Jeff Dill: Keen Footwear

Jeff Dill is an outdoor junkie. Need proof? Just ask him about his morning commute.

Dill lives only four miles from Keen’s Pearl District headquarters, but that doesn’t stop him from getting his outdoor fix.

“What I like to do is ride my bike in the mornings over the St. Johns Bridge, into Forest Park and down into the Pearl. I make what is a four-mile commute into a 20-mile commute as often as I can,” he said. “That’s probably my favorite thing to do. An hour and a half of escape and bliss.”

Dill came to Keen two years ago with an extensive background in footwear, having worked at Adidas for thirteen years and Salomon for three years. His arrival at Keen coincided with some major landmarks for the brand. Known for its reinforced toe sandals, Keen relocated from California to Portland in 2006 and moved into its 50,000 square-foot Pearl District headquarters and retail location in 2012. In 2013, the company celebrated its tenth birthday by adding an apparel line to its already growing collection of shoes, socks and bags.

As Keen’s business unit director for outdoor, Dill oversees long-term, long-range planning for products in the hiking, water, winter and pedal categories.

“Being a small company, with Keen you really have to do a little bit of everything,” he said. “So if you could name it outside of things like sourcing and development, I’ll probably have some hand in it somewhere.”

Dill shared his thoughts about Keen’s unique culture, its dedication to its adopted hometown, and its recent growth, as well as why Keen is such a perfect fit for an outdoor nut like him.

KEENGARAGEWhy Keen? What did you find attractive about the company?

There are actually a couple different things. Keen is a really young brand relative to the footwear industry and it’s become very competitive in its first 10 years. That shows good energy, good innovation, and a very good trajectory. And then recently, Keen started to add a world-class team of people. They hired Ron Hill, who was a 30-year Nike veteran, and hired back Kirk Richardson. Kirk’s a real hero in the industry. There’s something really attractive about a small brand on an upward trajectory with a great team. It that’s not a winning formula then it’s certainly a very fun place to work, but I think it’s both.

You did a lot of running in high school and college. How has your running background impacted your career?

Running is what really got me into the industry in the first place. When you’re a runner, unlike skiing or cycling or fly fishing, you don’t have a lot of gear that you can deal with. I’m a natural gear head with a love of product management, so footwear seemed to be the only natural landing place for someone like me.

When I was at school, I worked at a running specialty store. A lot of the people in this industry come through that same path of working in running specialty, being a buyer, and getting to meet everybody in the industry. It’s a really small world. I really enjoyed the people in the industry and its cadence- they launch a lot of innovation rapidly and it’s a really dynamic place. I fell in love with the industry at a very young age, probably still in my teens, and have stuck with it ever since then. So running  introduced me into the industry, and footwear in particular, and then since then I’ve branched off into outdoor, which is a natural extension just by my own interests.

How do those outdoor interests influence the work you do at Keen?

Like a lot of people in Portland, if I have any free time at all, it will be spent camping or backpacking or climbing or cycling, and that love of the outdoors and my own use and abuse of outdoor gear comes with an understanding of the equipment and the kind of brands that are associated with it. And again, to your earlier question, it’s what makes Keen very attractive. It’s a brand that comes from an outdoor perspective. It definitely lives in the outdoor space and it really, genuinely has an eye toward preservation and conservation. It’s fine if brands are just in it to win market-share, a let’s-march-toward-domination kind of thing, but a true interest in the outdoor industry is something that I think a lot people find very attractive, and certainly for me that was one of the things that made Keen stand out as a small brand amongst older brands and more heritage brands.

Given your experience with the outdoor industry, what trends can we expect to see in the coming years?

Recently there has been a trend is that outdoor is starting to merge with athletic, so you’ll see brands who are taking a much more athletic approach to outdoor wear. Outdoor used to be about long backpacking trips, compasses, canteens, that kind of old school stuff. Now, we’re seeing a lot of light weight high-technology products, and a lot of that technology is being borrowed from what we call athletic sports like soccer, basketball and American football. People also seem to have a propensity to go for those faster trips, get done in a day. So as outdoor and athletic merge together, even on the footwear end of things, the products are much lighter, faster and more athletic. The blend lends color and technology and innovation to an area in outdoor wear that had been somewhat staid for the last several years.

KeenJeffdillAnd then a little bit more recently, classic outdoor brands, and this is everyone that’s been in outdoor for a very long time, they’ve lived in the mountains, in the most remote places, but now they’re all making a push toward more of an urban consumer. I think obviously you and I are a little bit biased living in Portland, which is a very hybrid place with lot of outdoor-minded people, but you see brands really trying to make a push for that urban outdoor consumer who is interested in the best thing they can do near their city within a day or the highest peak they can hit over a weekend. They’re the people who get in the car, head out, get up and down Hood overnight, and then get back to work the next day. That’s the sort of pursuit that is becoming more and more common and the brands are really reacting to that.

Keen has been headquartered in Portland for the past seven years. How has its location affected the brand?

I think it’s almost everything. The DNA that you take from the Pacific Northwest is deeply embedded in Keen, in its design aesthetic, in its go-to-market approach, in the way we approach testing. There’s a speed, an attitude, a cadence that comes from the Pacific Northwest that can be difficult to articulate, but certainly most everyone here is a user. Even your most soft-core outdoor person will still be ski touring or something that would be unthinkable to your average Midwestern non-outdoor urban dweller. Portland is unquestionably a hub of creativity in the United States. We have so many other athletic and outdoor brands nearby and a lot of young, competitive people. On top of that, there’s the music, the food and the art. I think that blend is a very specific, very special blend that helps lend Keen its personality and to me, that’s exciting. I think Portland has everything to do with why Keen is who it is today.

And then something that I’m very proud of personally and the brand is very proud of, is the production facility we have in Portland down on Swan Island. Very few people in the world actually build footwear in the U.S. and there aren’t any that I know of, other than us, that build in Portland. There’s something very special about the fact that Keen’s commitment to Portland is that deep that we actually have a factory with the investment and the personal to run it. Some of the footwear that I’m putting into the market next year, which would be Fall 2014, will actually be made here in Portland and that’s very exciting.

KeenThere have been a lot of big changes at Keen in the past couple of years including its new, larger headquarters and some executive-level shake-ups. What’s your perspective on Keen’s recent growth?

Keen as a 10-year-old is just starting to find its place in the world and form its identity. We have a big new building in the Pearl District and a 100 people to fill it and the company’s starting to grow up. You have some people with 20 or 30 years of experience starting to come in to the brand and help it grow up without losing its personality. That’s pretty exciting because you see a lot of brands grow up and a guy comes in and puts in a bunch of systems and takes the life right out of it. It really loses its personality, its culture, and its flavor. Keen has always had a very improvisational culture. You make something, see how it works, sell it, if it doesn’t work, try again. I hate the word quirky, but unfortunately it keeps popping into my head. Personally, it’s been fun for me to help Keen grow up and modernize and become one of the elite brands without becoming something else. It will still be very Keen.

How does that improvisational culture translate to product development?

Some of the places where I’ve worked have a very rigid go-to-market where you follow a very rigid calendar, which is great for certain types of product. Keen has a very free-flowing project engine and that is partially from being a little bit small and it’s also partially just because the attitude and the ethos of the brand allow us to be very flexible and very reactive. If there’s an opportunity that exists and we can react to it, we can be in the market very quickly. We can build the product in Portland, go out and test it in Forest Park and then take it to retail. There’s something very cool about that but there’s also something a little unnerving. People that will come to Keen for the first time and some of them get a little freaked out when they’re used to a brand that operates like a Swiss watch. But it’s very exciting, it’s very interesting, certainly exhilarating, and often it’s really effective because when you have that type of flexibility, you have the ability to do things as they come rather than wait six months to get back on the calendar. I think that’s kind of what lends the brand some of its personality and certainly some of its excitement.

How fast is your product turnaround process?

If we go full-on, I think really, honestly, it can go from a piece of paper to the market, or at least to a very good sample in six months. We’ll even make that shorter and shorter over time. I know that’s a goal. If it’s something that’s very technical and it needs a lot of fit and wear testing, obviously you take your time. But if it’s a cool sneaker or product, something that’s a known entity, we can go very, very fast.

About The Author: Katie Mitchell