All Posts By


Former Wolverine employee carves out niche

By Boots

Over two decades after immigrating to the U.S., the son of a Czech cobbler is finding success growing his own shoemaking business in Grand Rapids.

Petr Kovarik is owner and founder of Liberty Footwear, at 1750 Alpine Ave. NW in Grand Rapids, located in an industrial park north of Grand Rapids Foam Technologies and south of Crystal Flash.

The son of a cobbler from a small village in the former Czechoslovakia, at what is now the border of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Kovarik studied shoemaking in high school and college. At the time, Czechoslovakia was part of the Eastern Bloc of Communist countries, and its biggest export was shoes to the Soviet Union, making about 160 million pairs a year, with other Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland contributing farming equipment and cosmetics for the empire, while the U.S.S.R. concentrated on producing tanks, airplanes and bombs.

After trade school, Kovarik worked in various shoe factories in the Czech Republic doing product development and material purchasing. He came to the U.S. in 1998 to earn his Master of Business Administration degree from Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business.

He was planning to return home with his graduate degree to “be a big fish in a small pond,” but life had other plans.

While he was pondering where to enroll — MSU or Purdue University — Kovarik said he needed a summer job to save money for tuition before school started. Impressed by his resume, Wolverine Worldwide offered him not just a job, but sponsored his MBA studies at MSU and gave him a spot in the company’s management training program. Kovarik went on to work at Wolverine Worldwide for 17 years.

Kovarik said he was initially drawn to the company for its manufacturing operations — at the time its biggest U.S. shoemaking rival was Red Wing Shoes in Minnesota — but as the years wore on, management decided to divest itself of its company-owned factories in the U.S., the Dominican Republic and China, outsourcing its manufacturing to countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and India in order to focus on research, product development and retail sales and partnerships. By 2013-14, Kovarik said Wolverine had just one factory left, and it mostly focused on the production of military boots and shoes. He could see the handwriting on the wall.

“I could hear rumblings that they were looking for a buyer, and I kept coming up with ideas on how we could continue the manufacturing in a way that was commercially acceptable — that was still viable in terms of price points and in terms of where we need to be in the market — but the management said, ‘No.’ So I said, ‘I’ll make the boots my way,’” Kovarik said.

He ended up being right, as Wolverine closed its last company-owned factory in September 2017, although today some of its products are still made in the U.S. at subcontracted factories, he said. 

Kovarik left Wolverine in the summer of 2015 and spent a full year preparing to launch his own company. He found a building, acquired his first machine from Wolverine and recruited the operator/mechanic who used to run it, and worked on identifying the types of products he would make and the customers he would sell to.

In June 2016, he incorporated Liberty Footwear and was up to full production by the end of that year.

Liberty Footwear specializes in shoes and boots with leather uppers, including waterproof, heat-resistant and safety-toed work boots for industries such as manufacturing, construction and transportation; hiking boots; and comfortable, slip-resistant low-cut shoes for workers in the service industry, such as salons, retail, foodservice, custodial and more. He said his customers tell him the shoes also have after-work crossover appeal, which gave him the idea to eventually make and sell more casual/streetwear shoes.

Kovarik said he has learned a lot and made many adjustments over time, including finding he needed a different type of machinery than what Wolverine used, so he bought an injection machine from Timberland and shipped it here from the Dominican Republic at the end of 2016. Last year, he bought a machine that would allow attachment of pre-made outsoles to the leather uppers, and last month, he brought in more machines that will help him to meet demand from the local Dutch community for shoes and boots up to size 17.

At first, Kovarik sold goods through retailers in California, Las Vegas and the Midwest, but eventually he scaled back the retail business and shifted more toward a factory-direct, business-to-business sales approach in which Liberty supplies shoes and boots — typically custom-fitted — directly to the factories and businesses that need them.

“We can help with custom fittings that no one else can do here in town or even in West Michigan, and that seems to be something that people actually now seek us for — word of mouth travels among friends and families and co-workers that we can help people with certain issues,” he said.

Liberty Footwear also does consumer sales on its website,

And Kovarik offers shoe repair services out of his facility, such as resoling, as the number of shoe repair shops in the Grand Rapids area has dwindled over the years.

“We are here to serve,” he said, noting if demand became high enough, he might even open a retail store.

Kovarik said it has been gratifying to discover his instincts in starting a business were correct. While there has been a decline in U.S. manufacturing during the past two decades, Kovarik sees a revival on the horizon of stateside manufacturing and a rising interest in “Made in the USA” goods.

“There are enough customers that ask for locally made or U.S.-made (footwear), so the need and the market is there, it’s a question of how to answer that demand,” he said.

As of right now, Liberty Footwear is mostly a one-man operation, with Kovarik getting occasional help from his father-in-law, friends and children. His older son has helped with shipping, invoicing and simple bookkeeping, and his younger son has done factory floor tasks such as operating machinery, making boots and packing them.

“That makes me so happy,” he said. “Whatever they choose in life, I hope one of the kids will stay in the business.”For more information about Grand Rapids work boots from Liberty Footwear, please shop now or contact us here.

Reprinted with permission

How Custom Fitting Relieves Foot Issues

By Boots

As the old saying goes — no two feet are the same. Many shoe-fitting experts believe that over 65 percent of individuals have different left and right feet. Fortunately, American shoemakers solved this issue back in the late 19th century. Over many decades, these American innovators established and developed rules for grading ‘shoe lasts’ — the name for shoe sizing molds — systematically, on a mass scale.

The shoe last represents an approximation of foot shape, around which a shoe or boot is built. Originally made from chiseled stone and eventually from aged maplewood, they suffered from numerous shortcomings. Wooden lasts shrink in dry, cold winters, and swell in hot and humid summers. Weather and heavy use damaged these wooden lasts and they had to be replaced often. Today shoe lasts are made from polypropylene, for general construction, and from aluminum alloys for more precision and stability for direct injection. Their dimension tolerance is around .001” — ensuring consistency in production and the finished product.

American shoe last grading, when correctly followed, offers the best fitting footwear anywhere in the world. As opposed to French (continental) or metric grading, the differences between sizes are smaller — so customers can easily find the best fit between whole and half sizes and medium, wide and extra wide widths. Liberty Footwear lasts are developed by American last-makers on a proven base model that served tens of millions of customers over the last 30 years.

To innovate our process and outcome, we adjusted toe profile, instep and heel parts by grading them arithmetically, as opposed to geometrically, normally used in military footwear manufacturing. Our grading ensures that the length and girth change of the next last size or width is the same on small and large sizes. Geometric grading is scaled so that smaller last sizes are graded at shorter increments and larger sizes at bigger increments.

With the growing popularity of famous brand sneakers and regular cost cutting of production even in Asia, American consumers have been conditioned to forgo fit and comfort for style, color and low prices. Most popular athletic brands offer their shoes in one width, with some low price brands only offering whole sizes. For example, many customers who should wear wide width shoes compensate by wearing shoes one or even two sizes up to find a size that works. This creates the problem of shoes being too long results in foot movement within the shoe and dangerous toe dragging while walking.  On the other hand, customers with narrow feet — rather than leaving enough toe room upfront for correct toe-off — instead buy smaller shoes, causing painfully tightness and even toe blisters.

Liberty Footwear takes great pride in educating customers about how shoe sizing and grading works.  The length of our lasts — and our boots — range from whole size to whole size changes 1/3” and the girth 1/4”. The girth of the same size from medium width to extra wide grows 3/8”, while the length stays the same. We can also adjust boot size by varying the thickness of removable foot beds to find the best fit, or even stretching the boots with our lasts. Another method involves individually hand-stretching the boots in tight spots — usually in the ball or instep — with a ball-and-ring metal tool.

Finally, we offer a unique service that few shoe retailers in the country can, because no one else sells boots factory direct. Because of this, we often can fit those who have different left and right feet with different size or width boots, making sure each foot is comfortable and properly fit. This automatically includes extra space of about 1/2” in front of the longest toe in soft toe boots, and about 2/3” in safety toe boots. This extra space is necessary for stretching the feet while walking without rubbing your toes on the inside liner.

For example, a customer came in wearing size 10 medium sneakers to compensate for his size 8 wide feet. In order to accommodate his feet, those size 10 shoes feel good width-wise, because they are 1/2” wider, but they are also 2/3” longer with too much ‘dead’ space in the toe. To correct this, we can fit him in size 8 EW boots where his feet are correctly positioned lengthwise, while comfortably snuggled in 3/8” wider boots. If necessary, we can also stretch those size 8 EW boots even more in the forepart, while keeping the back area untouched for a cradle-like fit.

Another scenario we encountered involved a customer who came in wearing size 11 extra wide boots.  The left boot fit just right, while the Right was too loose. We found out that his left foot had surgery not long ago and as a result, swells regularly. To prevent pain during the day, this customer bought a pair of big boots. Careful measuring of his feet on our Brannock device and further examination revealed  that his left foot was size 11 extra wide — but his right foot was size 10 medium. We fit the customer with different size and different width boots to ensure both feet were comfortable. Even when we do not have misfit boots in stock, we can make them specifically for each foot.

Why do we go to such extremes? Correct fitting and comfortable boots remain our passion. We have life-long shoemaking experience, equipment and components to serve our customers in such a way — still at affordable prices. This is what local shoe production can offer local customers. And thanks to improvements in mobile scanning technology, we plan to offer this service nationwide.

For more information on how custom fitting relieves foot issues from the experts at Liberty Footwear, please contact us here, shop for our products or call our factory directly at 616.930.3060.

The Right Boot for Your Job

By Boots

If you sit at a desk, your shoes rarely affect your work. But for those who work on their feet all day, wearing safe and comfortable work boots remains vital for getting the job done. Whether you need a steel toe, a sturdy sole or chemical resistant material — wearing the best work boot for your job can make all the difference.

Decades ago, boots with flat wedge outsoles were a staple in American factories. However, with the decline in U.S. manufacturing, the demand from traditional users declined. Today, thousands of ironworkers, landscapers, factory workers, machine shop operators, forklift drivers and car mechanics benefit from wearing boots with these proven outsoles.

Workers in these occupations stand on concrete floors, steel beams or other hard surfaces for 10 to 12 hours a day — making the work boots they wear important to their safety, comfort and productivity. The appeal of boots with flat bottom outsoles comes from the added support, cushioning and stability compared to work boots with heeled outsoles.

Workers with jobs involving climbing ladders or walking up and down stairs or grated steel steps on their trucks, may prefer boots with a defined heel and lug bottom design. This sturdy outsole helps workers lock in their boots for better grip and safety. Boots with heeled outsoles remain perfect for numerous outdoor and indoor jobs, and many truck drivers also prefer the more aggressive lug profile outsoles to the wedge.

Once you find the right boot, finding the right size also factors into your comfort and safety. If you spend most of your working day on your feet without moving much, leaving ½” extra space in front of your big toe — for soft toe boots — will allow enough room for air circulation inside your boots, which is important for your comfort and productivity on the job. For hard toe safety boots, you might need between 5/8” and 2/3” of extra space. This is important if you do a fair amount of brisk walking or crouching and bending, because your feet and toes are stretched far more than when standing, or just taking the occasional few steps around a machine.

Roofers seem to prefer Liberty Footwear’s 6” wedge lace-up boots, which offer our unique gripping outsoles that are soft enough to avoid damaging asphalt shingles. Our soft and supple leather uppers also will not pinch their feet when flexed at extreme angles. Similarly, workers who lay floor tile appreciate the flexibility of our work boots, combined with superior cushioning, excellent slip resistance and non-marking outsoles.

For workers facing the challenge of working around harsh substances or in rough outdoor environments, our hiker style rubber cup outsole offers excellent resistance to gas, diesel and aggressive cutting oils, raised side walls for better protection and better grip on muddy or rocky terrains and resistance to abrasion.

Unfortunately, many people experience difficulty finding comfortable work boots. In some cases, this results from slight differences in sizing between some people’s feet. Liberty Footwear remains one of the few companies in the world that offers this option. Individuals can benefit from custom sizing and fitting that adjusts their boot size for each foot individually, ensuring comfort and functionality when on the job. Liberty Footwear is proud to offer this unique solution for all of our boots and shoes.

Your work boot’s heel height also factors in how comfortable you will be while working on your feet all day. Work boots with a 5/8” heel height is recommended over work boots with 6/8” and even 7/8” heels. However, the degree of heel lift is personal to each customer, affected by foot structure, weight and posture.

For more information about finding the right boot for your job from the experts at Liberty Footwear, please contact us here or call us directly at 616.930.3060.

Why American Built Still Rules

By Boots

Over the last 150 years, America’s numerous contributions to the world of shoemaking include a long list on innovations that continue to dictate how the world treats their feet.

From simple changes such as different boots for each foot, multiple widths and comfortable soles — to mass manufacturing, customization and more effective finishing technologies — the United States continues to put its best foot forward!

Over 30 years ago, the American shoe manufacturing industry began slowly moving most production overseas, similar to the pharmaceutical and electronics industries. Instead of building quality shoes in America, the primary focus shifted to marketing, logistics and distribution. While this didn’t stop innovation, it reduced flexibility, extended lead-times and in some cases, negatively affected the overall quality of the finished product.

Liberty Footwear sources high quality components from vendors based in the USA and abroad but proudly remains one of only a handful of American shoe factories — building all their boots and shoes in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This offers several benefits to the factory as well as its customers.

The factory remains more flexible by tying less capital in material inventory, maintaining the ability to quickly scale up production of particular styles, colors or outsoles as needed, and can directly respond to customer demand.

Having access to manufacturing allows experimentation, faster innovation, adjustments to feedback from retailers and individual consumers. Additionally, this access protects our brand from intellectual theft, from unauthorized use of methods or components. Finally, our U.S. factory negotiated component prices similar to factories in Asia and the family ownership maintains low overhead costs to offer affordable prices for locally built footwear.

Larger shoe brands, primarily in the athletic space, continue to explore domestic shoe manufacturing — even setting up pilot production in recent years. They hope to revive consumer enthusiasm for locally made footwear and also entice former suppliers of various components to reopen shuttered production facilities. Additionally, this may lead to vendors who can begin to onshore production to better serve their growing base in this country.

Liberty Footwear proudly remains an integral part of this new movement, not only for our current business, but to hopefully pass on shoemaking skills and traditions to future generations.

For more information on why American built footwear still rules from the experts at Liberty Footwear, please contact us here, shop for our products or call our factory directly at 616.930.3060.