COMPETITION: Haix have once again given a lucky ARRSer the chance to get their hands on a pair of the Black Eagle Tactical boots in brown which retail for £144, to enter, just check the competition thread here.
Please note - this is an abridged version. The full article can be viewed as a PDF file HERE and has more detail.
A Closer Look at
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When you’re looking at an international company with large-scale production, global product reach and staff in the thousands, it’s easy to overlook the fact that it may have had much smaller and more humble origins.
With HAIX, a manufacturer of safety and tactical footwear, that origin was in 1948 when Xaver Haimerl started making boots in his hometown of Mainburg, in Bavaria. With a team of sixteen people and a few Singer sewing machines, Xaver decided to stick the ‘X’ from his forename onto the end of the ‘Hai’, and a brand was born.
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The original HAIX Team with Xaver centre rear with the white collar
For the next few decades, HAIX produced quality products with a focus on hiking and work boots for other companies, acting as a third-party manufacturing source.
Xaver had two sons during those forty years, and both were drafted into working in the small factory in between school and studies. Keen to keep the company in the family, Xaver eventually handed the business over to his younger son Ewald Haimerl who had achieved his certification as Master Shoemaker whilst working for his father in the early years. His second son, Franz Xaver actually went on to work with Lowa, happy that the family name was in good hands.
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Ewald Haimerl demonstrating his new fire boot to colleagues
Ewald was not only a Master Shoemaker but also the Deputy Fire Chief for Mainburg’s fire service. This put Ewald in the unique position of being in an industry which required rigorous safety standards but which was failing to deliver on that. The issue rubber fire boots that Ewald and his colleagues wore on a daily basis were inadequate, poorly designed and a general liability.
Thus it was that in 1992, Ewald set about using the company and knowledge he had inherited from his father and started designing a new boot to replace the issue one, which he named ‘Fire Fighter’.
This boot was met with acclaim throughout the industry. It was at this moment that realised they had the opportunity to work for themselves, and so they stopped manufacturing third-party products and launched themselves as an independent boot manufacturer.
Their initial focus was on rescue workers and the police, staying close to the safety / tactical element first worked on with the fire boots. With the insight into the industry, as well as the contacts, Ewald was able to get HAIX off on a solid footing for their initial ventures.
With this expansion into key growth markets, HAIX began to build a name for itself and started to take the lead in Europe for safety boot manufacturing processes and techniques.
Carrying on the Tradition of Quality
As that humble family business expands into a company with international reach, it’s common for the key values to be left behind as the pursuit of performance and figures overtakes everything else.
Xaver Haimerl was famous for his attention to detail and quality, holding up the fact that a bad boot literally had his name on it and was not something he would tolerate. That attention to detail, that tradition of quality was something instilled in Ewald at a young age.
As such, when Ewald took over the family business, bringing it from the first generation to the second, he was determined to avoid that pitfall of rapid expansion, loss of control and the sacrifice of quality. Because of this, the growth of HAIX has been steady and measured with every option balanced against risk and benefit.
Ewald formed the HAIX Group in 1992 and began the first stage of his ten-year business plan. Through a robust approach and natural head for business, HAIX saw an initial doubling of sales every year from 1992 from only a few hundred thousand Euros until 2000 where it hit around €13,500,000 before it balanced to a more controlled quarter increase each year thereafter. Their production increased from several hundred pairs of boots a year to over 100,000 pairs a year.
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Ewald Haimerl keeping that tradition of quality alive in 1994
Still based in their hometown of Mainburg in Bavaria, the HAIX site was expanding to keep them in line with their business goals and the staff of 18 had swelled to over 100.
By 2003, Ewald realised that with their strong market position in Europe which had gained a lot of interest internationally, the time was ripe for overseas expansion and so in 2003 HAIX North American Inc was launched, acting as a sales subsidiary in Kentucky.
This immediately increased the reach and scale of HAIX, putting them firmly on the global board. With distribution into Canada as well, the following year of 2004 saw sales performance hit €25,000,000 and all from an initial starting point in 1993 of a few hundred thousand Euros!
The drive forward was very much in full gear for HAIX, with 2006 seeing the Mainburg factory hit 400,000 pairs of boots produced in one year for the first time, yet the ethos of quality of build and reliable processes introduced by Xaver over 50 years ago, ensured that HAIX boots were produced with integrity through ethically sound methods and techniques.
Of course, with a presence in the US, the exposure to new markets soon presented itself and HAIX placed itself squarely in the centre of the sights of the hunting industry, producing a range of hunting footwear which took off dramatically and brought the European brand name of HAIX firmly into the US consciousness.
Forward into the Future
HAIX by this point were investing in public sector contracts, submitting tenders globally for a huge selection of military forces and police agencies, safety and rescue organisations and of course, the backbone of the company, fire services.
As contracts were won and the demand and strain on the company increased, HAIX once more realised that expansion was key to not only achieving further successes but also maintaining the achievements and ensuring the brand was secure going into the future.
What followed from Ewald, still driving the company forward just as he had been since day one, was a tour of the world as he looked to identify the perfect site for a high tech production factory that could meet the needs of the brand.
Ewald is an ethical man, and some of the practices he encountered whilst visiting various locations showed him that the only way to maintain a manufacturing level that would meet the company’s values and standards, would be to set up shop as close to home as possible.
In 2009, when touring around Europe, Ewald visited Croatia and fell in love with the country and its people. He swiftly found a site suitable for a high tech production facility in the village of Mala Subotica, which is a municipality in the Medimurje County and about an hour from Zagreb.
With a population of only 2,000 but unemployment levels pushing 67%, Ewald was able to immediately source a keen, enthusiastic local workforce who were overjoyed at the prospect of such challenging employment opportunities right on their doorstep. It was during this period that his brother Franz came back into the family fold to assist in the setup of the new production facilities, before departing again.
To compliment this facility and the huge increase in production output it represented, plans were drawn up for a £4,700,000 expansion of the Mainburg head office along with the launch of the HAIX France sales subsidiary based in Strasbourg; again increasing the reach and scope of HAIX.
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The Mala Subotica factory and its expansion over the years
In 2010, HAIX continued with its original mission and developed a new fire safety boot which is recognised as being the safest fire boot in the world, and it duly resulted in in orders from fire forces around the globe after its launch at the 2010 Interschutz trade show. Shortly after the launch, Ewald Haimerl stood up in the Mainburg HQ and announced the shipping of HAIX’s six millionth shoe since the first Fire Fighter boot was let out the doors in 1992.
Contracts and tenders continue to pour in, with the HAIX contracts list measuring in pages rather than lines after the Black Eagle product line is launched in 2012. To meet the demands, HAIX increases their staff levels to over 800 people with a production capacity of 650,000 pairs per year.
The investment in the plant at Croatia is paying dividends, but even so, another expansion is required and this takes place in 2015 with a doubling of floor space to 15,000m2 and 10,000 pairs of shoes per day.
At the end of 2015, HAIX numbers 1,100 employees worldwide, sales of €94,000,000 with a 64% share of exports and is now a far and distant cry from that small team in Xaver’s shop in Mainburg. Still, though, the legacy of focus and quality is carried on by the staff of HAIX and their motivation and drive to see the company succeed.
Yet Ewald, never one to rest on his laurels, continues to look forward to future demand, future requirements and future challenges. Plans are drawn up for an International Logistics Centre for autumn 2017 with a planned footprint of 18,700m2 and the ability to ship internationally within 3-4 working days. The Logistics Centre has been in operation since September 2017.
HAIX continues to self-invest, ensuring that the machinery used is the most cutting-edge available in order to gain maximum return on time and staff commitment.
Modern Processes for a Modern Time
In the autumn of 2017, if Xaver Haimerl had walked into the Mala Subotica facility, he would at first be astounded, amazed and terrified at how times and techniques had changed. From his day with needle and thread in hand, to 2017 with large, automated Desma units taking care of pouring the PU soles into their moulds and heat pressing them, Xaver would also no doubt breathe a sigh of relief when he walked into the next section and saw the rows of ladies sat at their sewing machines, working leather, suede, and rubber by hand in time honoured tradition.
Instead of Xaver however, it was I who stood on a gantry and looked down upon row after row of staff working away, machines going through their processes and routines, and being simply amazed by the scale of it all.
Invited along to the HAIX Mala Subotica facility and representing the Army Rumour Service, , Simon Ash, HAIX UK Sales Manager and Markus Lins, Head of Factory and was given the opportunity to find out for myself not just how a pair of tactical boots such as the Black Eagle is made, but also how HAIX as a company functions and operates.
The first thing I was struck by, was a contradiction to my established belief that most tactical boot processes are automated.
HAIX utilises a fine balance of automation with human engagement to ensure that where possible, the manufacturing process has been sped up to increase efficiencies across the board whilst retaining a large and necessary workforce who take care of processes too complex or too delicate for a machine.
The HAIX factory in Croatia also has its own dedicated fire station highlighting Ewald’s dedication to the fire service and appreciation of all things related, including fire trucks! A recent purchase of a new 36 station Desma unit which deals with the creation of the boot soles, increased their 8-hour output from 600 pairs to 1,000. Along with another 30 station Desma which churns out 800, they have more than doubled their capacity per shift.
The cost for this unit? Only a trifle over €1,600,000. Yet with an achieved sales target in 2016 of €102,000,000 and a 2020 target of €150,000,000, investment is key to driving that success ahead and maintaining a fresh, functional technical array.
This linked in to the fact that everything in the HAIX factory felt fresh, clean and well maintained or nearly-new. There was no tiredness, no flogging a bit of kit to death to get the last Euro out of it. There was, as far as I could see, no sacrifice in terms of equipment quality.
As mentioned, however, the human touch is still absolutely as relevant today as it was back in 1948. This is represented by the rows of ladies at their machines, the gangs of men moving stock and material about and the general hive of activity you can witness in every part of the HAIX factory.
From quality assuring the raw materials, stitching and bonding parts of the boot by hand, working with the technical units to maintain or operate them, there are human hands on almost every part of the construction process.
One particular stage of the process showed me something I certainly hadn’t expected and that was the quality assurance for the raw material from external suppliers. One of the team, Slavica was checking over a sheet of full grain leather prior to it beginning its journey on the production line. Slavica was using a few simple hand tools to check elements such as moisture content and thickness. What I didn’t expect to see was for Slavica to then run his hands over the leather, and holding it between his two palms as he examined it visually, was to simply shake his head and say “Nema dobro..” or ‘No good’ and that sheet to get removed from the main production line.
Xaver would no doubt have been proud of the fact that regardless how much shiny metal and automation existed in the factory, there was still and always would be a requirement for that irreplaceable human touch and expertise.
This was only the start of a process that would see dozens of pairs of eyes and hands cast onto the component parts of a single boot as it travelled along the construction phases. The entire system is also backed up by a robust and ruthless quality assurance overview. Rather than wait until a boot is complete, there are various QA checkpoints along the way, where the parts of a boot can be failed for any number of minor reasons.
I was invited to look at a line-up of boots that had failed and were classed as Grade 2. The only issue was visual, and I was entirely unable to identify the visual fault (though thankfully, neither could Simon!). Markus had to highlight that it was things as silly as the leather tab at the back of the boot where you grip to pull the boot on, being stitched on at a slight angle. HAIX refuse to accept compromise when it comes to the quality of their footwear, and their QA is built around the very simple standard of, ‘Would you buy it like that?’.
Putting People First
So we come to 2017, with HAIX having a physical footprints across Europe and America. A far cry from the old shoemaker in a humble house in Mainburg. As it has grown from strength to strength, which can be seen in the company statistics, HAIX has worked hard at staying true to its European ideals. Whilst many international companies made the decision to chase the cheap production costs offered by Asia, HAIX has resolutely kept their feet close to their roots.
This has led to one of the most advanced workforce environments ever encountered in a large scale footwear manufacturing plant. With their production HQ in Mala Subotica in Croatia, HAIX entered into an area with an unemployment rate of 67%. There simply was nothing in the way of local jobs, with large commutes required or complete upheaval and relocation of the family unit. Since HAIX came to the area, the unemployment rate has plummeted to 2%, and an apprentice scheme that HAIX runs has seen an uptake of 100% over the last 10 years, resulting in 265 people receiving the relevant qualifications.
Another testament to the ethical approach HAIX take to their workforce can be seen in their voluntary adherence to the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) for employers. This requires numerous health and safety measures, staff welfare measures, and a number of other requirements to be rigorously adhered to. Whilst it’s easy to sign up to a code of practice, meet the initial standards and then chin it off, the BSCI actually opens HAIX to unannounced visits by Inspectors who will interview members of the staff for feedback on company performance in terms of care and working hours.
We’ve all seen this before, and the look from the boss as they say “Don’t forget to speak freely to them……” with that undertone of ‘You’re getting fired if you stick us in’. Absolutely not a hint of that with Markus, who knew every member of staff on the shop floor by name, dishing out banter and instruction with equal aplomb to his team.
Staff at HAIX are also paid above the national average for their sector, as well as given a very generous bonus incentive of 20-30% of their weekly earnings if they hit performance markers, including overtime, offers every weekend. Again, there are some companies who offer such incentives because their hourly wage doesn’t meet minimum standards, but HAIX believes in providing a comfortable living wage as well as the reward for hard, productive work.
Speaking to some of the staff on site, there’s a real sense of motivation and enthusiasm, with options for staff starting off on the lowest rung to earn recognised qualifications and skills, and a career progression system designed to allow them to go right to the top if they’ve got the drive to match.
What does this mean for the boots on your feet? It means that you’re wearing a product that has been through hands that actually care about what they’re doing, enjoy what they’re doing and that all ties into a robust, well-made end product.
Being as I was, only partially aware of how boots were made, I was amazed at how many pairs of hands the boots pass through, as well as how the automation side of things works. In my mind, I had images of the majority of a boot making process being done by machines. It is 2017 after all.
As it turns out, the majority of the work stream is completed by human hands, with only the major parts such as the manufacture of the soles, etc, being carried out by machine and even then, there’s a heavy requirement for staff on such units as the Desma, which pours soles into their moulds.
Looking at the Black Eagle Tactical 2.0 which we’d previously reviewed on the Army Rumour Service, there are 12 separate steps involved. For reference, and pay attention here as there’ll be questions at the end:
Innovating to Win
- Upper leather, lining, reinforcement, foam embossing
- Stamping of the upper leather
- Upper leather, reinforcement, refine foam
- Reinforcement, labelling
- Sketching upper leather
- Welding and linking the lining
- Stitching upper leather
- Moulding heel cap
- Bead lining shank with foam
- Pressing of the shafts
- Preparing sole
- Sole moulding on the shaft
- Lace up boots
I was given the opportunity to see the R&D department, and it was telling that I was asked prior to entering, not to take any pictures of anything. My disappointment therefore at there being no-one in white coats or beakers bubbling away was not to be underestimated!
I did, however, get the chance to have a look at some of the prototype boots that either became product models themselves, had a part of their feature integrated into another model, or simply only ever existed as a demo boot.
HAIX is not afraid to innovate and try new ideas, have a bit of fun with their products or even make custom one-off footwear. One example of this is the shoe named HAIX HEEL. Made as a practical joke for April Fool’s Day, it quickly took the fashion world by storm and the one thousand units sold out within a matter of days. Another example was a custom pair of white firefighter boots with Swarovski Stones on it for a brides special day.
The R&D team are constantly looking at what they’ve done, what they’ve tried and what demands exist for the future and they are also the main players when it comes to the numerous tenders and contracts HAIX have around the world. They have a list of contracts that reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of global powers and organisations. Some examples include the German, French, Dutch, Danish, UK, Finish, Hungarian, and Croatian armies as well as the German, Dutch and Belgian police and the Gendarmerie in France.
With these organisations, when it’s out for a tender process then HAIX have their hands tied in terms of meeting the conditions and specifications set by the purchaser however they also have a large number of procurement purchases from other government and PMC organisations where the R&D team liaise closely with the end user and what spec they actually require, rather than what’s the cheapest it can be built for as is common with many tenders put out for bidding by various military forces.
There are also a number of elite groups that have direct supply contracts with HAIX for bespoke designs that I’m not allowed to reveal, but suffice to say eyebrows were raised when I saw the calibre of client HAIX have on their books!
Driving Change, Achieving Success
At the end of the night when we’d departed the site, I took a moment to reflect on what I knew about HAIX and what I’d learned about them both as an employer and a manufacturer.
Overall, the operation is very smooth. It would appear that nothing has been left to chance, nothing has been overlooked. I’m a cynical person, so I made sure I asked to go to various parts of the plant or I’d ask to go left rather than right, in an attempt to see how much had been prepared for an outside visit. However, having walked almost the entire length of the plant (and it’s a lot of ground to cover!), there was not a single part of the factory that struck me as neglected, poorly managed or in need of attention. Every square inch served a purpose and was filled with busy, happy people in a clean and safe environment.
In that respect, it lends strength to the reputation of the company and it reassures me that when you deal with HAIX, you’re dealing with a professional, attentive company that knows what it wants and more importantly, how to get it without sacrificing their core values along the way.
My second observation was the one that’ll stay with me whenever I look at the HAIX brand.
In terms of staff attitude, it was exceptional throughout. The atmosphere was one of motivation and enthusiasm, of chat and laughter and constant movement. I have never seen a workforce so well looked after. At each stage of a hand process, the level of attention was minute. There was no sign of that tired or fed up workforce who just want to get to the end of the day and this could be seen in the performance monitoring system HAIX uses – it shows the output of each individual employee (in order to track their bonus payment eligibility) and almost every single person in the factory was pushing 100% plus.
This, to me, means that unlike a company that outsources to unregulated countries where work practices are dubious at the best of times, with HAIX you know that the pair of boots in your hands have been made with human energy and focus, and that the quality will stand testament to the satisfaction of the HAIX workforce and that more importantly, if it doesn’t, then HAIX want to know about it.
With such a strong foundation, a robust modern approach to manufacturing processes and a people-centric working environment, HAIX with their long-term plan for expansion seem assured of continual success. That success will be underpinned with the knowledge that the tradition of quality that was first set in leather by Xaver Haimerl in 1948 in a small town in Bavaria, will still hold true in 2018 and beyond, wherever the HAIX brand may find itself.
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Ewald Haimerl – part of the HAIX legacy