Birkenstock Aims High

Since 1990, Margo Fraser, founder and CEO of, Birkenstock Footwear Inc., has watched her company experience growth nothing short of explosive. Revenue for 1992, at about $50 million, was up 50 percent from 1991, which was up 40 percent from 1990. While the American health-conscious craze of the 1990s, which has brought mainstream acceptance to formerly counterculture values, accounts for some of the company’s soaring success, Birkenstock’s empowerment of employees cannot be ignored.

The company, based in Novato, California, is the exclusive importer of the “Birkenstock” sandals from Germany. “Birkenstocks” are actually clunky looking sandals with cork innersoles that cradle the feet. These shoes sometimes dubbed “shoes for lazy feet”, since the wearer just slips them on, with nothing to tie or button – now come in a range of styles and colors. In Germany, the Birkenstock family had been making gesundheitschuhe health shoes for roughly two centuries when Fraser stumbled upon them in the mid 1960s. Today with the baby boomers increasingly interested in comfort, the sandals are not just for Berkeley types. Whoopi Goldberg and Madonna are among celebrities who have been seen wearing them.

Birkenstock shows respect for its employees. Because we take a great deal of time out of our employees’ lives, we want to provide for more than just their critical needs, such as major medical insurance. They adopt a policy “Employees contribute a lot of themselves to our organization and therefore we should contribute to the quality of their lives”. Benefits have therefore been expanded to include stress management courses, a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program and financial counseling.

At the same time, the company management not only involves employees but actively engages them. This is empowerment. In January 1993, Birkenstock hired a professional trainer to organize employees into teams and teach them how to make the most of those teams. Then, in March, managers created a training advisory council aimed at locating specific areas that still needed improvement. Teams now operate within and across many departments.

Empowerment is not a new concept in Birkenstock. Back in 1989, an in-house marketing manager encouraged the creation of a 12 member “eco task force” with across the board departmental representation. This happened after a member of the department approached the manager with her belief that Birkenstock could do more in the area of environmental conscientiousness. The company had already embraced a wide variety of such practices. But the task force did more. An in-house environmental library was developed. A guide to nontoxic resources was complied. A newsletter on relevant internal activities was produced. And monthly meetings with neighboring businesses were organized to promote the sharing of ideas on environmental products and concerns.

How to distribute formal authority throughout the organizational structure is a key organizing decision. Managers clearly cannot do everything that must be one to carry out the strategic plan for an organization. Hence, they must decide how much authority to delegate to lower ranking managers or non-managers,. Delegation involves the sharing of power with others.

Birkenstock management supports such endeavors because they enable employees to pursue their own concerns, while, at the same time helping the company. The “eco task force” enabled Birkenstock to cut energy costs at the same time that motivation and loyalty were being reinforced. Today, Birkenstock is noted for its highly productive work force and low turnover. We recognize that people have a need to contribute and to feel enthusiastic about what they are doing, said Birkenstock’s vice president Mary Jones. “I’m really here to help out”.

Fraser’s personnel values underlie Birkenstock’s employee empowerment. It’s a good thing to aim high, she said. The business can only grow as much as you can as a person. You must grow with it.

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