By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
A long-time Whatcom County company is stepping in a new direction.
In November, shoe insole company Superfeet Worldwide Inc., headquartered in Ferndale, announced two new major product lines. It’s a continuation of the company’s recent expansion beyond insoles.
The first new product line, Me3D Recover, is a recovery slide — a type of sandal athletes can slip into after they’re done working out — that is fully customized and made to order for each customer. Those are launching this spring.
For the second new product, Superfeet has partnered with Brooks Running Company to offer completely customized running shoes. Those will launch in June.
To launch these new products, Superfeet is opening a new production facility next to its existing headquarters at 1820 Scout Place, Ferndale.
The company has 89 employees working in Ferndale, and 145 total around the world. After the new manufacturing facility opens in Ferndale, it will be hiring about 20 more.
The new building is set to open early this year, and will be 43,000 square feet, which is in addition to their current facility, which is 50,000 square feet.
All their custom products will be made at that facility, in addition to development and design of additional products.
The company, which began in Lynden, has been known for its insoles since it was started in 1977 by Dennis Brown and Chris Smith.
“For almost 40 years, all we did was make insoles,” said Amy Olive, consumer marketing manager at Superfeet.
Brown was an inventor and Smith was a podiatrist, and they launched Superfeet as the sports medicine division of Northwest Podiatric Laboratory, based in Blaine. They built shoe insoles geared toward performance athletes. Then in 1986 they established a designated medical division. In 1993, the company moved to Ferndale. In 2001, it released insoles for high heels and dress shoes.
But 2017 marked the company’s biggest advancements of all.
Last year it launched a new line of footwear.
“In our market research we saw that people were using our insoles for running or hiking,” Olive said. “But then they were putting on these horrible shoes for everyday. “
All their shoes are focused on the Superfeet insoles.
“That footwear line is completely built from the inside out,” Olive said. “We started with what most of our competitors end with.”
In 2017, Superfeet also partnered with HP to create a new machine called a FitStation. The FitStation is currently in 13 running and athletic stores around the country. Superfeet plans to expand that to 125 machines in 2018. Customers can stand and walk on it, and it creates a 3-D scan of their foot shape, and an analysis of the way they run or walk.
The machine can then recommend off-the-shelf products that are already in the store. Or the information collected can be used to make a custom insole or — coming soon — a custom made running shoe.
“It will be a major disruption in the footwear market, for sure,” Olive said. The FitStation — which knows each store’s inventory, and can make recommendations on any brand of product — offers a number of benefits to the retailers who use it.
“It offers a retailer the chance to sell a product without ever having to carry inventory,” Olive said.
Custom products are less wasteful on the supply chain as well.
“This product is not made until someone specifically said they want it,” she said.
Fairhaven Runners & Walkers in Bellingham was the first store in the world to get the FitStation.
“It’s cutting edge technology,” Steve Roguski, who owns Fairhaven Runners with his wife Genevie, said. “It’s endeavoring to be the future, kind of a revolutionary new way of fitting and selling shoes and insoles.”
Since industrialization, when shoes began to be mass-produced, people have had to accommodate to fit their shoes, Roguski said.
“So now, with this technology, it’s turning that on its head,” he said. “It’s making sure the footwear works for you.”
When Roguski first installed the FitStation, he sent a few pairs of each of the shoes he stocks to Superfeet, where they were X-rayed and tested and mapped, both inside and out.
“They scanned at least half our shoes,” he said. The FitStation now uses that data to make product recommendations to customers.
“The science is pretty good on this,” he said.
Roguski sees the FitStation’s recommendations as a complement to the knowledge and real-life experiences he and his staff can offer to customers.
“Our success as a specialty running store is just using our experience and our knowledge and what we’ve learned,” he said. “We feel our recommendation process is great. But we feel like this is adding a component of objective data analysis.”
Roguski said Superfeet has long been a good partner and vendor for his store.
“We’ve been in business going on 19 years and from the first day we’ve sold Superfeet insoles,” he said.
The brand is among the best known, as far as insoles go.
“It’s the most popular insole that you will find in specialty running stores,” he said.
This major expansion in Superfeet’s product line began after the company became entirely employee owned in July of 2015.
“I think that’s been one of the driving factors behind growing our business,” Olive said. The employee stock ownership program began in 2006, as Smith and Brown began to eye retirement.
“They really wanted to decide what was best for the company and the culture,” Olive said. “Since they’ve retired we’ve continued that legacy on.”
That culture has led to Superfeet being ranked two different times on Outside magazine’s Best Places to Work list.
“It really does feel more like a family, working for Superfeet, than any place I’ve ever worked,” Olive said. Being employee-owned plays a part in that.
“People here work hard. We have fun but we work hard,” she said. “It’s a different kind of working hard when you work for a company you own a part of. People are really invested.”