Eine US-Feuerwehrfrau am Truck
Duty
Author: Karen Hanne
Pictures: Hanno Meier

The American Dream

Twenty years of HAIX in the United States – and Elfriede Elfinger has been in charge of the American adventure for most of it. The company’s path to Lexington in Kentucky was not always smooth. Obstacles such as time zones, long journeys, culture shock, and a challenging market have steeled HAIX North America and turned it into a superhero.

Initially, the workwear supplier Lion Apparel was HAIX’s first US connection. At the time, Elfriede worked in sales in Germany, which put her in frequent contact with the company’s overseas business partners. Just like in Germany, HAIX’s success story in North America began with firefighter boots. In 1999, Elfriede visited her first trade fair in the US. A mere four years later, a decisive step was taken: “In 2003, HAIX North America was founded,” she told us. The company’s beginnings were marked by a lot of strenuous work. People had to be hired. Structures and IT systems that were already in use in Germany suddenly needed to be implemented all over again, more than 4,000 miles away. Elfriede recalls the toll those years took on her, having to travel between the two locations every other week before she finally stayed in the US for an entire year. She has since been promoted from distribution manager to vice president.

Nonetheless, spending time so far away from home does not come without challenges. In the early days, she felt the many miles between Mainburg and Lexington even more keenly than she does today. “WhatsApp and Skype weren’t a thing yet,” recalled Elfriede. “The best we could do was talk on the phone for a short while, and even that was extremely expensive.” Missing out on important occasions back home, personal as well as professional, was inevitable. But she always knew: You can’t experience the true “American spirit” without staying for a long time. “You grow as a person, get to know the language and culture. You come to understand the people in a whole new way.”

Elfriede is especially proud of the exchange program. “Young people who have successfully completed their apprenticeship with HAIX Germany can go to work for HAIX North America for a year.” Rather than just introducing the junior employees to working in America, the initiative aims to expose them to a new country, culture, and way of life. Experiences abroad are extremely valuable. “They all changed so much,” she said.

The heart of the USA

In Lexington, Kentucky, HAIX has found a perfectly central location in the American Southeast. “Our shoes, which are imported in containers, have to be taken inland from the coast first. But it’s much easier to distribute them from here.” The nearby city of Louisville is home to the UPS Worldport, one of the world’s largest logistics centers. If HAIX had chosen a major metropolis such as New York or Chicago, its storage and administration costs would have been much higher.

“Ewald Haimerl had ambitious ideas,” Elfriede recalled when asked about the then managing director and his motivation. But despite everything, the US market is simply different – and occasionally somewhat peculiar. Products that worked well in Europe had to be adapted for the American market. One of the first problems that arose: US customers need wider shoes. HAIX North America promptly switched its production to broader lasts. Apart from all that, the company also had ambitions to develop new segments, and once again, it had to find a foothold in the local market first. One dream customer remains entirely out of reach even to this day: the US Army. “The American military wants products made in America,” explained Elfriede. For certain things, European products simply cannot be used.

Elfriede and her colleagues also had to get used to the American approach to marketing and trade fairs. “It took us some time to become Americanized,” she said. Advertisements, for example, are much louder, flashier, and pushier in the USA. Nobody goes to trade fairs in a suit – everything is much more casual.

HAIX North America: a Hero’s Journey

Challenges and obstacles notwithstanding, the sophisticated leather firefighter boot was as innovative in the USA as it had been in Europe. “Before our launch, rubber boots were widespread,” remembers today’s Vice President. The technology and features that make HAIX firefighter boots unique were also highly sought after in the US market. “It still took us a long time to make a name for ourselves,” said Elfriede. It is hard for a brand to establish itself against the standard of “made in the USA.”

Twenty years later, things look very different. HAIX’s anniversary was marked with a big party in Lexington, complete with food trucks and entertainment for young and old alike. As a special highlight for the littlest ones, the regional police and fire brigade showed up in their big trucks. Anyone brave enough got to sit in the driver’s seat and turn on the siren. Of course, there was also a typically American sale. Big discounts were up for grabs, and the surrounding fire brigades and police departments were pleased to get great deals on their favorite shoes from the HAIX store.

HAIX has become an integral part of many fire and police stations. From New York and Detroit to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles – HAIX shoes have even found their way to the Honolulu Fire Department. The New York State Police, too, trusts in the specialist manufacturer’s shoes. “You see our shoes in more and more places – from stations to ambulances. When you enter the country, even the security officers at immigration wear HAIX,” concluded Elfriede. And the hero’s journey of HAIX North America is far from over.

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