Thursday, June 27
With a rest and recovery day behind us, it was time to ramp up the activity quotient here in Northern Italy.
How it's made day
We had a couple of interesting activities planned for today: first, we were off to visit a boot factory - more specifically, the Gronell mountain boot factory north of Verona.
The method by which we came to obtain the ability to go on this tour was via Miriam. Some years ago at a function related to her family's business, she had met Fabio Grossule, sone of Gronell founder Nello Grossule. The subject eventually came around to Miriam's 2009 experiences in the Dolomites, climbing, vie ferrate, and mountain boots. The representative was part of the company's founding family, and invited Miriam to take a tour of the factory when she next visited the Verona area. This was that next visit, and she had arranged for a tour.
The Gronell factory is located in one of the north-south valleys north of Verona. I chose to take the physcially shortest route to get from Riva to the factory, which necessitated crossing perpendicularly across the topography of the Lessini Mountains. From a motorsport / road-fun perspective, it was fantastic. From a sick passenger perspective, it was not - even with the slowest and gentlest possible driving I could manage. I should have just gone the long way around on the Autostrada.
The slow driving speeds meant we arrived at the factory a little bit later than we had planned. Massimo, another son of Gronell founder Nello Grossule, was waiting for us. He ushered us quickly onto the factory floor, for we were nearing the point at which production would cease for lunch hour.
Massimo led us out onto the Gronell factory floor, where employees were at work at various stages of the boot manufacturing process. What immediately struck me was the hands-on work-stations. I had somehow had expected things to be a little more "assembly-line", a little more automated. What I saw instead was that most functions and stations were directly operated by a person. They did use machines, but there was almost always a direct human hand involved in the various operations.
Explaining the Shoe Business
In addition to discussing the various stages of boot construction - preparing uppers, lasting, etc., he also discussed the state of boot manufacture in a more general sense: competition from low-cost centers in the far-east, the types of models they choose to manufacture and sell (not all of the boots they make are mountain boots), and the company's interactions with other retailers. Much of what Gronell makes is under contract to other big-name retailers. For example, on the shop floor this day, we saw a whole slew of orange-topped boots destined for the Swedish chainsaw manufacturer Husqvarna. The boots were entirely Husqvarna-branded; there was no indication by looking at the boot that Gronell had manufactured them.
In the process of discussing modern boot construction, Massimo described to us a new waterproofing substance that Gronell had adopted in some lines of their mountaineering boots. An Italian company called Outdry had come up with a waterproof-lining alternative to Goretex-like linings. This alternative, called (unsurprisingly) Outdry, is different from Goretex-like linings in one key way - it is bonded directly to a boot's outer layer, preventing the water-loaded gap that develops with Goretex-lined products.
I had not heard of Outdry until this point - something Massimo acknowledged was a problem. The Gore-tex brand has world-wide recognition, and Outdry does not. In fact, Massimo said, Gore-tex had been seeking ways to limit Outdry's growth, discouraging manufacturers from offering products with Outdry. Apparently they've been doing this to the point of threatening to rescind a company's license to use Gore-tex if that company offered Outdry-based products. Sounds to me like Gore-tex might be a bit afraid of Outdry.... and as someone who is keenly interested in the waterproof/breathable properties of outdoor sportswear, I have to admit I am intrigued by Outdry. I'd love to try a pair of Outdry-utilizing boots.
At twelve noon, the factory floor fell silent as employees left for their lunch break. Massimo escorted us into a small room in the office section of the factory, where the walls were lined with countless models of Gronell boots, from out-of-production models to non-hiking shoes to full-on Himalayan expedition boots.
On behalf of all of us, Massimo, we thank you for taking the time to give us a thorough and interesting look into mountain-boot manufacturing. I think I might just look for an Outdry-equipped Gronell Mountaineering boot when my La Sportivas wear out.