Before New Balance opened its factory in Norridgewock, Maine, in 1985, the town’s most notable bit of history was being a place that Benedict Arnold marched his troops through on the way to the Battle of Quebec in 1775. The town is now also known as a place of mystique for connoisseurs of the only major footwear brand that still manufactures sneakers in the United States. But there’s one thing that often gets overshadowed by the high-quality shoes the factory produces: the people who actually make them.
Last month, Complex visited New Balance, a $4 billion company, to better understand what Made in America means for the sneaker industry, beyond the headlines and politics.
The brand got into hot water last November, due to its vocal support of then-President Elect Donald Trump’s vow to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bill sponsored by President Obama that would give American companies incentives to produce products in Asia by lowering tariffs to give consumers lower-priced goods and, in turn, greater profits to the corporations. The brand told the Wall Street Journal, “The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us and frankly with Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction. The bill was unrolled at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon and was strongly refuted by New Balance because of the company’s emphasis on American manufacturing.
People’s political beliefs often inform their consumer habits, and New Balance received an online backlash for its support of Trump, causing many to trash their sneakers on social media. Rapper and noted New Balance head Action Bronson did this, saying on Twitter, “I'll be donating a ridiculous amount of NBs and Yeezys to struggling immigrants in NYC.” American manufacturing has turned into a buzzword with political implications over the past year, with Trump harping on it throughout his campaign; the strategy seemingly worked, as Trump successfully flipped many Rust Belt states with a history of manufacturing. But ”Made in America” is more than just a slogan, and naturally, it predates Trump. New Balance represents what it looks like for sneaker consumers.
New Balance followed this statement up by telling Sole Collector, “New Balance publicly supported the trade positions of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump prior to election day that focused on American manufacturing job creation and we continue to support them today.”
New Balance has long been considered one of the premier brands when it comes to footwear due to the high-quality product it puts out—and it all starts with the company’s philosophy of putting people first with its five American factories that employ 1,300 associates.
At its factory in Norridgewock, Maine, New Balance employs roughly 300 people, which seems small until you consider the rural New England town’s total population is a little over 3,300 and is an hour and a half from Portland, Maine. The factory is able to make 4,000 shoes per day; only 1 percent are churned out as B-grades, according to the plant’s manager, Norman Schultz. The average employee tenure at New Balance is 18 years; five or six employees have tallied 30-plus years of experience at the Norridgewock plant. There are multiple generations of families working there, too: there’s currently a grandmother, mother, and daughter employed at the factory. The brand’s employee turnover is less than one percent, according to Director of Manufacturing Brendan Melly.
Beyond employing local people, New Balance says its American-made business model has allowed the company to become more efficient in a competitive industry. According to Melly, New Balance is three-and-a-half times more efficient than its Asian-made counterparts (Nike and Adidas make shoes in China and Vietnam, with Adidas making small numbers in Germany). “Ten years ago, it took us eight days to make a shoe start to finish,” Melly says. “Nowadays it’s roughly three hours. In the ‘80s, the industry left the U.S. to chase cheap labor and drive profit, but we’ve stayed put and grown throughout that process.”
New Balance recently released a completely Made in USA sneaker in collaboration with Vibram, a Massachusetts sole manufacturer, called the 1978 that’s produced in its Norridgewock and Boston factories. It’s a testament to the brand’s dedication to domestic manufacturing, as it operates factories in both the U.S. and UK, where it has a European HQ, with the rest of its sneakers being made overseas.
Walking around the factory, it's clear that New Balance is proud of its American manufacturing, with signs that read, "Excellent is "American-made," and, "Roll up our sleeves and keep America moving. Because we are the makers of excellent."
Part of the reason that New Balance has been able to grow and retain its employees is that it invests in its people. According to Schultz, the brand typically starts people out with simpler jobs and trains them for roles where they can learn the more intricate parts of leather cutting and shoemaking.
“I came here out of high school, and I had a family soon after. I had the opportunity to go from an inline associate into a team leader,” says Norridgewock factory employee Amy Blodgett. “I just finished an 18-month program where they invested time and resources to expose me to other areas of the business that would make a stronger associate, so I could make my associates stronger.”
The work that the factory’s workers create is respected around the world, and the American-made tag holds a lot of brand equity. “For me, it stands for quality and loyalty to a workforce. It represents what I love about the New Balance brand,” says Rob Stewart, who runs online community New Balance Gallery and founded sneaker cleaning brand Sneakers ER. “Coming from a manufacturing background, seeing these craftsmen and women making these shoes for 20-30 years, and honing that craft to a perfection — that’s why I wear the brand.”
Stewart, who lives in Glasgow, Scotland, has seen his share of political turmoil with the UK’s Brexit decision. He doesn’t, however, think sneakers have political messages behind them, even if society says so. “It’s a pair of shoes, I don’t look that deeply into it, that it’s leaning towards a way of life or politicians,” he says. “It’s a brand showing loyalty to workforce that’s worked for them for decades. I’ve never associated wearing a pair of shoes with political leanings, and I never will.”
A similar sentiment is echoed by Peter Jansson, the co-founder of Sneakersnstuff, a worldwide sneaker boutique that started in Sweden in 1999. “[Made in America] has been super strong for a long time. [New Balance’s] Made in UK stuff actually has ‘USA’ on the back, even though they’re Made in England. It’s up and down: There’s hate and love for the U.S.”
For the New Balance employees, it’s not about politics, but just having a job and working for a company that means a lot to them. “19 years later, I’m still here,” Blodgett says. “And I have family that works here. We’re very proud to work for the company and what they do for us and the community.”