KEEN Footwear

Bill Werlin, General Manager, Asia-Pacific, KEEN Footwear


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 editor Chris Betros 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.


  • -2


    I have two questions for Keen Japan A quick search of the net shows me the Keen Newport retails for 95USD at regular (not discount) stores in the US but here they cost 18,000yen (the Rakuten average seems to be around 11,550). At current exchange rates $95.00 is 7300 yen!! How do you justify this discrepancy?

    Secondly, Keen has a fine track record in, and prides itself on it's environmentalism and Corporate Social Responsibility as mentioned in the interview. How does tying up with Itochu, which has exactly the opposite reputation, fit with Keen's vision?

  • -2


    Why the heck does this article not show the shoes?

    • Moderator

      Please click on the link at the end of the story.

  • -2


    I've seen similar shoes with different brands sell for considerably less. Not sure what the difference would be though as I haven't seen any "Keen" shoes to compare them with.

  • -2


    USB, one possible reason for the higher price is the duty on leather goods here in Japan. I bought a $20 pair of sandals as a gift for my wife from another shoe place, unfortunately it had leather straps. The duty was, if I remember correctly, 4,500 yen! Over double the price of the sandals. Needless to say I never ordered another product made with leather again. It especially irks me because I can't find my size over here.

  • -2


    Be interested to know how many Japanese use their Keen shoes for their intended purpose. At Mt. Takao, I saw girls wearing high heels and when trekking in the Golden Triangle, some Japanese people in the group were struggling up the hills in their flip-flops.

    When I do spot hi-tech sports footwear in Japan, it's usually on the concrete roads of Shibuya.

  • -5


    Made in China? Thought so.

  • 1


    Man, what a peanut gallery we have here. Anyone commenting here ever do any retailing in Japan or importing? Import taxes and duties, high property rental costs, high distribution costs etc. all make products imported into Japan high. As for Keen I've got a pair of sandals I wear all the time and I saw a ton of people wearing Keen at Fuji Rock this year. You can pay 20 bucks for a pair of shoes or buy cheap anything, but you get what you pay for. I've always been happy to spend more to get something quality that I can use for years - especially outdoor gear like tents, bags and jackets.

  • 0


    Appreciate the comments on Keen. Japan is a growing market but still has its hurdles, business dynamics and idiosyncrasies. In addition to what has been mentioned, we're definitely working on finding less expensive and better ways to bring Keens to the Japan market. Itochu is a huge company no question. But there are islands of light in many areas within the megalith. Keen Japan, the division that handles Keen within Itochu has been extremely active in quintessential Keen activities. On an annual basis they monetarily fund Surfrider Foundation, Conservation Alliance Japan, Big Issue, Moana Kids School, Echigo-Tumari Art Triennnale, ARTH Camp plus others. Product donations in 2011 went to Yanbaru Forest work in Okinawa, Akaishi River protection , Wood Pellet organization and restoration of the traditional dye factories damaged in the Niigata quakes. As many companies did after 3/11, Keen Japan stepped up with shoes, clothing and supplies elicited from other Keen distributors around the world. Itochu acted as the importer and provided the distribution of the relief goods to the affected areas up north.

    Thanks taking the time to comment to Keen - KEEN ASIA

  • 0

    Jack Stern

    Nice back comment from Keen.

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