I have two Keens in my life. One is the legendary Keens Steakhouse in New York City. I die for the dry-aged T-bone.
This column is about my other Keen passion: the Keen Footwear company of Portland, Ore., which makes shoes I am passionate about — and am wearing as I write this.
Founder Martin Keen, 49, pitched me to do a story about his new furniture business, Focal Upright. Its desks and seats are turning up all over the region, from Under Armour headquarters to the Pentagon, from Georgetown to Johns Hopkins universities.
I wasn’t very interested at first, especially because Focal Upright is based in Rhode Island and Keen Footwear is in Oregon.
But his own story has a feel-good vibe, not the least of which is its steep, upward arc that began with his idea for a simple sailboat shoe and grew an eponymous enterprise with a passionate fan base that bought 300,000 pairs last year. Keen’s followers include late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who was an early adopter.
Keen’s sweet spot is the hiking, sailing and construction crowd, especially in California. Martin Keen, who is passionate about sailing and comfort, sold his share of Keen Footwear to partner Rory Fuerst four years ago, pocketing a fortune which was in the tens of millions. His furniture foray is timely. Sitting has joined sugar as a new evildoer, when it comes to one’s health.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook referenced sitting as “the new cancer” when hyping the Apple Watch, which will stir people when they have been resting their backsides for too long.
Here comes Keen and his three-year-old Focal Upright, which has 19 employees and expects to gross $10 million this year, possibly breaking through to profitability. Focal Upright sells office and residential furniture that positions its users halfway between sitting and standing, which Keen says promotes oxygen intake, alertness, circulation and calorie burn. (So does getting out of your chair and walking.)
“We have sold to Google, Apple, Wikimedia,” said Keen, who founded the company with less than $5 million and is its chief executive. “We’re getting the tech crowd, but we also are getting hedge funds, insurance [clients], accounting.”
His investor playbook is similar to Keen Footwear: self-funded, one primary investor (an Odwalla fruit juice company founder), no venture capital.
Keen said he is determined to have Focal Upright make money, but he doesn’t want anyone getting in the way of his social goal of delivering jobs to his base in Rhode Island instead of to Asia.
Keen was born in southwest England, where his father, an artist, helped design shoes for Clarks, the British shoemaker (I went through a Clarks phase).
His family moved to Ireland when he was very young, then sailed across the Atlantic aboard the SS Nieuw Amsterdam when his father was transferred to Cincinnati.
“I vividly remember standing at the rail of the ship, sailing into New York Harbor and looking at the Statue of Liberty,” Keen said of his first memory of the United States.
He worked at a Columbus sail-making factory to pay his way through the Ohio State University, from which he graduated in 1989 with a degree in industrial design.
“Industrial design was perfect for me,” he said. “It’s the melding of engineering. It’s understanding the process of how something is made, how it functions, and how it looks.”
His first job out of college was helping design shoes for Saucony, then a small Massachusetts-based footwear company. He later became head of design for California-based K-Swiss before quitting at age 29 to start his own consulting business.
“I wanted more freedom,” Keen said. He picked up six clients, including Tommy Hilfiger, and moved to Rhode Island in August 1994. He bought a house by the ocean to be near his parents in Boston and to indulge his passion for sailing. And sailing begat the idea for Keen Footwear.
Keen wanted closed-toed shoes to protect his feet while sailing. His approach was methodical. He created a “library of footshapes” from various molds he made of real people’s feet, allowing him to study different shapes and sizes.
He concluded that the toe area should be wide instead of having a more-fashionable narrow taper. He didn’t care how they looked. He was making them for himself, and he demanded comfort and practicality. “I wanted a shoe that did no harm,” he said.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States shook up the shoe industry, as they did the rest of the world. Keen, armed with a $50,000 severance from a client and two prototype sandals he had invented, began thinking about building his own enterprise. “I didn’t want to work for the man,” he said. “I wanted to be the man.”
Keen teamed up with Fuerst, a footwear manufacturer. Fuerst handled operations and finance. Keen took on the creative and marketing side. Together, they came up with the Newport Sandal.
“We launched in February 2003, and all we had were sandals,” Keen said. They took the products to a show for outdoor retailers in Salt Lake City that year, where Keen put his industrial design talents to work building a cool show booth with a minimalist vibe, resembling something from late futurist architect Buckminster Fuller.
Outdoor outfitter REI ordered several thousand shoes, and Keen had a hit.
In 2002, Keen was working on his Apple computer in a lounge at San Francisco International Airport, trying to get his shoe idea off the ground while waiting for a flight to Hong Kong. A man who identified himself as a marketer for Apple began a conversation, which led to Keen showing Jobs — who was nearby — a Keen Footwear catalogue that was still in the works.
“I asked him his shoe size, and he was an 11
Keen Footwear grossed $1.5 million in its first year. That increased to $15 million in year two. The company expanded its selections to three items by the third year. By 2011, when Keen sold his share, the company was selling about $200 million worth of shoes and clearing about $50 million in operating profit.
By then, he had built a red barn to house a studio behind his house at Jamestown, an island near Newport, R.I.
Keen and investors have put up nearly $5 million to fund Focal Upright, which debuted its six prototypes in May 2012 at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City. The company sources its parts from around the world, including China and Germany, but the final assembly is in an old Rhode Island industrial park across from a nuclear submarine shipyard.
It’s unclear if he has another hit on his hands, but Keen thinks so.
“I transformed the footwear industry into care about feet, and now I’m doing the same for the back and for posture,” he said. “I’m just working my way up the body.”