June 17, 2012

Bringing safety to heel

Falcon Performance Footwear in Auburn treads with purpose as it builds a niche making boots that withstand hard use in tough jobs.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Falcon Performance Footwear's boots are expensive, no one knows about the company, and it faces competition from higher-volume rivals. And President Carl Spang sees those as strong points for the Auburn-based bootmaker.

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Cheryl Arsenault tests boot liners for watertightness at Falcon Performance Footwear in Auburn.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Rick Nedeau prepares boots to be soled at Falcon Performance Footwear in Auburn.

Additional Photos Below

"Word of mouth is our best ambassador," Spang said. "Until they know you and know what the boots are capable of, it makes it a tough sell. But once we have a customer, they tend to be very loyal."

Falcon makes 60,000 pairs of high-tech industrial and firefighting boots a year and is expanding capacity by 20 percent annually. It's shying away from being a mass manufacturer that must survive on razor-thin margins.

"There's another model of chasing cheap labor, trying to make up in volume what you're losing in margins, and that business model has driven business out of the U.S.," Spang said. "That's not us. Instead of looking at unit costs, we look at total costs. And it's actually cheaper for us to make our boots in Maine."

Since buying Falcon in 2007, Spang has been shifting more and more of the material production to Maine. He's got just two pieces left to go before the boot is 100 percent sourced and made in the state.

Falcon is working with the University of Maine and the Maine Technology Institute to develop the materials to replace the two components -- materials that line the footbed -- that currently come from Taiwan and China.

"There's an amazing ripple effect when you buy the materials in Maine, employ workers here to make the boots, and they spend their income in Maine. It creates a much more solid economy," Spang said.

The boots, which can handle extreme temperatures from 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to 140 degrees above, can be custom made and modified to fit orthotics or special sizing. The boots have a running sole footbed, giving users more agility and comfort in tackling various terrain. They come at a cost, though. The boots start at $285 a pair.

"They're worth it. I spend 12 to 14 hours a day in my boots. I'm on my feet all day long. I'll never wear another boot," said Dan Landers, who works as a maintenance supervisor at a printing plant in Lewiston.

Landers, who has worn Falcon boots for about a year, credits the special technology in the boot that stiffens on impact with saving his foot from a serious injury recently. Landers was moving equipment at the printing plant when a 500-pound cabinet fell on his foot. The metatarsal guard in the boot, which is flexible but stiffens when hit, protected the top of his foot, Landers said.

"If I had been wearing another type of boot, my toes might have been OK, but the bones on top of the foot would be broken," Landers said. "All I had was a red spot the size of a quarter and I'm walking today without a limp."

Spang sees the boots as more than footwear -- they're a high-tech safety system, he said.

Radio-frequency identification systems can be embedded in the mining boots to help track and locate workers. Spang sees future technology options for the boots, such as installing a chip to monitor when a worker enters and leaves the job site, in order to eliminate the need for workers to stand in line to clock out at the end of their shift.

Spang explodes with enthusiasm about the potential for the boots and the possible uses of the components' technology.

For example, the toe covering for the boot is made of a fiberglass and resin composite material that doesn't conduct electricity or heat, making it a safer alternative in many industries than steel-toe boots, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Laurie Auger cleans glue from boots prior to shipping.

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Carl Spang, president of Falcon Performance Footwear, shows a boot that the company manufactures for firefighters.

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Miners’ boots are on display. The company, which makes high-tech industrial boots, has been shifting more of its operation to Maine.

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