Foreigners in business in Japan: KEEN Footwear

November 15th, 2011By Category: Shopping, Work Tips

Bill Werlin, General Manager - Asia Pacific

Create, play, care – that’s the mantra of U.S. company KEEN Footwear, a 9-year-old company that is growing rapidly.

Based in Portland, Oregon, the KEEN brand originated as a sandal that could also protect the toes, making it ideal for outdoor and water-related activities. The company grew its casual line, adding cold weather footwear, as well as a line of socks and bags.

Now available in more than 1,000 outlets throughout Japan, KEEN is doing very well, posting 20% annual growth in sales. The company’s best-selling shoes are its iconic Newport and Jasper brands.

Overseeing the company’s operations in Japan is Bill Werlin, who is general manager for Asia-Pacific – a vast market that takes him as far west as India and south to Australia and New Zealand.

Originally from Colorado, Werlin started his career with The North Face company. He was with them for 18 years in California until 1999. He then came to Japan in 2000 as general manager of Patagonia. In 2009, Werlin moved on to run Burton Snowboards in Japan. KEEN came knocking on his door last January.

Japan Today visits Werlin at his Minami-Azabu office to hear more.

What is KEEN’s history?

It is not a very old company – only nine years. But it is growing 30-40% a year. The whole company evolved from two simple questions – can you make a sandal that could protect toes in the water and would anybody buy it? The answer was yes.

That was the genesis of the entire line. From there, it spread out into hiking, casual hybrid wear and all the way now through to a very sophisticated performance utility footwear for construction workers.  

What is the company’s overseas marketing strategy?

After the U.S., the company reached out into Canada, then Europe. Their next focus became Asia-Pacific.  

Is the brand well known in Japan?

I think the name is known by people who do outdoor activities and to people involved in CSR. I say that because part of KEEN’s philosophy is what we call hybrid care. We look for small groups to fund, either with social or environmental issues. So we are known in those circles.

How are the shoes sold in Japan?

All our products are distributed in Japan by Itochu. It is the largest KEEN entity in the Asia-Pacific region. Itochu does all the marketing. They have the rights to distribute and promote the KEEN brand in Japan under our direction. Shoes are available in about 1,000 outlets throughout Japan – from specialty outdoor dealers to the large sporting goods outlets such as Xebio, Beams, Sakaiya Sports, Alpen and other select shops. It is a very broad spectrum.

How are sales?

Very good. I expect that sales this year will be 20% up over last year.

Are the lines sold here the same as in the U.S.?

About 80% the same as in the U.S. There are a fair number of Japan-only special make-ups, based on the color and style preferences of Japanese consumers. They are essentially old KEEN styles that have been discontinued in the global line but still have great traction in Japan. It is an interesting mix.

Where are the shoes manufactured?

In China, the Dominican Republic and the U.S.

What are your best-selling brands in Japan?

The Newport (protective toe sandal), which retails at 18,000 yen. It’s a great all-purpose, all-terrain activity shoe. The Jasper (12,000 yen) is another popular shoe.

Has your business been affected by the March 11 disaster or the prolonged recession?

I’ve found over the years that the outdoor business of hiking, camping and trekking usually will rise during economic downturns because people look for something that is inexpensive and that gives them a dramatic alternative to the day-to-day grind. That may be simply going for a walk, hiking or camping. The whole outdoor goods business in Japan has been exceedingly good over the last 3-4 years.

Are there some unique characteristics in the Japanese market?

The Japanese are into bright colorful footwear more than anywhere else. The Japanese consumer falls in love with the brand and the product. They continually want to purchase that product. They do like to see new colors and patterns but want the tried and true product. We introduce new styles on a seasonal basis.

What about the fit?

From a physical point of view, Asians tend to have a short wide foot with a narrow heel. We choose our general design form to be very compatible with the Asian foot. Japanese are getting bigger. Their physiology is changing. I saw that when I was with Patagonia. There has been a shift of about half a size up.

What about larger sizes for foreigners?

It’s still a little tough to get larger sizes, but we are working on that.

As general manager for the whole Asia-Pacific region, what do you focus on?

I certainly don’t micromanage all the various countries. I go to retail outlets and provide liaison between distributors and the home turf. It is more a strategic leadership. Having 12 years of experience in the Japanese outdoor leisure goods market, I have a pretty good understanding of who the players are.

How do you get feedback in Japan?

Itochu has a dedicated KEEN website. We provide content for the site. They also have a complete SNS network, which provides a lot of feedback. Then we sit down four times a year to review the business in Japan and discuss new trends, new ideas and product direction.

How many markets do you oversee?

Besides Japan, I am in charge of Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and South Korea. At this point, we are coalescing the market. Up until now, there was nobody really in charge of the Asia-Pacific region.  

How many outdoor activity-related goods do you own?

I could open my own outdoor sporting goods store at home with all the shoes, skis, and snowboards I’ve acquired over the years.

How do you like to relax when you are not travelling or working?

I ski, play golf, softball, squash, and I have a Harley. I am also involved with Yokohama International School.

Author of this article


GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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