacturing. Blogs and social networking sites generated powerful buzz marketing. The results were astonishing: in 2004, just one year after its launch, Keen sold $30 million worth of shoes. Business 2.0 magazine heralded Keen as one of the new “instant companies” that go from “industry nobody to brand somebody” at warp speed.
Did Richardson want to lend his expertise to Keen?
” ‘Rory, I’m flattered, but aren’t you guys in Alameda, California?’ ” Richardson wasn’t interested in leaving Oregon. When Fuerst told him the company was moving to Portland, Richardson replied, “Then I guess we have something to talk about.”
Richardson left Nike in the spring of 2006 and soon thereafter took up his new post as president of Keen.
The move, on its face, would seem to have elements of culture shock: leaving footwear behemoth Nike for scrappy startup Keen. But Richardson says it wasn’t a difficult move for him. “Keen is very, very similar to what Nike was like when I first joined–small, entrepreneurial, privately held, committed to a quality product. It’s part of what attracted me to it.” He adds that he still holds Nike in high regard and always will.
As president of Keen, Richardson focuses on four areas: strategic planning, operations, sales, and marketing (which includes product). The company employs 65 people at its headquarters in Portland’s fashionable Pearl District. In 2005, Keen reached $60 million in sales, double the prior year’s revenue, according to the Portland Business Journal.
What is responsible for Keen’s meteoric rise? It’s not any one thing, according to Richardson, but innovation is a huge factor. “In a competitive industry, like footwear, or outdoor footwear, you are rewarded for innovation. That’s why Nike has been successful. And it’s why Keen has been successful. It’s a focus on what I call purposeful innovation, thoughtful innovation.”
At Keen the consumer is revered. Richardson speaks of a maniacal focus on what’s going on in the consumer’s life–what’s needed, what’s missing, what’s working, and what needs improvement. “It’s just being really thoughtful about the choices we make–from the types of materials we use to the method of assembly to the type of containers we ship the product in. It’s all of that–thinking through the details.”
Others in the industry are taking notice. “Keen is very highly respected,” says Lei. “This is a company with a great vibe–honest, true, and absolutely reflective of its brand.”
Keen prides itself on being much more than an outdoor company. According to its company profile, it stands for a new kind of business model: “As responsible as we are profitable, and committed to doing good with the resources we have. We believe that supporting good causes is an obligation of financial success and that respecting the environment is simply a matter of conscience.”
Keen is taking what it acknowledges as small steps toward making a difference in sustainability by rethinking, reusing, and repurposing wherever possible. It’s an idea that resonates with Keen’s customers but also makes good business sense.
“You look for alternatives, and that’s what Keen is doing. Over half of the cost of shoe materials is derived from a barrel of petroleum. That’s a reality–for Columbia Footwear, Adidas Footwear, Nike Footwear, and Keen Footwear. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to mitigate waste in the waste stream.”
For a sample of Keen’s sustainability initiatives, see the related article in the sidebar to the right.
Keen also shows that it is a company of conscience through the Keen Foundation. As the story goes, Keen had budgeted $1 million for advertising in 2005, but when it couldn’t settle on a message, it decided to donate the money instead. The foundation’s first dollars went to relief efforts following the December 26, 2004, tsunami in Southeast Asia.
We were generous before we were rich and famous, and I think that’s pretty remarkable. Kirk Richardson
Richardson believes that Keen’s customers appreciate its generosity. “A distinguishing feature of this company is that we were generous before we were rich and famous, and I think that’s pretty remarkable. The company has been doing the right thing since its beginning–trying to be thoughtful, purposeful, and generous. And I think that resonates with who our consumer is.”
The Keen Foundation partners with environmental, conservation, and social organizations, particularly those interested in connecting people with the outdoors. According to Richardson, the foundation sets aside “north of half a million dollars each year.”
The company also allows employees up to 32 hours annually of paid leave to work on causes that are meaningful to them.
Hybrids often display a marked vigor or an increased capacity for growth. Richardson is no exception. The passion he brings to play, work, and care energizes his life and those around him.
To Richardson an example of a “good hybridism” is taking his office team to a place like Camp Hancock, near Fossil, and pulling barbed-wire fence for one of his favorite causes, the Oregon Desert Association. “It’s fun, but it’s also a great teambuilding event, because we’re doing something really useful for the pronghorn antelope, the deer, and the elk that migrate through that area.”
Richardson hopes his legacy at Keen will include having made a positive impact on behalf of the outdoors.
In his personal life, he hopes another legacy will be the commitment he’s made to his family: wife Charlotte, an accomplished track coach and filmmaker, and sons Sam, 23, and Hank, 19.
But regardless of what Richardson continues to accomplish personally or professionally, one thing is certain: he’ll always find another rock to climb.
Shelly Meyer is the editor of the Lewis & Clark Chronicle.