Manufacturing

West Michigan-made jungle boot debuts at military trade show

Wolverine’s Bates division in Big Rapids is targeting other markets as DOD orders shrink.

August 22, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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Bates Footwear, a division of Wolverine Worldwide in Rockford, launched its new Recondo jungle boot last month at a major military products trade show near Washington, D.C.

Employment at the Bates plant has been shrinking slowly in recent years as the size and overseas deployment of the U.S. military continues to decline, but Bates remains prepared for future world developments by keeping its military boot lines updated and maintaining close contacts with the military establishment. The company also is looking to alternative markets for new products such as Recondo.

Recondo is a low-absorption, quick-drying boot designed to provide secure footing in multi-terrain jungle regions. Named for the Reconnaissance and Commando Training Course developed in the 1950s at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the Recondo meets the legal requirements of the Berry Amendment, which requires the Department of Defense to purchase only food, clothing, fabrics and other materials that originate in the United States.

Bates designers worked with the U.S. Army Special Forces Command to develop the Recondo, and received performance feedback after the 75th Army Ranger Regiment tested the boot in Central America last winter.

Bates management said the result is a lighter boot made of a proprietary quick-drying durable leather and textile upper, and is designed to provide the best breathability possible for the spectrum of jungle combat situations.

“The Recondo provides a much needed jungle boot update for the next generation of our armed services,” said Onder Ors, Bates Footwear president. “Based on the specific feedback we received from our development partners in the Special Operations Forces, Bates has created the only boot specifically engineered for hot, wet and humid combat environments common in tropical regions.”

The Recondo boot is made with Wolverine Warrior Leather, a proprietary specialized pigskin the company says is lightweight, durable and breathable, and is water, stain and oil resistant. The MultiCam ripstop nylon fabric is said to be lightweight, abrasion resistant and highly durable. Bates said the blended upper material is light, strong, comfortable and has near-infrared properties, making the boot less visible in low light environments.

Bates said the Recondo lacing system is “unique,” and was developed based on feedback from users, incorporating Bates’ many years of experience with lace-to-toe styles.

Bates, in fact, has been a U.S. military vendor since its first contract in 1919, according to Andrew Fowler, director of operations for the Bates division at Wolverine. Bates was a long-time Massachusetts-based footwear business until it was acquired by Wolverine in 1969.

Another New England footwear company acquired by Wolverine in the late 1990s was Merrell, and the Recondo incorporates elements of Merrell hiking boots in the sole. The solid rubber outsole is called the Vibram Mutant design, which has deeper lugs for better traction in dirt and mud, along with a “multi-directional leading edge” that enhances slip-resistance. The heel is rounded for a “natural touch down.”

The sole design incorporates a customized rubber compound that is durable enough to withstand Special Operations Forces use in hot or temperate weather and mountainous terrain.

Fowler said the Vibram Mutant sole is descended from a “time-tested” outsole on the original Merrell hiking boots — a distinctive, large and boxy-looking leather boot that was popular among wilderness backpackers for many years, starting in the 1980s.

The Recondo boot was officially launched July 10-11 at the ADS Warrior Expo East in Virginia Beach, Va. The show is designed specifically to exhibit products for government and defense organizations, and is attended by members of the U.S. military along with government procurement specialists. The Recondo goes on the market this fall, but Fowler said it is not an initiative targeting the Department of Defense, but rather military consumers who have the option of purchasing combat footwear not issued by the military.

The military boots generate a very small percentage of overall sales revenue at Wolverine Worldwide, which is now the world’s largest “brown shoe” business — a couple of famous athletic shoe companies are bigger.

In fall 2012, there were about 560 people working at Bates in Big Rapids, but Fowler said the employee count today is approximately 400. Employment “came down a little bit as the amount of (DOD) demand has come down.”

He said two factors are resulting in fewer footwear purchases by the DOD. The first is that fewer American military personnel are deployed in combat situations overseas, compared to the peak deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 12 years or so. Fowler noted that military equipment is not used up as quickly by troops not stationed in combat zones.

The other factor is the general downsizing of the U.S. military “and that affects everyone supplying goods to the military,” said Fowler.

The current DOD boot contract with Bates will expire next year, but Fowler said there will be opportunities to bid again on U.S. military contracts.

Bates boots are also sold to some foreign governments for their military personnel, including the U.K. Ministry of Defense. Competition for military boot orders comes in large part from Asian footwear companies.

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