Social-Media Mavens

David Kahan, B.S.'82

David Kahan

Photo: Anna Chan/Birkenstock

A Foothold on Customer Loyalty

By Carol Olechowski

Footwear legend Birkenstock “is not your typical company,” maintains David Kahan, the firm’s chief executive officer since 2013. “This is a company with heart and passion. Our mission is not just to sell footwear, but to sell footwear that brings people happiness and satisfaction.”

Kahan is responsible for “all elements of the business, including distribution; brand management; and, of course, delivering a profit to our shareholders.” He also relishes another role: connecting with Birkenstock’s customer base through social media.

For customers who prefer more traditional communication methods, Birkenstock maintains a call center. “In a day and age where it is nearly impossible to get a human being on the phone, we believe in personal engagement,” observes Kahan, adding that consumers also receive responses to email messages forwarded to the company’s general mailbox.

Thanks to its commitment to customers, Birkenstock has experienced “explosive growth over the past two years,” according to Kahan. The brand’s fans include actors Leonardo Dicaprio, Kate Hudson and recent Academy Award winner Julianne Moore. “Julianne has my cell-phone number and can reach out anytime to find out when the newest style is coming out. Her Twitter picture shows her feet in a pair of fur-lined Birkenstocks. This isn’t something you can fake. We do no celebrity seedings or product placement.”  

Social media, Kahan adds, “have changed the way brands engage their consumers. We believe in wrapping our arms around our loyal fans and creating a true community. The direct contact shows respect for our customers; it lets them know they are valued.”

Instagram post from Birkenstock
Tweet from Birkenstock
David Kahan shows off yellow Birkenstock sandles

Birkenstock, founded by a family in Germany more than 240 years ago, is still made there, “largely by hand.” The brand came to the United States in the late 1960s when a California woman, Margot Fraser, discovered the comfortable shoes after developing foot pain while trekking through Europe. When Fraser returned to San Francisco, Kahan relates, “she contacted the Birkenstock family and, with zero footwear experience, asked if she could import some pairs. Managers at shoe stores told her the shoes were ugly and would never sell.”

Convinced of the shoes’ health benefits, however, Fraser sold the first pairs to health-food stores. “Birkenstocks caught on with a somewhat ‘alternative’ crowd that included college students and have since become a global phenomenon. Our styles are considered some of the most iconic footwear silhouettes in the industry,” Kahan observes.

Kahan himself is somewhat iconic. While majoring in accounting at UAlbany, he worked at Macy’s for a few summers. The experience melded his enthusiasm for sports, clothing and fashion with a penchant for assisting customers. After completing the retailer’s executive-training program, Kahan created The Macy’s Athletic Club, which capitalized on “the huge cultural interest in health and wellness, and marked Macy’s entry into the athletic-footwear business.”

Senior-management roles with Nike; Reebok, North America; and Adidas and its Rockport footwear division followed.

Birkenstock inspires customer loyalty because “we will never, ever compromise our quality or brand values,” explains Kahan. He can personally attest to the company’s unwavering commitment to workmanship and mission: Kahan wears Birkenstocks to work – with a business suit.

Davad Kahan is presented the Brand of the Year Award

Daymond John of “Shark Tank,” left, poses with Birkenstock CEO David Kahan after presenting the footwear-company executive a Brand of the Year award.

What’s Next for Birkenstock?

Birkenstock’s “fans for life,” says CEO David Kahan, have given the company opportunities to expand its product line.

“A closed-toe shoe collection introduced recently includes warm winter boots, women’s spring wedges, and also great men’s casual shoes.” Response to the line “has exceeded all expectations,” Kahan reports. “We also just launched hosiery. Many people wear them with the Birkenstocks – a look we call ‘socks ‘n’ stocks.’”

Kahan promises that Birkenstock “will continue to introduce what we call ‘limited-edition’ styles that deliver seasonally and excite the market. Spring 2016 will include neon colors.”

Next: Michele Husak, B.A. '90