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New Balance touts shoes that are made in the U.S., and Maine is a beneficiary of that stance.
The Boston-based maker of athletic footwear and apparel, which has global sales of $5.3 billion, is one of the few major shoe manufacturers still making shoes in Maine.
The privately held company has Maine factories in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway. Today, it has 780 employees.
Early this month, the company broke ground on a $65 million, 120,000-square-foot expansion of its Skowhegan factory, to be completed by the end of 2024. NB Skowhegan, as the factory is known, has 270 employees and produces the shoe models known as MADE 996, 997, 998, and 1300. The plant was acquired by New Balance in 1981. The expansion will double capacity, increasing production to 1 million pairs of shoes a year, and add 200 jobs, bringing the company’s total close to 1,000.
The groundbreaking — held under a giant tent on a chilly, drizzly day in early June — was attended by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, Gov. Janet Mills, state and local officials, and top brass from New Balance, including president and CEO Joe Preston and the company’s owners, Jim and Anne Davis. It was also attended by the factory’s workers — most of whom were clad in T-shirts reading “New Balance #WeAreMakers” and New Balance sneakers (which they get at a discount).
“Manufacturing has always been at the core of our company culture,” said Preston. “Our Maine associates have proven that high-quality athletic footwear can be produced in the U.S. Our Skowhegan factory expansion ensures their skilled craftsmanship and dedication to continuous improvement will help us meet our significant U.S. and global consumer demand and drive future business growth.”
New Balance dates to 1906, and was acquired by Jim and Anne Davis in 1972, at the dawn of the major running boom in the United States. The brand has always been prominent at the Boston Marathon and other major sporting events.
The Davises bought the Skowhegan factory in 1981, and expanded to Norridgewock and Norway.
New Balance has the three Maine manufacturing sites, as well as two in Massachusetts, including a Methuen site that opened last year. It has 1,300 U.S. workers out of 8,000 total. (It also has a United Kingdom factory.)
U.S. workers prepare, cut, and mold athletic shoe materials and components and then sew, press, and assemble them into the final product.
New Balance is the only major athletic shoe manufacturer that has maintained factories in the United States. It’s so-called “MADE” footwear that is produced in the U.S. contains a “domestic value of 70% or more,” New Balance said, “and makes up a limited portion of New Balance’s U.S. sales.”
The presence at the groundbreaking of Maine’s two U.S. senators and the governor was evidence of the company’s importance to the Pine Tree State. Nearly everyone at the event, from workers to elected officials to local business people in attendance, wore their New Balance shoes.
King wore gray, well-worn New Balance sneakers. The governor, who wore white New Balance sneakers, said in her remarks that she proudly wore her New Balance shoes last fall while making campaign stops, from ice cream shops to hairdressers.
Collins told a funny story about trying to find a distinctive gift for her husband Tom on their first anniversary. She called Raye Wentworth, New Balance’s director of domestic manufacturing, who recommended that the senator get a custom pair of shoes, which she did.
“He liked them enough he took a picture of them,” Collins said in her remarks, adding that their 11th anniversary was coming up. “After this, I’m heading to the factory store [across the street]. I know, I should pay full price.”
New Balance’s pride in having “U.S.-made” goods goes beyond marketing.
In his remarks at the groundbreaking, King recalled the battle over the Berry Amendment, which stipulates that the U.S. Department of Defense buys U.S.-made products to clothe military personnel. For years, it was well-known that soldiers were dressed head to ankle in U.S.-made apparel, but because most shoe manufacturers were making products overseas, footwear was a commonly overlooked item.
The Berry Amendment dates to 1941, and has been revised over the years.
It was Collins and King that pressed the military to buy U.S.-made shoes. In 2016, a provision was added to the National Defense Authorization Act that required the Department of Defense to comply with the Berry Amendment “by providing initial entry service members with American-made athletic shoes upon arrival at basic training,” King’s office said at the time.
“This amendment is a huge victory for the hardworking men and women in Skowhegan, Norridgewock, and Norway who have worked day in and day out to make some of the best, highest-quality athletic shoes available,” King said in 2016. “Our government should be doing all it can to advance policies that support them — not ship their jobs overseas.”
A VP of public affairs at New Balance said at the time it was a “monumental victory for New Balance and for Maine … At the end of the day, this will mean jobs for Maine people.”
At the groundbreaking, King reflected on that 2016 victory. King, an independent, went toe-to-toe with the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a veteran and senior member of the Senate.
“John McCain hated the Berry Amendment,” King recalled in his remarks in Skowhegan.
The night before the Senate vote, King made calls to 3 or 4 key Republicans, urging them to support the measure that required the DoD to comply with the Berry Amendment. The measure passed.
“John McCain was pissed,” King recalled. He walked up to King and in a deadpan voice said: “You’re dead to me.”
King said he and McCain later became good friends.
“It showed,” King said, “that American manufacturing is important. American jobs are important.”
And it had a significant impact on New Balance’s operations in Maine, where shoes for the military are manufactured.
“Ten years ago people said that was impossible,” King said. “Jim and Anne Davis showed confidence in American manufacturing.”
He added: “You can’t make an American economy taking in people’s laundry.”
At the same time New Balance plans to add employees, it has also driven innovation with the use of robotics and other technology that saves time and improves worker safety.
The expansion, which will be overseen by Leonminster, Mass.-based Green Leaf Construction, calls for an addition of 120,000 square feet connected to the existing five-story factory. It also calls for renovation of 20,000 square feet of existing space. Manufacturing operations will not be affected during the construction, which is expected to wind up by the end of next year.
Green Leaf Construction will handle design, engineering and construction.
As part of the groundbreaking ceremony, New Balance announced a $250,000 gift to the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program in support of the Skowhegan Area Early Childhood Education Center that will be built as part of the new MSAD 54 Margaret Chase Smith Community School.
“New Balance has always been strongly committed to the communities where our associates live and work,” says Raye Wentworth, director of domestic manufacturing at New Balance. “We’re thrilled to be able to support this important opportunity to add quality, affordable education and childcare resources for local families.”