Have you ever gone by a non-descript building and wondered “What’s going on in there”? So have we. In this new column, we will explore the interior of places with no obvious signage but plenty of activity. This is the first in a series of articles about buildings located in the Central Eastside Industrial District so you can find out what’s going on in there too.
By Mike Klepfer
The East side industrial area is an interesting place. Heading toward the river on SE Morrison St., there’s a wide vista of the dramatic downtown skyline. Going over the bridge, it’s easy to get distracted and not notice the roofs of buildings as you leave the East side.
People know that this side of the river is home to office buildings, the Convention Center, hotels, the Lloyd Center, but the areas of the east side near, between and under the bridges feel tucked away.
They contain factories, shops, warehouses and converted industrial space for storefronts and these areas can seem cold, gray and official. They aren’t developed to be pedestrian-friendly or invite window shopping.
Some businesses even lack signage, so all that seemingly separates an empty warehouse from a working one is the sight of some workers out on a smoke break or the faint sounds of a forklift inside. This can mean that locations near the river can seem like hidden gems when you happen onto them.
One example is Korkers. This little workspace is indiscernible from the rest of the street and seems camouflaged. Housed in a nondescript gray building, you can make out a reception area and display rack of boots from the street. Inside, however, is a small but rapidly growing outdoor footwear business, born on the banks of the Rogue River.
Sean Beers presides over the business today, surrounded by tatters of scrap paper, receipts, a laptop and a ringing iPhone. A little rough around the edges, he’s returned home after a highly successful tradeshow in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he’s just secured an exclusive contract with Vibram – the Italian outsole maker of the nearly ubiquitous, toe-hugging FiveFinger running shoe – to market Korkers proprietary design: removable, customizable traction soles for boots.
“I can multitask,” Beers says, “but I don’t like multitasking. I can work an eight-hour day here, but it’s a twenty-four-seven news cycle for me. I don’t eat breakfast often.”
He didn’t come into his business as an artisan cutting leather and hammering away at soles.
That distinction goes to Korkers’ founder, Sherman Smith, an angler on the Rogue near Grant’s Pass, who used heavy-duty materials, such as scrap rubber, nylon cord and carbide spikes to create “river cleats”; heavy-duty soles for boots and hip-waders to save himself and his fellow fishermen from cold and rushing rapids and slippery rocks one has to brave when fly-fishing for the river’s steelhead.
Soon, the brand was adopted by laborers who needed traction; roofers, and people who had to work at high elevations in snowy and icy conditions.
Beers’ background is business, particularly outdoor apparel. He spent almost five years at Columbia as the general manager of their footwear division. Before that, he was CEO of Sorel, which, under his stead switched places from a slumping outdoor-wear brand to one catering to fashionable women who want to be out in the elements.
Beers characterized Korkers as a “barn business” and saw an opportunity to capitalize, so he left Columbia and took a chance.
“I saw the business as underdeveloped, a diamond-in-the-rough,” he says.
He took over Korkers and made it into the best-selling brand for hip-waders worldwide (beating out Sims, a better-known competitor, who he characterizes as “an 800-pound gorilla”). Korkers also makes winter boots.
Beers attributes his success to his company’s small size (nine employees), and versatile style. He sells to large outdoor retailers like Bass Pro and Cabela’s, and his product is distributed to a dozen other countries, worldwide.
Far from their modest beginnings, Korkers are manufactured in China and Beers says he has a close relationship with his labor chain, having visited China at least thirty times.
“We’re out there on the factory floor, looking over work, working patterns,” he says. He mentions he takes phone calls from his Asian partners late at night, when they’re just waking up.
The company’s innovation, its “adjustable traction” removable soles, called Omnitrax, snap easily in place at the base of the boot’s sole and feature a small, button-holed hanger in the back, near the boot’s back, on the wearer’s Achilles.
“I tend to fish the Deschutes,” Beers says. “It can be dangerous. Those conditions require traction. I take them to Montana to fish out of a boat and switch to a rubber sole. You can adapt the traction.”
A Portland native who attended Aloha high school in Beaverton, Linfield for undergraduate work and a law degree from Lewis and Clark, Beers says he’s satisfied with his location in the east side industrial area.
“We love it here. It’s gritty, but not dangerous. We like the energy here. We’re basically downtown without being downtown.”
He says the businesses and workshops in the area have helped him mill wood and screen some lithograph prints he’s needed.
Beers also makes time for his three kids and he coaches a basketball team. The Tualatin Hills Parks and Recreation Department’s Honey Badgers, is made up of tough and tenacious 13-year-olds.
An angler himself, he skis when he gets the chance, although the last two winters haven’t been exemplary for that, which is also a drain when you consider that Korkers sells winter boots.
“The weather hasn’t been conducive,” Beers says. “I wish I could make it snow.”