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Finnish running shoe maker Karhu turns to the proving grounds of the North Shore for some old-fashioned R&D. By Alexandra Pecci.

Karhu’s world head-quarters might be in Beverly’s sprawling Cummings Center, but inside, it feels Scandinavian. The wide-open sunny office is sleek and vastly minimalist, with decor that’s all blond wood, chrome, and glass. The only real embellishment comes in the form of brightly colored sneakers that line the walls in shades of orange, red, and blue.

“When we go to Finland, a lot of the Finns say, ‘Hey, you’re doing Finnish better then the Finns do,'” says Karhu president Jay Duke. “That’s what we want to do. We want to keep that identity.”

Karhu’s identity as a running shoe brand has been nearly a century in the making, carrying some of the most legendary Finnish athletes to Olympic victories and marathon wins and influencing other sneaker manufacturers along the way.

Although Karhu, which means “bear” in Finnish, has been a well-known brand in Europe for decades, it hasn’t penetrated the United States sneaker market until now. The company originally made skis, discuses, and javelins, including ones for the Finnish Olympic medalists in the 1920s. Americans who had heard of Karhu usually associate it with skiing, but in Scandinavia, Karhu has been synonymous with running, and Finland is a nation whose runners have dominated the sport in the past. Karhu wearers have included Paavo Nurmi, who shared the record for most Olympic gold medals until Michael Phelps surpassed it, and Boston Marathon winner Olavi Suomalainen.

“Karhu’s that brand that has touched, in a way, Adidas, Nike, Merrell,” says Duke. Karhu had air cushions before Nike, currently licenses those air cushions to Merrell, and, according to lore, sold the three-stripe logo to Adidas for the equivalent of 1,200 Euros and two bottles of whiskey on the eve of the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.

Today, Karhu has licensees that operate the ski business, leaving Duke and CEO Huub Valkenburg to focus on what they know best: running shoes. The two are industry veterans who met in Moscow in the 1980s when they both worked for Reebok. They kept in touch while they each bounced around the world, living in India, Africa, and Japan, working for brands like Reebok and Nike/Converse. Valkenburg struck out on his own and about 10 years ago, his company became the license holder for Craft, a line of performance athletic wear, before buying Karhu in 2008, when Duke came onboard. Since then, the company has been working to reinvigorate the Karhu brand and introduce it to US consumers.

So far, so good.

“In our very first collection, we won our first Runner’s World award, which we’re very proud of,” Duke says, referring to when Runner’s World magazine named Karhu’s Strong Fulcrum Ride the “Best Debut of 2009.” The key word in the sneaker’s name is “fulcrum,” which Duke and Valkenburg say is the element that sets its shoes apart from other brands and helps runners do exactly what Karhu’s tagline promises: “Move forward.”

“It’s really this component that is a pivot point, and a pivot point creates a rolling effect,” Valkenburg says. “So when you run on this, it helps you propel forward a little bit easier.” Other manufacturers often put a heavy-density section inside their shoes to correct overpronation, the industry term for when a runner’s foot rolls inward when it lands. But Karhu says its fulcrum operates like a seesaw, rolling the foot forward in a fluid motion and keeping the runner balanced.

Other shoes also focus heavily on creating a soft landing, but Karhu says ultimately, that’s not as important as forward momentum. “That shoe has all cushioning,” Valkenburg says, pointing to a Nike sneaker, which does feel soft, but somehow not as natural as the Karhu. “It’s all about bouncing, but it doesn’t necessarily do anything for you. And at the end of the day, moving forward is the goal of a runner. Not moving up and down.”

Valkenburg opens a laptop and pulls up an animation that depicts a runner striding through a blue-skied, green-hilled landscape, complete with a white windmill spinning serenely in the distance. A woman’s voiceover says that “scientists found that running in Karhu actually reduces vertical oscillation,” creating more forward velocity and fewer braking forces.

The animation also says the shoes help runners reduce “wasted energy” and allow the foot to “naturally” move forward, language that, along with the windmill imagery, is a deliberate nod to people’s interest in conservation, whether it means using less gasoline on the way to work or running more efficiently. “Part of the brand attraction is that the next generation of people are thinking about consumption,” Valkenburg says. “And there’s no brand yet that I think embraces those values that well.”

But all of that efficiency talk isn’t just brand-speak. According to Karhu, their claims are backed up by research conducted at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, which shows that people who run in Karhu use less oxygen than when they run in a competitor’s shoe.

“Jyväskylä has a very renowned neuromuscular research center and has done product testing for more than 20 years,” Valkenburg says. Runners there wear shoes with insoles equipped with 1,000 wireless sensors that communicate what the runner feels as they run across pressure-analyzing plates. “Their test facilities are a hallway away from a 200-meter indoor track that has these 10-meter stretches laid into the track, so the runners can just keep running and we can keep measuring without interrupting them,” Valkenburg says.

But Karhu turns to the North Shore to do its wear testing, using people they know or who have connections to their employees, like Gloucester-based trainer Janda Ricci-Munn, whose brother works for Craft.

According to Ricci-Munn, who trains triathletes, cyclists, and runners, Karhu is looking to people like him to find out what coaches and trainers are working on with their clients and how the shoes can support that work. “One of the things that they’re really trying to promote is getting runners into a more forward position,” he says. “That’s something that personally, as a coach, I’m really doing a lot of work on these days.”

Ricci-Munn says that too many runners run very erect, with little or no angle at their pelvis, which makes runners’ feet land outside their center of gravity and slows them down. He’s been working to change runners’ mechanics by encouraging them to tilt their torso so it looks like they’re leaning forward when they run, allowing them to use gravity and momentum to their advantage. “If you really take a look at most of the world’s best runners,” he says, “you’ll notice that they’re all running at a pronounced torso angle.” To that end, Ricci-Munn says that Karhu offers a slightly higher heel to support runners when they run that way. “When I am running in that forward position, which kind of puts me out further onto my forefoot and midfoot during the strike phase of the stride cycle, I do feel as if my heel isn’t quite as supported, and whereas with the Karhus, it does,” he says.

Teaching runners and running professionals about its technology through grassroots-style marketing is also part of Karhu’s strategy as it introduces itself to the United States market. “We haven’t gone the sports marketing route, because that’s a little bit a of a big-brand thing,” Duke says. Instead, it’s reaching out via retailers and running events to build awareness, doing things like sponsoring the 13.1 Marathon, a series of half marathons in major US cities, including Boston.

The company also holds Karhu Explorer Days when it launches at a new retailer, offering a product clinic that teaches consumers about the brand and how the fulcrum works, as well as the culture of Finland and the country’s running legacy. Consumers who try on Karhu shoes can enter to win a trip to Finland and run the Helsinki Marathon if they want to.

“We like to have people explore and see Helsinki. It’s a cool city,” Duke says. “When you go to the city of Helsinki, you see, literally, some of our colors are influenced from the buildings that are in downtown.”

Next year, Karhu is rolling out a program that teaches the Finns’ running technique to coaches, a program that the company is running this year at 34 running schools in Finland. “In the future, we’re actually going to move into running the way the Finns run. Finns have a very unique running technique,” Valkenburg says. “They are known for their distant running and having a very fluid style where you don’t move anywhere but forward. People don’t swing their arms left to right, they don’t jump in the air too much.”

According to Duke and Valkenburg, once people actually run in Karhu shoes, they become devoted to the brand. “When consumers purchase us in the US, they become real passionate; they love the brand,” Duke says. “It’s a discovery.”

One of those consumers is Amy Renz of Marblehead, whose chiropractor recommended that she try Karhu shoes after having numerous running-related knee dislocations, even once dislocating her knee during mile 22 of a marathon.

“You run from the ground up, right? So you need a good pair of shoes,” Renz says, and she’s found them in Karhu. She says her knees have been “incredible” since she made the switch from New Balance to Karhu, and ran the 2010 Boston Marathon at 3:39, her personal best and a qualifying time.

“I’ve never had such a tremendous experience. I actually felt like I could go a couple extra miles when I crossed the finish line,” she says. “It’s really wonderful to be able to do the sport that I love and not have pain doing it and to be able to do it at a level that I’m very pleased with my performance.”

Although Duke and Valkenburg say that running will be Karhu’s focus for the next 18 months, the company is planning to move into the outdoor market in 2012, developing fulcrums for the needs of hikers and walkers. But Valkenburg says Karhu won’t be making big leather hiking boots. “We’re talking about products that the runner would wear if he went hiking,” he says.

Duke and Valkenburg feel that although Karhu will always be known as a running brand, hiking and walking is a natural extension of the brand identity that incorporates the outdoors and fitness. It’s an identity that they think is a perfect fit for people on the North Shore. Duke, who lives in Newburyport, and Valkenburg who lives in Marblehead, say that the North Shore is a “sweet spot” for living a fit, healthy lifestyle. And bringing Karhu to the North Shore also makes sense in terms of the area’s legacy of shoe manufacturing, from the old shoe mills in Haverhill and Lawrence to present-day companies like Reebok, Converse, New Balance, and Timberland, who all call the area home.

“It’s actually a great area for the footwear industry,” Valkenburg says. “It’s always left its roots here, its print. You always meet somebody in the shoe industry here.”

200 Cummings Center, Suite 273-D, Beverly, 978-524-0032,