2006 – I broke in my fifth pair of Kodiak boots last winter. Kodiaks are not the cheapest work boots on the market by a long shot, but they offer superior comfort and last a long time, which in my books equates to true low end living value. A good analogy is Apple computers. They aren’t the cheapest PCs you can buy, but I would argue tenaciously that they offer the best value – short, medium, or long term – of any computer you can buy.
I’ve had a 34-year love affair with Kodiaks, one of the great Canadian product innovations. Consequently, it was a bit of a jolt to read a label affirming that my newest pair of Kodiaks were made in Vietnam.
I suppose there is an element of poetic irony to this, for back in the 1960s and 1970s era, when I first discovered Kodiaks, they were the footwear of choice of the lefty, anti-war hippie crowd, that I hung with back then, even though I’ve always been a right-winger politically.
I bought my first pair of work boots in 1972, when I spent six months working as a gas jockey and auto mechanic. Not Kodiaks, but a cheaper no-name brand I picked up at Woolco. By fall, on the job hydrocarbon and acid exposure had rotted the stitching, and my boots were falling apart.
With winter imminent, I needed new footwear, and a couple of my housemates – consummate Greb boots aficionados – convinced me to get a pair of Grebs (nobody called them Kodiaks back then).
The best price I could find on a pair of new Grebs was at an Army Surplus Store – if memory serves me correctly, Can$34.95, which was a serious chunk of change back in 1972, when the Canadian dollar was worth more than the US greenback.
I didn’t regret ponying up though. They were the best boots I’d ever worn. As another Greb-fan friend observed, “they kind of embrace your feet and say ‘welcome’!” They were also warm, being insulated, but best of all, with their sewn-in tongues and Greb’s waterproofing technology, you could sink up to your ankles into a puddle of slushy sidewalk water, and your feet would stay completely dry.
That first pair of Grebs were a sort of ruddy-taupe color and didn’t have steel toes. When they wore out seven years later, I replaced them with my first pair of nominal Kodiaks in the now-familiar yellowish-tan shade – and with steel toes. They still had that unmistakable Greb “welcome” feel, however, and were still insulated and waterproof.
The middle pair in my Greb Kodiak quintet were a shiny black Army issue variant with a more aggressive sole tread. The only significant flaw in the classic Greb design was that the tread didn’t offer a particularly good traction on slippery surfaces and was prone to wearing out before the rest of the boot.
My Army-style Grebs looked great (although you have to polish them to keep them looking that way), and I still have them, but unlike my “civilian” Grebs, they’re not insulated and therefore less suitable for winter wear. They make great summer work boots and backups, but I’ll probably never wear them out.
I detoured from the Greb Kodiak road in 1987, when I needed to replace my 1979 Kodiaks and picked up a pair of “Polar Bear” brand work boots at K-Mart. With a couple of young children added to the family and tenuous cash flow, the Can$42 price seduced me. They weren’t terrible boots, but they sure weren’t Kodiaks – not nearly as comfortable or durable, and the soles wore smooth very quickly.
Remember what I said above about low end living value being more complicated than low-ball initial purchase price? When replacement time came around again in 1995, I had learned my lesson and settled for nothing less than real Kodiaks, which I found still warm and comfortable, but the upper of the left one split open last winter. The soles are still in great shape.
The Greb Story
The Greb company of Kitchener, Ontario, was founded by Erwin Greb in 1912 and became a key supplier of boots to the Canadian and British military. Erwin’s son, Harry Douglas Greb, took over the company in 1940.
Greb was a lifetime active member of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Kitchener, Ontario, served ten years as Chairman of the Board of Waterloo Lutheran University, was President of the Shoe Manufacturers of Canada, President of the Shoe Information Bureau, and President of the Shoe and Leather Council of Canada, and also an active sailor all his life, skippering five different vessels. He is credited as the first manufacturer in the region to have given his employees two weeks holiday with pay.
During the 1950s, Greb perfected a manufacturing technique that enabled them to market Canada’s first truly waterproof leather boot and launched a marketing program that established the Greb Kodiak brand as the premier boot in its category. During the 1960s and 1970s, Canada’s high schools and universities were filled with young people – male and female – wearing the versatile, waterproof, and long wearing Greb model #39570 boot.
When Harry Greb sold the company in 1975, it was the largest independent shoe company in Canada, employing at its peak 2,400 people. Soon after the sale to Warrington Inc. of Montreal, Greb was in trouble and was sold to Montreal entrepreneur Sol Zuckerman. The Royal Bank of Canada assumed control of bankrupt Greb in the late 1990s, and in 2000 the assets were acquired by Kevin Huckle of Mississauga, Ontario.
Today Canadian footwear manufacture is a casualty of high domestic wages, and all Kodiak production is subcontracted – mostly in China, Vietnam, and Thailand.
Nowadays Kodiak Group Inc.’s 135 employees work mostly in retail sales, distribution, and marketing, with Canadian footwear manufacture a casualty of high domestic wages.
Huckle is on record saying he wants to build a global footwear company, and he is determinedly pursuing the US work and sport market with lines of boots and other outdoor footwear for men, women, and children. He recently opened corporate offices and a new distribution center for Kodiak USA in White House, Tennessee.
Wayne Elsey, a 20-year veteran of the footwear industry and primary organizer of the South Asian Tsunami Footwear Drive (which netted more than $3,000,000 in footwear product and cash donations to assist tsunami victims with their basic needs, including footwear), is President of Kodiak USA.
Grebs Are Still Special
My 1972 Grebs were made by the original Greb company, and my 1979, 1982 (Army), and 1995 models were made by the various Montreal-based outfits that took over the brand.
Now I have this Vietnamese pair, which seem well-made and still has the familiar “thinsulate” installation and a reasonably comfortable fit, although I wouldn’t rate them quite up to the standard set by the Greb originals in that department. Time will tell whether they last, and I wish they were still made in Canada, but at least prospects seem promising that when I need my next pair (in 2011 or so) there will still be Kodiak boots available.
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