In a trendy neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, the outdoor-oriented shoe, bag, and sock brand is hard at work.
Keen’s Portland, OR headquarters is in the quaint, hip Pearl District. The neighborhood was revitalized more than a decade ago, and its industrial buildings were remodeled into boutique shops and restaurants slinging craft beer and local-seasonal eats. The vibe is easygoing and pedestrian. You’ll find Keen across the street from nouveau Peruvian restaurant Andina, and next-door to Pilates and yoga studios, a saloon, and a latte art coffeehouse. Yes, it’s all very Portland.
I made friends with some Keen folk a couple weeks ago at a media event in Santa Fe, and was impressed by the brand’s ethos, company culture, and stylish direction for 2016 (don’t worry, those signature black toed sandals aren’t going anywhere). The shoe company was founded in Alameda, California in 2003, and moved its headquarters to Portland three years later. I happened to be coming through Portland, and took the genial employees up on their offer of a tour.
Above: Keen headquarters, a five-story, century-old building purchased for $10.8 million in 2012 (Keen’s original Portland headquarters was just five blocks away).
Most people know where Keen HQ’s is located because of its Garage, one of three retail stores the brand operates (the other two are in Tokyo and Toronto). The Garage takes up roughly half of the first floor, which is divided by a wall of shoes and a large wooden door. On the other side you’ll find the lobby, bleachers where employees gather for meetings, and the Keen Kanteen company cafeteria.
The building itself is a point of pride for Keen employees. The entire 50,000-square-foot space was gutted and redone in 2012 to accommodate Keen’s 204 Portland employees. During the remodel, the company only accumulated one dumpster full of trash over a months-long period—for perspective, an ordinary project of this scope would have sent 2-3 dumpsters to the landfill per week. Keen recycled 55 tons of wood, metal, and drywall, and got creative when it came to incorporating found objects into the décor (think countertops that used to be bowling alleys or chairs made of old bicycles).
The upper four floors of the building house Keen’s Portland staff, which includes human resources folk, designers, marketers, and customer service reps alike. The company just abandoned closed cubicles in favor of a more open office setup—add in all the new hires floating about and the abundance of snacks, and the space has the air of a startup.
Throughout the office, there are white signs with “#GiveAShit” hand painted on them. Keen’s Live Monumental team—devoted to campaigning for the protection of three million acres of outdoor space in the U.S.—takes that sentiment to a higher level. One of the areas Keen was rallying to protect was Boulder-White Clouds in central Idaho, which Obama designated Wilderness this August; bad news for local mountain bikers, great news for the Live Monumental cause, which hopes Gold Butte, NV, Owyhee Canyonlands, OR, Mojave Trails, CA, and Birthplace of Rivers, WV will soon follow suit.
Another one of our favorite Keen campaigns is HybridLife, which essentially describes what most of us would consider the ideal: a life split amongst work, play, and giving back. The HybridLife Hope project lets patrons easily donate a pair of shoes to someone in need. And it’s more than a marketing shtick—when asked what their favorite perk of working at the company was, most employees pointed to the week of “service leave” they get, allowing them to take time in addition to their PTO to give back to the community.
Senior Merchandise Manager Johanna Koeberle is the reason Keen’s lifestyle brand has become so fashion forward, while still retaining the quality, comfort, and endurance factor its original models are known for.
Here, the main conference room—obviously, filled with Keen shoes. The company is thinking about expanding to the building’s roof, so when it holds meetings or shows shoes to investors, business partners, or nosey journalists, it will be keeping in line with the brand’s proclivity for the outdoors.
Even on a cloudy Portland day, the views of the city are still impressive. It’s impossible to see from this particular vantage, but 5,000-acre Forest Park, with its 80-plus miles of trails—ideal for testing Keen products—is just two miles away.
The basement is where employees store bikes; occasionally it’ll host a yoga class or sport screening (this photo doesn’t do the large space justice). There are shower facilities and a locker-room on site for folks who commute to work, or for those who choose to exercise during the day.
One of the things I came to admire most about Keen was its need to keep innovating, and desire to move more and more of its manufacturing stateside. Next time Mountain visits Portland, we hope to visit Keen’s Swan Island factory, where 60 employees build these 20-odd styles of boots. —Kiran Herbert