The Bavarian hiking and mountain boot manufacturer HANWAG is not your typical modern commercial success story – characterised by meteoric expansion, exponential growth and fast profits. Fortunately.
One hundred years. In the outdoor industry with its ever-changing trends – that’s a long time. Yet for HANWAG, the hiking and mountain boot manufacturer, one question has remained a central theme throughout: What makes a really good outdoor boot?
The question has helped shape HANWAG from the start. It has changed it and made it global. From its origins as a small workshop in a modest village northwest of Munich, HANWAG has grown over the decades. Not meteorically or dramatically, as might be required of modern companies. Instead, it has grown slowly, solidly – and consistently.
Haste and fast-paced development was never HANWAG’s path. Not with its boots, not with its employees, nor with its company philosophy. In the first 83 years of its existence, it had just two directors: The company founder Hans Wagner, who was a third-generation shoemaker, and his nephew, Josef Wagner. The company is now far from a small workshop, but still remains a genuine, expert shoemaker. Talk to present and past employees and you quickly sense how the question of what makes good footwear still influences and shapes HANWAG’s thinking and its people to this day.
Finding the right path
Take Franz Kreutner. He joined the company as a refugee shortly after the Second World War – and stayed for 47 years. He worked with both company directors, ‘Hans and Sepp’ as he calls them. And because he worked his way up from unskilled labourer to head of department, he knows just about every HANWAG employee from 1947 to 1994, and has many entertaining stories to tell of trips to the mountains or beer festivals. Or take Adam Weger, who worked for HANWAG from 1968 to 2015, with a few brief interludes. As long-standing Head of Research and Development, he personally wore and tested every shoe the company made, in the mountains. Joseph Wagner called him a “perfectionist for functional and technical details.”
Among other things, HANWAG used to make ski boots that were exported to the United States in large quantities in the 1960s. HANWAG’s climbing shoes even hit the market slightly too early for the climbing boom. There were HANWAG paragliding boots designed to help ensure a soft landing. During all these developments, HANWAG quietly continued to build on its core competence: making long-lasting, hard-wearing, yet comfortable mountain and hiking boots. Boots that will not only withstand the ›steep‹ city streets of Munich but are actually built for high-alpine mountaineering all over the world, for remote jungle expeditions and long-distance treks. Boots for forest trails, country hikes and indeed, also for urban exploration. And it continued on this path decade after decade. As such, sustainability has always been a central factor in the company’s long-term approach. Long before the term was recoined in this age of greenwashing.
Production in Europe only
Long-term thinking and high-quality workmanship also mean that a pair of good hiking boots cost a couple of hundred euros, and yet they still generate far smaller profit margins than a sneaker costing half as much. Especially, when no corners are cut in making the 100-plus parts that are used to make a boot – from the high-quality Vibram sole to the timeless full-grain leather upper or the solid, deep-pull lacing. To maintain the highest quality standards for its comparably modest collections, HANWAG only produces at manufacturing facilities in Europe. Such as its factory in Hungary. Or the family-owned bootmaking business in Croatia that has worked exclusively for HANWAG for over 30 years. And HANWAG still makes boots at its company headquarters in Vierkirchen, which is no longer a small village, but is now connected to Munich by a fast urban railway link.
However, the challenge with longevity has always been in how to move with the times, while learning from the past. In 2004, when there was nobody to take the helm at HANWAG, the director of the family-owned company, Josef Wagner, decided to look for a buyer. He chose the Fenix group from Sweden, because they want HANWAG to continue as a premium brand. Under the new ownership, the collection might have changed slightly in terms of colour and design; the areas of use might have broadened, but at heart HANWAG remains a high-quality shoemaker from a small Bavarian village that sells boots all over the world.
So what is it that makes a good boot? Josef Wagner is quoted as saying: “Actually, a good boot is never really finished.” His words might well apply to the next one hundred years too.