AUSTIN, Texas—In his 1,600-square-foot headquarters, which the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) visited during its 2017 State of Manufacturing Tour, Joshua Bingaman is a whirling dervish—designing, packaging and shipping upscale boots to as many as 150 customers per month. A former singer, shoe store owner and coffee shop proprietor, Bingaman is the founder of HELM Boots, a small but fast-growing company.
“It’s controlled chaos,” Bingaman says of the daily operation of his business, which has a dozen employees—“we all wear 10 hats”—and contracts with factories in Maine and Arkansas to make his boots.
“I’ve become very passionate about manufacturing in America,” said Bingaman. “It’s not a political thing for me. It’s about keeping factories open. It’s about that we can compete with anybody in the world,” including famed boot makers in Spain and Italy.
Fueled by his passion and newly attracted outside investors, Bingaman said annual sales have soared from $150,000 in HELM’s first year in 2009 to an anticipated $1 million this year.
“We are a small company projecting some pretty serious growth now that we have some fuel in the tank,” he said. “We aren’t in a hurry and are more focused on doing it the right way, but with that, we are planning for 50–100 percent annual growth over the next four to five years. We think it’s realistic.”
“We want to prove that American shoe making can be, and is being, revived,” Bingaman said. It’s a story Bingaman shared in the NAM’s Creators Wanted video series, an initiative to enhance parents’ views about careers for their children in modern manufacturing.
At 37, the bearded Bingaman still looks like the touring singer that he was before he gave up his gigs eight years ago to begin a series of business ventures that led him to adopt his own corporate philosophy and priorities.
“We care about our people first—our staff, our factory workers, our customers. Then, we care about our product, and then, we care about our profits,” Bingaman said. “If you take care of your people, your product reflects it, and then your profits will take care of themselves.”
Bingaman said his way of doing business has attracted top people from other footwear and apparel companies, including adidas, Barneys and Urban Outfitters, to join his company.
“At HELM Boots, it’s not like you just work at a job; you join a family—the HELM family,” he said. “That says something about the passion. They want to be part of the passion.”
In return, Bingaman said, “We give employees equity in the company so they can be part of what they’re working so hard to build and be part of the joy of the profits.”
Last year, Bingaman began a new promotional plan.
Through the “HELM Corporate Partnership program,” he enters agreements with small and large organizations, such as law and real estate firms, tech companies, developers—even a movie producer—to provide them with customized gift cards that they give their employees, customers or clients to buy a pair of HELM boots. The cards are often presented at a gala, such as a holiday party, or simply given for jobs well done.
In exchange, these group sales raise the HELM profile and attract a new legion of buyers. The HELM partnership “deck” explains the program and displays its footwear.
“We had a producer in L.A. who does big movies. He’s a big fan of HELM and bought the cast gift cards,” Bingaman said. “Members of the cast are now wearing our boots on red carpets, and we’re celebrating. We love it.”
Bingaman said HELM’s boots are made with a certain group of buyers in mind, “a creative working class.” “Our top buyers are professionals—graphic designers, architects, surgeons,” said Bingaman. “These are guys who care about the details and quality of the boot, from the pattern to the stitching.”
Bingaman said about half of HELM’s sales are through its website. HELM also provides footwear to about two dozen boutique stores nationwide as well as in Japan and Australia. HELM’s “flagship store” is in Austin.
Bingaman said he envisions more stores, beginning with a second in Austin followed eventually by stores in other cities.
The company has a personal feel to it. Bingaman named it after his son, Samuel Helm, who is named after one of Bingaman’s friends. Different models of the footwear are also named after family and friends.
While HELM’s primary business is boots, it began making its first men’s shoe styles last year and this year plans to further diversify with its first full women’s boot and shoe lines.
Bingaman traces his passion for footwear to his mother. “She had Imelda Marcos syndrome,” he said, referring to the former Philippine first lady whose opulent life style included owning a thousand pairs of shoes.
“Our mother’s love language was buying my brother and me shoes,” said Bingaman, adding that growing up in Oklahoma, he and his brother, Brock, also became enamored with sneakers and boots.
In 2000, the two brothers opened a shoe store in San Francisco. But after a few years, they parted ways, and Joshua Bingaman moved to Austin where he ran a coffee shop and a coffee roasting company.
By 2009, he returned to footwear and contracted with a factory in Istanbul, where his aunt lived, to produce the boots he had begun designing.
“Some of the first ones looked a little Frankenstein-ish,” Bingaman recalled. “I’d say, ‘Oh my, what have I done?’ But then I would hit on a winner.”
He had enough “winners” to make a profit and grow. He quickly became weary, however, of operating a business overseas—the travel, the port fees, the aggravation of handling quality control from afar. So he started looking far and wide for a factory in the United States.
He found and contracted with one in Lewiston, Maine, in 2012, and the next year contracted with a second factory—this one in Wynne, Ark.
Looking ahead, Bingaman said that he may eventually have a factory of his own right outside of Austin.
“It’s a possibility,” he said. “It’s a dream I have.”