New Balance is a true American success story. Founded in 1906 by an English immigrant, William Riley, the company made specialty shoes and arch supports for a small but loyal group of customers. With just six full-time employees, New Balance rarely turned a profit for the first five decades of its existence. It was not until 1960 that the company reported significant sales increases. Not surprisingly, that was the year they released their very first athletic shoe.
It was called the “Trackster,” and it was made with the needs of their customers in mind. Many of them had asked New Balance to design a new type of running shoe for people with foot problems. Since tight shoes always aggravate bad feet, New Balance decided to offer their shoes in different width sizes. They were the first shoemaker to do so.
The Trackster gained a loyal following, but it did not make the company rich. It was not until 1975 that New Balance became a household name. With a new chairman at the helm, Jim Davis, the company invested heavily in their new athletic line, especially shoes for runners. Finally, one of them wore a pair on the national stage.
Tom Fleming won the Boston Marathon in a pair of New Balance 320s. Suddenly, everyone was asking about the tiny company from Massachusetts. And it wasn’t just the professionals. At the time, running was one of the fastest growing recreational sports in the nation. What some referred to as a fad would soon become the most profitable sector of the athletic shoe market.
But New Balance has never been one to toot its own horn. In fact, the company has remained faithful to its “Endorsed By No One” theme. Even after sales rocketed to $60 million in 1982, Jim Davis was reluctant to break with tradition. After all, the appeal of the company had always been its products, not its slogans.
With annual sales of over 1.5 billion and more than four thousand full-time employees, it seems to have worked. New Balance is now the fourth largest athletic shoemaker in the nation and the fifth largest in the world. What sets them apart?
In addition to their disdain for marketing, New Balance is also made in America. As labor and material costs increased in the 1980s, all of the top American shoemakers started shipping operations overseas. Nike, Reebok and Adidas (the top three) have most of their shoes made in Asia. But New Balance has refused to separate management and production. Jim Davis has always maintained that the product quality would suffer if the shoes were not made at home.
Though their labor costs are invariably a bit higher, with the money they save in advertising, New Balance shoes are competitively priced. In fact, they are far cheaper than shoes from the market leaders, Nike and Reebok, who pay hundreds of millions of dollars for ads each year.
New Balance has never been known for its stylish shoes. Their designs are often quite simple and understated. However, in recent years, the company has developed a few models that are a bit flashier than their predecessors. Let us take a moment to review their most stylish shoes.
Easily the company’s most famous and stylistically adventurous shoes, the 574 line has been around for decades. Designed as a running shoe, there are dozens of unique models in the line. Most of them are made with pricier materials, like leather and suede. The shoe is famous for its durability and comfortable padded interior.
What makes them stylish? As we mentioned, there are many different models, but the shoes have an obvious retro appeal. They feature sporty lines and mesh panels that help the shoe breath. In addition to being comfortable and rugged, suede is also an attractive material. Most of the shoes we reviewed offered classic color combinations, like black, silver and white. None of them had too much going on or seemed overly decorative. Adult sizes range from 4 to 20. There is even a model for the kids.
Some purists might accuse the company of going soft if they encountered the New Balance 950 Walking Shoe. Available in all white or all black, the 950 is one of the few New Balance models that does not feature the big “N” patch near the ankle. Rather, it has a much smaller “N” embossed on the heel.
While it is technically an athletic shoe, the 950 looks an awful lot like a casual dress shoe. It is made of full-grain leather with pigskin lining and superior cushioning. The molded multi-density insert is comprised of a patented combination of polyurethane and memory foam. Because of the premium materials and increased assembly time, the 950 is one of the company’s most expensive shoes.