Ownership: Private, independent subsidiary of Icon Health & Fitness
Employees: 15 full-time employees (200 shared employees with Icon)
Golden Harper used a toaster oven to make his first pair of shoes, ‘zero-drop’ runners now sold in over 1000 national retail outlets
Maybe running shoes haven’t evolved much since Bill Bowerman created what would become the first iconic Nike running shoes with his wife’s waffle iron in the late ‘60s or early 70’s. After all, when Altra Founder Golden Harper was developing the idea that became Altra zero-drop running shoes, he used his toaster oven.
“I got out my toaster over and peeled the outsole and the midsole off of a pair of shoes, put a couple of layers of perfectly flat foam in so there was no drop from heel to forefoot, glued the outsole back on, went for a run,” Harper explains. The exercise science major who studied at Brigham Young University was trying to make a running shoe that helped correct poor running techniques that led to injury, largely from over-striding.
Like Nike’s early days Altra’s been experiencing record growth. The company was purchased by Icon while its first shipment of shoes was on the way from China. Since then they’ve growing at a break-neck pace. Their shoes were in 350 running specialty stores in 2012, 700 in 2013 and could be in as many as 1,000 by the year end, including in REI.
The idea for the company’s unique, cushioned zero-drop shoes came after studying runners’ running form using high-speed video, Harper explains. “We found there was a certain very efficient low-impact way they ran without shoes on.” Then they recorded runners in traditional running and training shoes. “They ran in a completely different way and not in a good way,” he says.
Enter the toaster oven. “I was basically making zero-drop wide forefoot shoes, but doing it from traditional running shoes at my running store,” Harper says. “So I had a cobbler down the street who was cutting the heel cushion down to make it even with the forefoot and we were making some modifications to the forefoot…and we were using it to prevent and treat injuries at my running store.” The cobbler ended up making thousands of pairs, he says.
“We were pitching it to the running shoe companies. None of which wanted to bite because it completely the opposite of their current paradigm,” Harper says. “We were deemed the zero-drop guys or the anti-heel guys.”
Ultimately some former Adidas and Nike executives heard about Harper’s shoes. “They basically gave me a call and said, ‘We heard what you’re doing. It’s kind of like what we want to do. You have a great marketing story. We know how to build shoes. Let’s get together,’” Harper says.
“We were hell-bent on producing in the U.S. when we started,” Harper asserts. “It became apparent really quick that if we attempted to produce in the U.S. we wouldn’t be able to deliver the product we wanted. We’d be delivering $350 shoes that were lower quality.” A host of reasons from tax issues to the equipment, knowledge and skill set of people in the U.S., made domestic manufacturing improbable.
“I hope somebody can do it at some point in time cost effectively.” His friends in northwest may be able to help. “They have a dream to do some sort of fully automated manufacturing that could be done in the Pacific Northwest and that’s still quite a ways off.
Challenges: "Trying to grow really fast and managing shipping, distribution, vendor strategy and manufacturing to meet need."
Opportunities: “Increasing our sales. Currently we are a top 10 brand and would like to get into big 7,” Harper says.
Needs: “Good retail partners…that we can rely on for good feedback,” Harper says. “We need to get our message out there. If runners understand what we’re about then we’ll be successful.”