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Shoe company tries to put its best foot forward for NH manufacturing facility

Sunday News Correspondent

November 30. 2013 1:16AM
Doug Clark, co-founder of New England Footwear in Stratham, talks with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., on Tuesday about his struggles trying to secure financing to bring shoe manufacturing back to the region. GRETYL MACALASTER (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)

STRATHAM -- Doug Clark has tried every avenue he can think of to gain financial backing for a shoe manufacturing facility, and it has been a frustrating experience.

Last week, he enlisted the help of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, as she paid a visit to the new headquarters of New England Footwear on Marin Way.

Clark and two other former Timberland employees started the outdoor recreation shoe company in 2008 after acquiring the Go Lite brand and other intellectual property from Timberland.

The company recently moved its headquarters from Main Street in Newmarket to Marin Way, just up the street from Timberland's headquarters. The new space allows the company to combine office and warehouse space in one location along with a concept shop and outlet store set to open Dec. 5.

Clark's dream is to open a shoe manufacturing facility in an adjacent vacant 6,000 square feet of space.

New England Footwear employs 12 full-time staff, six domestic sales representatives and six international sales representatives.

New England Footwear's shoes, like most others, are manufactured in China, but Clark thinks it is time to bring the industry back to its roots in New England.

Footwear is a $22 billion industry nationally and a $60 billion industry worldwide, he said, and 91 percent of the shoes are made in China.

Clark graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1979 and began working for Nike in 1980. Soon after, he watched thousands of jobs leave New England and land overseas.

Clark said he has figured out a way to create a durable and flexible athletic shoe without using mass amounts of cement and dozens of pieces of material, which also reduces the labor needed to make the shoes.

He can employ fewer workers at higher rates of pay, making the cost of running a factory here comparable to having operations in Asia.

Clark said he has met with about 50 private equity firms and venture capital companies, but hasn't found anyone interested in investing in shoe manufacturing, because they say the margin is too small.

"I say 'the margin is 45 points' and they say 'you're missing a zero,'" Clark said. "The difference is it would be the only factory in the United States making these products, and everyone needs shoes. That's why we buy 200 million shoes from China every year."

New England Footwear itself is 45 percent owned by Chinese companies, Clark said, because they could not find American investors.

He estimates the cost of building the factory at about $5 million with the ability to produce 2 million shoes each year and employ about 220 people.

"We are looking for a hero," Clark told Shaheen.

He said the timing is also good, with U.S. sentiment for "made in America" high and costs to operate in China increasing.

He said it would also help to reintroduce innovation to shoe making.

"The 10 biggest footwear inventions were all done in New England by 1950. I say it's time to do it again," Clark said.

Clark told Shaheen during her visit last Tuesday that he is frustrated that a project like this does not rank higher than the next defense project.

She said there is not a category of funding outside of the Small Business Administration under which New England Footwear would really fit, but also suggested the Business Finance Authority for assistance.

She said it could have been the kind of project for which an earmark would have worked, but earmarks are no longer an option.

This fall, the company launched a crowd funding effort to raise $150,000 for the manufacturing facility that gained national attention.

Clark hopes there will be money behind that attention to bring "made in America" back to shoe manufacturing.

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