Karhu is betting that its running heritage will pave a path through an ever-increasing crowd of new entries in running footwear. The Finland-based legendary running brand is also counting on its air of authenticity and its commitment to running specialty.

Born in 1916, Karhu (meaning “bear” in Finnish) originally made javelins and discuses, and was the inventor of the first removable spike. By the ’20s and ’30s, many of Europe’s track and field stars wore either Karhu or Adidas. At one time, Karhu owned Merrell and, interestingly enough, patented and sold Karhu running shoes with “Air Cushion” three years before Nike introduced “Air.” Also, Karhu skis, made under license by K2, Inc., remain prevalent in the marketplace.

In the running category, however, Karhu is probably most associated with the Flying Finns, a nickname given to several Finnish middle- and long-distance runners. The most famous were Paavo Nurmi, who won nine Olympic gold medals from 1920 to 1928; and Olavi Suomalainen, who won the 1972 Boston Marathon.

In June 2008, two footwear veterans – Huub Valkenburg and Jay Duke – acquired the Karhu trademark and patents in hopes of capitalizing on the brand’s running and outdoor history.

“We think Karhu is the last of the truly authentic athletic brands,” says Duke. “For Americans to understand the brand, I compare it to being the Converse of Europe – a legendary athletic brand that has never been managed properly. Karhu is a pioneer in running footwear, with sports enthusiasts in Europe right over there alongside Adidas.”

Duke should know about Converse. He used to head up that company’s strategic planning and business development efforts, and ran its sports performance and lifestyle business unit after it was sold to Nike. And, like Converse, Karhu has had a series of owners and numerous ups and downs over its history. The former owners rarely pushed to expand the brand outside of its core Scandinavian market.

“It’s real rich in history and had great products, but nobody grabbed Karhu’s potential with a strong brand vision on a global scale,” says Duke.

The new owners, who met while working at Reebok in the early ’90s, plan to re-launch the brand in March in run specialty. All models are inspired by Finnish design and are engineered with the patented Fulcrum technology, based on innovations Karhu brought to market in the ’70s and ’80s. The technology promotes the foot’s natural abilities in three fluid movements through the phases of the gait cycle, to reduce wasteful vertical forces and promote an efficient gait cycle.

“Our product is engineered to deliver a natural ride and feel,” says Duke.

While finding a spot on running walls remains a challenge, Duke said the company has already established some connections in the channel, thanks to Karhu CEO Valkenburg’s work in pioneering the Craft performance apparel brand in North America since 2000.

“Craft has grown under Huub’s guidance to be a top specialty base layer, bike, run and ski apparel brand with, hands down, some of the best functional apparel,” comments Duke. Compared to other brands, Duke also expects Karhu to benefit from its dedicated focus on run specialty, as well as a running heritage few others can claim. So far, the response from running stores has been positive, including a recent preview retail launch at Luke’s Locker in Dallas.

“Karhu is an authentic specialty running brand, so it is important for us to have them on our wall,” states Luke’s Locker President Matt Lucas. “Karhu provides us with a unique brand and product story to sell our customers, and has delivered the support we need to create sell-through.”

Duke hopes that Karhu’s authentic message, performance and its overall run specialty commitment will lead many run specialty owners to welcome back the Karhu name.
“The specialty market dynamic is changing,” says Duke. “The top five running brands in 2000 are totally different than today. The running specialty companies of yesterday are the sporting goods companies of today. Leading running specialty dealers say they must always reinvent themselves and we hope Karhu to be their best partner over the next decade.”