Behind the Brand: Karhu
Karhu's History and Authenticity
It was in Finland in 1916—over 100 years ago today—that Ab Sportartiklar Oy started building sports products from locally-sourced birch. He made javalines, skis, and discusses. He also made track spikes that gained rapid worldwide recognition. They were crafted exceptionally well, and a handful of Olympians wore them over the next decade. His company was named Karhu (Finnish for the word “bear”), and it quickly became a household name, a gold standard for superior footwear.
Indeed, for the next several decades, the company stayed on the leading edge of the running industry. First, in the 70s, they developed the “Air Cushion” midsole (they sold over a million pairs of air cushioned-shoes). Then it was the forward-propelling Fulcrum technology in the 80s, followed by Ortix in the 90s, a system designed to help stabilize pronation.
And yet, despite such forward-thinking, the company slowly lost its reach somewhere in the 80s. While big shoe brands outsourced production to Asia, Karhu kept hand making their products in Finland. While sure, they managed to maintain their authentic roots that way; they struggled to keep up with a fast-moving global economy. Until today. Today, Karhu is making a major come back.
We spoke with Huub Valkenburg, Karhu CEO, for more of the story.
FF: Let’s start with your background, Huub. How did you find Karhu?
I was a teenager and a sneakerhead working the world’s best job in a running store in the Netherlands for $5 an hour. It was great because I got a 20% discount on everything in the store and I spent everything I made on shoes. I fell in love with Nike, Asics, and Karhu while working there.
Then, I was 16 years old when Karhu’s fulcrum tech came out. It was revolutionary technology to help runners move faster. I was already wearing Karhus, and so I was fascinated by their technological advancements in functionality. But more than just that, I saw Karhu as a small brand that always seemed to be listening; they had the specialist in mind and, at the time, they were our top-tier brand. Still, they couldn’t deliver all the marketing and production that the fast-growing brands like Nike and Asics could.
Soon after, I started working for Reebok, building out a franchise system for the brand in Russia and South Africa. The job brought me to the US on a green card. It was here that I started Craft in 2000, on a search for products with Scandinavian design. I worked on the brand for nearly a decade before buying into Karhu in 2009. It wasn’t long before I let go of Craft and turned my attention solely toward Karhu and the brand’s future.
FF: Why did you buy Karhu when the brand was struggling?
There is a lot to be said for having a history when you create a future. And Karhu has a broad and varied history. Back in 1952, we designed the three stripes logo and sold it to adidas for about 1600 euros and a couple of bottles of whiskey (good whiskey, of course). We also developed tech for Nike running shoes and tech for Merrell’s hiking line. And, more than that, Karhu is authentic. We might not be the best-known brand, but I believe we are probably one of the most authentic.
FF: Today, with the Fleet Feet-Karhu alignment, you're in the midst of transformation. What does this look like?
We have always had the functional technology in our shoes with Fulcrum and Ortix. We have done plenty of R&D at the University of Jyvaskyla over the years, so we know our shoes create a measurable difference in forward propulsion, running efficiency, and support. We’ve proven that Karhu shoes make running easier.
Where we always fell short, though, was comfort. And by working with Fleet Feet, that’s changing. We’re working together to develop the most comfortable shoe we possibly can.
FF: This sounds like an exciting step into the future. Where does Karhu go from here?
We’re a specialty brand, and we’re a privately owned brand with no interest in becoming public. I believe the running industry is at a crossroads. New Balance and Karhu are two brands that are privately held, for example. We’re two brands that won’t succumb to the pressure to grow in ways we don’t want to grow. And so, we can be ourselves. We can be authentic, and we can take risks.
You see, our goal is not to be a billion-dollar brand, our goal is to be the most sought-after and most admired brand because we’re authentic, we’re exclusive, and we build incredible products.