Vibram Doubles Down On U.S. Manufacturing

Vibram Doubles Down On U.S. Manufacturing

American manufacturing expertise has become a valuable commodity these days.

In a rush by brands to return some of their production lines to the United States, many are finding it difficult to re-establish the economy that largely fled overseas in the 1990s.

It’s been a lot easier for footwear brand Vibram, which has been partnering with North Brookfield, MA-based Quabaug Corp. since 1964 to make products here. And in June 2015, Vibram USA bought Quabaug to usher in the next chapter.

Rebranded as Quabaug Vibram Innovation (QVI), the manufacturer celebrated its 100th year in the U.S., earlier this month — a tad older than its new owner, which entered the U.S. officially in 1999 and began in Italy in 1937.

Founded in 1916, Quabaug began as a manufacturer of floor tiles, baby carriage tires, hockey pucks and a general line of mechanical rubber goods. Around the middle of the 20th century, it began focusing on the manufacture of soling for footwear. The footwear emphasis accelerated in 1964, when Quabaug reached an agreement to become Vibram’s North American manufacturing and distribution partner.

During its more than five-decade partnership, Quabaug and Vibram have collaborated to design and manufacture rubber compounds such as Arctic Grip, Mega Grip, Idrogrip and XS Grip that serve the outdoor, athletic and industrial sectors, and experienced the rapid rise and fall of the barefoot/minimalist running craze.

U.S Rep. McGovern (right) with Mike Gionfriddo (right), President & CEO, Vibram USA

Political Praise
Held in front of the building, the event was foremost a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of the 225,000-square-foot factory, which employs about 250 people. Along with several current workers and retirees, the event drew local officials, including U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern, State Sen. Anne Gobi and State Rep. Donnie Berthiaume.

“As someone who has been in Congress for 20 years, I can tell that longevity in any business is not easy,” said Rep. McGovern. He called out the “amazing work on behalf of our troops” the factory has been undertaking as a core manufacturer of soles for the military since World War II. QVI provides more than 90 percent of the military soling needs of DOD contracted footwear and representatives were on hand from the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems.

McGovern also called out Quabaug and Vibram’s support of the community of North Brookfield and Vibram’s stepped-up commitment to investing in North Brookfield and U.S. manufacturing.

The event, which included a factory tour, was also designed to underscore Vibram’s accelerated investments in the plant. In 2016 alone, Vibram invested $6 million for new machinery and machine upgrades to ensure modern capabilities, innovation and institutional knowledge remain in the U.S. Similar-sized investments are planned over the next few years.

Domestic Innovation
In an interview with SGB, Mike Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Vibram USA, said the factory supports its business partners, such as Bates and McCrae, serving the U.S. military. The military market as a whole makes up about 50 percent of Vibram’s domestic volume and QVI overall produces approximately 25 percent of Vibram’s global production.

Gionfriddo noted, however, that while the U.S. military remains “an important customer, they’re not the only customer we have in North America.”

Having a factory in the U.S., along with owned facilities in Italy and China supports innovation and product development. It also helps in the field of researching, testing and developing product to provide a “quicker development cycle” as well as being able to work closely with the company’s domestic partners.

“Being a supplier that can respond quickly with short lead times and meet the requirements and needs that our customers have is very important if you want to properly serve this market,” Gionfriddo said. “And then, when working with customers on development and innovation projects, being here makes it a little more accessible than trying to go to China, Vietnam or Europe. So that’s big.”

He continued, “Innovation is the lifeblood of the future. Obviously it’s not going to impact you in the first or second year. But you can’t just continue do the same old things. As a branded performance product, we have to find ways to deliver the best product to the marketplace and a lot of it will come from the innovation that we’re doing, whether design development, materials science, etc. That has to be our focus for future success.”
Quabaug Manufacturing Plant

A Roller-Coaster Decade
The celebration and ramped-up investments come as Vibram recovers and looks to evolve from what was a rocky first half to this decade, which saw the boom and bust of the barefoot/minimalist running trend — largely centered around its FiveFingers product. A rash of leadership changes, both in the U.S. and at the company’s headquarters in Italy, followed, in addition to a $3.75 million lawsuit settlement surrounding the alleged health benefits of the shoes.

Officials hope innovations such as Arctic Grip technology, which claims to keep three times the traction on wet ice than the best alternatives, will move the company forward. With a one-year exclusivity arrangement with six brands owned by Wolverine World Wide, including Merrell, Saucony and Sperry, the line is just hitting retailers such as REI, Cabela’s and Bass Pro.

“We’re very optimistic,” said Gionfriddo about Arctic Grip. “We’ll have to wait and see what the sell-through looks like, but we’re pretty optimistic that we have a product that once the consumer is educated about it will resonate and do quite well.”

FiveFingers’ Business Stabilizes
Vibram is also seeing some pickup in its finished goods business, which includes those iconic FiveFingers plus Furoshiki yoga footwear models, as well as discs and dog toys. Beyond the outdoor, active and military segments, Vibram works in industrial sectors, including serving firefighters and workers on oil rigs.

Gionfriddo said Vibram continues to look at its finished products business as a way to “showcase our technology” and as a testing tool to make sure “we fully understand how our customer’s products will use it.”

FiveFingers had seen a steep drop-off in recent years due to a rush of other competitors into the minimal space, according to Gionfriddo. He noted, “We weren’t prepared, frankly.” But a subsequent streamlining to avoid overlapping, and moves to more closely position models around end-use, whether running, fitness or watersports, has stabilized the FiveFingers business. Added Gionfriddo, “We’re seeing the product line growing again.”

The FiveFingers collection also got a surprising boost when it was featured in an American Express commercial starring Tina Fey. The comedian describes the shoes as “creepy gloves for my feet. I can wear these on my trip to Middle Earth,” yet she still buys a pair in the commercial.

Gionfriddo said Vibram knew American Express was using FiveFingers in a commercial but the “original script we saw was different than what the end was.” Regardless, he noted that despite the jokes, he has heard only positive comments.

“A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘How did you get Tina Fey to do a commercial for you,’ and they’ve found it real positive that we were able to make fun of ourselves,” said Gionfriddo. “So the comments back have all been positive, not negative. You have to have a little sense of humor and make fun of yourself at times.”