METHUEN – New Balance has kept its word and more. The Boston-based running shoe company originally pledged to hire 60 workers over five years at its new Methuen factory, while adding 15 employees from a Brighton factory it closed in 2019.
But since opening at 596 Lowell St. in January, New Balance has hired 90 people at the facility and plans to hire 100 more by the end of 2022.
“We’re going to more than double the number of people,” said Amy Dow, director of public relations and government affairs at New Balance.
This increase in hiring was driven by a surge in demand for New Balance products that began during the pandemic.
“Around mid-2020, after all this stay-at-home order kicked in, people started spending a lot on shoes and clothes, especially in the comfortable atmosphere they were in,” said Dave Wheeler, chief operating officer at New Balance. . “Our brand became very popular. The demand for Made in US shoes really increased. At that point, we decided we needed more capacity.
New Balance purchased the 80,000 square foot building in Methuen for $8 million in July 2019 from Brooks Properties of Salem, NH The building was built in 2000 but had stood empty for nearly six years, John said. Wilson, director of economics and community development at Methuen.
The company purchased the property with the help of $900,000 in tax credits from the State Economic Assistance Development Council, while Methuen provided $272,000 in property tax relief. The city also made a zoning change that allowed manufacturing to continue at the site.
To date, New Balance has spent $20 million renovating the property, which is the first new manufacturing facility they’ve built in 20 years. Methuen joins five other plants in Massachusetts and Maine where the company maintains domestic production, rather than shipping jobs overseas.
Originally, the company intended to set up “pilot operations” for a “factory of the future” at 596 Lowell St., which would have opened in the spring of 2020 with a mix of traditional shoemaking and innovative, a representative told Community Development members. Board in April 2019.
But those plans were delayed by the pandemic and changed drastically before the factory opened in January so it could meet increased consumer demand.
The Methuen building was “the perfect manufacturing environment,” Wheeler said. “So we decided to modernize it for the production of conventional shoes, but at the same time we included automated equipment that we had innovated.”
The factory makes the company’s Model 990v5 running shoes and currently produces about half as many shoes as the Lawrence factory, Wheeler said, but he expects they will eventually produce more than another. nearby manufacturing plant operated in Lawrence for decades.
That’s because New Balance plans to introduce three more “value streams,” or streamlined production processes, to the two currently operating in Methuen, while also adding a second shift.
“Two (teams) can be tough, just getting the hours,” Wheeler said. “But leveraging and getting the most out of our capital investments there is the right way to go.”
Whatever the tasks assigned to the Methuen plant, it was important to build it in the Merrimack Valley, close to component and material suppliers including Dela Inc. in Haverhill, Emtex in Danvers and Haartz in Acton.
Reducing the amount of fuel needed to transport components to the factory saves money and reduces the company’s carbon footprint, while allowing New Balance to be “more nimble”, said Wheeler.
“As our demand changes, whether it’s colorways or different models, having our suppliers within driving distance allows us to pivot much faster than if it were at the stranger,” he said.
Supply chain issues experienced by other companies during the pandemic have underscored the wisdom of this approach. Quick access to materials shortens the “lead time” needed to manufacture a shoe and deliver it to customers, which translates into greater efficiency at all levels of production and procurement.
But the technological innovations that New Balance had originally planned to install in its “factory of the future” are also essential for agile operations, which is why these plans have not been abandoned.
“When you think about the dynamics of what’s happening in the supply chain, whether it’s transportation costs or labor expenses going up, focusing on innovation hasn’t never been bigger for us,” Wheeler said. “We need to be able to produce more and more shoes in a semi-automated way. In fact, even in a conventional line, we work hard to replace some of the repetitive motion work. This is done so that we can keep our costs in line and increase volume with the same or less increase in the number of employees. »
In addition to automated and semi-automated machines, New Balance is experimenting with 3D printing and has a small “printer farm” at its Lawrence factory, Wheeler said, although the technology is not currently used in production at large scale.
But no matter what, the new factory in Methuen will continue to rely on local workers to make running shoes.
In the deal New Balance signed with Methuen, the company said it would do “its best” to ensure that “at least 30%” of new hires come from the city and to ensure that the rest comes from the Merrimack Valley. or eastern Massachusetts.
New Balance has also committed to working with Methuen High School and Greater Lawrence Technical School to develop educational projects, which may include “sharing its research and development expertise with selected students.”
That’s the kind of future MP Lori Trahan, D-Westford, was celebrating when she spoke at an event hosted by New Balance at the Methuen factory last week.
“The opening of the New Balance factory here in Methuen is a signal to residents of the Merrimack Valley that well-paying domestic manufacturing jobs are not just a thing of the past,” she said.