Karl Müller, the man behind the MBT shoe, has not always had Lady Luck on his side.
He enjoyed a hectic career in South Korea, before burning out and returning to Switzerland where he lost most of his money.
But he has bounced back and is showing that the Swiss aren’t short of ideas when it comes to innovation.
Müller is known in his native village of Roggwil in canton Thurgau as “Korea Müller”. The story dates back to when he finished his studies as a mechanical engineer.
He received a scholarship to learn Korean and Chinese in South Korea, and he had started his studies when fate struck a decisive blow.
The 1979 assassination of President Park Chung Hee brought the closure of the country’s universities, which meant that Müller had to go out and earn a living.
The golf course
The Swiss embassy was not able to offer much help but it did point him in the direction of a local golf course frequented by Swiss businessmen. There, he made his first contacts.
“I started my own business selling Swiss goods in Korea. First, it was jam and then I started to import machinery and later sporting goods,” he recalls.
“I opened several restaurants, and finally it totted up to 12 small companies. I did that for 12 years before leaving Korea in 1990.”
Materially and financially Müller had become “very, very successful” and he had married a South Korean. But he was burning the candle at both ends.
“I got sick because I worked too hard and had become a workaholic, so we decided to sell everything, return to Switzerland and become farmers.”
The family bought a small farm in the heart of Roggwil to produce organic food, but he lost most of the money that he brought back from South Korea in a project designed to help drug addicts. It was time to make money again.
Müller started to sell wooden toys at street markets, and at the same time he displayed a heel-less shoe that he had been asked by a Korean to sell.
“When I tried to sell this shoe, I found that it was very, very difficult, so I changed its construction. But he [the Korean] didn’t want that, so I constructed one myself and applied for protection of it at the patent office,” says Müller.
It was a big investment in the beginning, and he did not have the money to go from the “easy” part – the design – to production of the steel moulds needed to make the various parts of the sole.
“I tracked down my former Korean partners and my friends who supported me financially. They believed in me because they knew I was successful in Korea. That was the reason why we started to develop and produce in Korea,” he explains.
Banks, no thanks
Müller deliberately did not go to the banks.
“I didn’t want to go to the banks, because banks always ask you about a business plan and about the future.”
“I didn’t want to answer that because I always did my best and was hard-working day and night, but I could not give any guarantee that the business would be good,” he says.
It is no secret that the people of Roggwil have at times looked on Müller as a strange bird, but that has all changed with the success of his MBT shoe.
“Some people say that I’m a crazy guy. Maybe I am. But if I believe in something, I just go for it.”
swissinfo, Robert Brookes, Roggwil