Birkenstock opens manufacturing sites for behind-the-scenes tour
Birkenstock has opened its manufacturing sites in Bernstadt and Görlitz to the public for the first time ever. Lifting the veil on how the brand’s famous leather and cork sandals are made, FashionNetwork.com reports about the shoe company’s expansion strategy and vision for the future.
“Bernstadt is not the end of the world, as one might think at first,” says Jochen Gutzy, head of communications at Birkenstock, to a group of journalists being given a tour of the company’s facilities in May. They are the first ones to gain access to the production facilities of the 245-year old company.
This "end-of-the-world" site, nestled among grass meadows, is about three hours' drive from Berlin. From Poland, it’s a 10-minute walk. Bernstadt and Görlitz are home to two of Birkenstock’s four German factories. The other two are located in Sankt Katharinen in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate and in Steinau in Hesse. A further factory is operated by the shoe manufacturer in Portugal.
Last year, there were 16,455 people working in the German footwear industry, including 4,253 at Birkenstock.
“As such, a quarter of the industry works at Birkenstock, and half of them are based in Saxony. So it could be said that this is not the end of the world, but the heart of the German footwear industry,” Gutzy continues.
Media reporters from 13 countries were invited to immerse themselves in this German shoe industry hub for two days.
Bernstadt: the home of Birkenstock’s upper and footbed liner
The tour begins at the production site in Bernstadt, which has been operational since 1991. 600 workers are based in the 20,000 square-metre-space, with 450 employees in production. The site has more than doubled its number of employees since 2014.
Here, Birkenstock manufactures the materials used for the upper and footbed liner of its shoes. 40,000 pairs of liners are produced daily and 90,000 pairs of shoe uppers. A pile of leather stored in the first hall reveals what the company is mostly working on. Leather in natural colours, but also in teal, pink and metallic tones sit on tall shelves. Every year, Birkenstock processes the leather of about 485,000 cattle.
Starting with a quality control area, the facility then features a large space where buckles sit waiting before you can finally arrive at the processing plants. In some stations, workers are marking and cutting leather by hand, without using of any high-tech machinery.
“In spite of the new technology, we don’t want to abandon this process because as a natural product, leather is always unique and machines cannot capture external appearances as well as the human eye,” says the Birkenstock executive during the tour.
To create the brand’s signature insoles, three different materials are used: normal leather, suede and microfibre. After the liners are trimmed, the next step is to stamp the Birkenstock logo and shoe size on it.
Benstadt is also where the company produces its shoe uppers. The complex material processing takes place in seven steps. The punching, numbering, embossing, sharpening, tidying up, stapling and final inspection are carried out by factory workers. Again, journalists are told machines cannot replace the visual power of the human eye.
35% of the upper is made of leather, with the remaining 65% made of synthetic material. Processing the synthetic fibres is done with the help of machines.
In total, there are about 80 steps before a sandal is finished and ready for shipping. Birkenstock’s first style, the now famous ‘Madrid’ model, was designed by Karl Birkenstock in 1963. The style has barely changed over the years and is now one of the brand’s most popular shoe collections.
Expansion strategy: “from a production-driven company to a market-oriented company”
“Karl Birkenstock's sales strategy has always been very direct, with products sold through the market or directly to households. But the market has demanded more information and speed in terms of deliveries,” says Klaus Baumann, Birkenstock chief sales officer, on the second day of the press visit in an event in Dresden.
Four years ago, Birkenstock launched its bid to transform itself “from a production-driven company to a market-oriented company," Baumann continued. The focus, which was always put on production, is now being shifted to marketing.
“Since then, we have seen we have seen tremendous growth rates, growing at an average of 20 percent since 2014. Over the last five years, we have seen total growth of 150 percent. Ten years ago, we had a production capacity of around five million pairs of shoes. Now we have capacity for 30 million pairs,” said Klaus Baumann.
To drive its international growth, Birkenstock has established several regions in order to shift responsibility closer to where sales are being made. The company wants to be closer to the markets, the consumers and its partners.
Currently, the brand sells its products in around 90 countries in all five continents and has eight locations in Germany. It has also sales offices in the United States, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Denmark, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom, as well as a newly opened office in Dubai.
“As a family business, we have a somewhat conservative expansion plan, but retail is a very important channel. All our stores are profitable. We don’t go the way of some high street brands and open 100 stores in one country. Our strategy is a marathon, not a sprint,” explained Klaus Baumann.
What makes the brand so special is that you can describe Birkenstock as a democratic brand. Birkenstock addresses very different industries with its products. From shoes for specific professions such as those worn in the hospitality industry and medicine, to the sandals worn by Frances McDormand at the Oscars in February.
“It's very important to meet our customers' expectations across all niches. My mother doesn’t care if we collaborate with Valentino, she just wants a comfortable shoe. On the other hand, we have customers who are style influencers and expect surprises. That is why we launched two exciting collaborations with Valentino and Rick Owens in the last six months,” said Baumann.
Recently, the shoe company has also introduced a line of beds and a cosmetics collection. A focus on cork as a material and an emphasis on health, wellbeing and function connect all of the company’s products.
“Birkenstock has simple guidelines: functionality, quality and form follow function,” explains Yvonne Piu, chief marketing officer at Birkenstock. “But the shoe’s most important feature is always our footbed. Karl Birkenstock was the one who coined the word ‘footbed’,” Piu adds.
Görlitz: Largest location and production site of the famous footbed
The brand’s famous footbed is manufactured at the group’s largest facility in Görlitz, which has also recently opened its doors to the public for the first time. Located in the charming city of Görlitz in eastern Germany, the factory opened in 2007 and occupies 30,000 square feet of space. 1,350 workers are employed there, including 1,150 in production.
In addition to the cork and latex footbed mix, the workers in Görlitz also manufacture shoes made from ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) and outsoles made of polyurethane (PU). For this purpose, 2,700 kilograms of cork and 12,000 litres of latex are processed daily to make 80,000 pairs of footbeds every day.
7.1 million pairs of Birkenstock shoes are made of EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate), a non-toxic synthetic material, every year. The company is the largest producer of EVA in Europe. The processing is run almost entirely by machines.
The space where the firm’s footbeds are made welcomes visitors with the distinctive scent that has become synonymous with Birkenstock sandals: it smells of cork and latex.
A young woman wearing the company’s uniform, a logoed blue t-shirt, describes how the cork and latex blend footbed production process works. She puts the jute, sourced from India and Bangladesh, on top of a shock absorbing sole. Then she adds the cork and latex blend, shaping it by hand. The sole is then baked at 80 degrees for 10 minutes, and the excess water is drawn out at 60-70 degrees in 24 to 48 hours.
The finished footbeds are then sent to 1 of 14 machines, where 125 to 170 pairs are put together by workers every hour.
Finally, the quality of each shoe is checked by hand by a specialist.
Quality is the most important thing for Birkenstock. “There are two things you cannot expect from us: we will never fly to the moon and we will never compromise when it comes to quality,” concludes Piu.
The history of the company dates back to 1774. In 1896, shoemaker Konrad Birkenstock opened two shoe stores in Frankfurt am Main and began producing footbed inserts. In 1925, Konrad Birkenstock acquired a factory in Hesse, and in 1945 his grandson Carl Birkenstock relocated the business to Bad Honnef near Bonn, where he evolved the originally flexible cork insert into a solid insole.
The company was managed by the Birkenstock family until 2013. That year, the company structure changed from a chain of 38 individual companies to a group made up of three business units, including production, sales, and services.
Oliver Reichert and Markus Bensberg are currently co-CEOs of the of the Birkenstock Group.
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