His shoes may be revolutionising the way people are walking, but Swiss entrepreneur Karl Müller has his feet firmly on the ground.This content was published on November 5, 2004 - 12:58
The revolution has now reached an impressive landmark, with the one-millionth pair of shoes stepping off the production line this weekend.
Müller’s MBT footwear is fast becoming known for helping people to fight the flab, cure posture problems and ease aches and pains.
The shoes, although considered by some to be unfashionable, have also become a hit with the rich and famous.
Müller is a modest, hardworking mechanical engineer from the village of Roggwil in canton Thurgau who has tried his hand at many things, not always with much success.
But since he turned to shoes, Müller hasn’t put a foot wrong.
“Our concept is very new. Up to now, for hundreds of years shoes had heels,” explains Müller.
“Billions of people wear shoes. Billions of people are used to heels, and suddenly someone comes along with a completely new concept with a heel sensor instead of a heel,” he adds.
Müller is manager, founder and developer of the MBT concept, which makes people simulate the walking action of our barefoot ancestors.
The concept, which took five years to realise, challenges the body’s muscles to actively correct your posture.
“The upper part of the shoe is quite normal. The very special thing is the sole, and that is produced in a sandwich construction – it looks like a ski inside,” he says.
“I developed a concept that when you walk in the shoe, it feels like you are walking on very soft, natural ground. It gives you a very good walking feeling.”
Friends who tried out the shoe passed on the word, and the seeds of success started to grow.
“When I saw that I could make money with this concept, I was convinced that this would be my future. I founded the company called Swiss Masai in 1998,” he recalls.
Fitness and lifestyle
Although it is basically a health shoe, MBT has become a fitness and lifestyle product attracting international media attention.
And some of its owners have helped to put the shoe firmly on the footwear map.
“I know that many members of the Kennedy family are wearing MBT, that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a fan of MBT, and I’ve heard that some people in the Hollywood scene, including Cher, like MBT,” says Müller.
Demand is so big that the company can barely keep up with demand. Twelve months ago, the production facility in South Korea was making 15,000 pairs a month. Production has now quadrupled to 60,000, with capacity steadily increasing.
“This year we have sold as much as in all the previous years put together. The demand is probably 100,000 [a month] and I think the potential is 100 times more than that,” believes Müller.
The headquarters of Swiss Masai are not just used by Müller and his small team of staff to store shoes and administer the business.
There’s also a teaching area and a line of treadmills for people to learn how to walk in the shoes.
The MBT shoes come complete with a video or DVD and a voucher for a walking course at a local instruction centre.
It might come as a surprise to learn that Müller has sold off the majority of his company to a group of investors led by former Austrian ski star, Klaus Heidegger. But he is still the brains behind the product.
“I have so many projects and ideas which are very important for our future success, and I’m not a marketing person,” he told swissinfo.
“It is important to be successful in the United States and I have found a very good partner who knows the American market and who has been successful there.”
“We can still improve the walking feeling. We are going to produce children’s MBTs and we also have an idea to produce military and safety boots, as well as rehabilitation boots,” he adds.
swissinfo, Robert Brookes, Roggwil
MBT stands for Masai Barefoot Technology.
The Masai are a chiefly pastoral people living in Kenya and parts of Tanzania.
The MBT concept was developed in 1996 by Karl Müller to alleviate back pain, correct posture and relieve the joints.
The shoe has now become a fitness and lifestyle product and is worn by the rich and famous.
The Swiss Masai company of Roggwil, canton Thurgau, is celebrating the production of one million pairs of MBT shoes.
It is opening its doors to the public this weekend (November 6 and 7), with guests including Robert F Kennedy, founder of the Waterkeepers Foundation, Franco Carlotto (six times Mr World Fitness), Austrian ski legend Franz Klammer and three Masai.
The sole of the MBT shoe is unique, with a sandwich construction somewhat similar to that of a ski.
The company produces around 60,000 pairs of shoes a month in factories in South Korea.
Karl Müller’s dream is to bring some production to Switzerland within the next three to four years.
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