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Shoes Add Spring to Your Step

Footwear: Shock- absorbing heel is said to reduce leg, back and foot pain. Inventor, a runner, was motivated by self-interest and aging.

September 22, 2002|JULIE ANN STEPHENS | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

ALBUQUERQUE — Alvaro Gallegos' feet slammed into the pavement mile after mile in the predawn darkness. With each stride, he could feel the hard earth and his own energy colliding in his sneakers -- and, boy, did it hurt.

Gallegos figured that there was a better way. Now he's president of Z-Coil Footwear Inc. -- a New Mexico company experiencing enormous growth.

Z-Coils have reportedly curbed leg, back and foot pain using an idea that's been around for a hundred years: Put a little spring in your step.

Gallegos' shoe has a spring built into the heel and a supportive insole. It may look odd, but customers-turned-stockholders say it's a life-changing shoe.

"We don't even like to use the word shoe, really," said Jean-Paul de Jager, Z-Coil's promotions director. "It's footwear. It's really more of an orthopedic device that deals with injuries and problems."

But don't confuse Z-Coil with the mass-marketed Nike Shox, de Jager said.

"Nike uses a spring sound on the commercial, but we've cut them up," he said. "No spring."

Z-Coils are built with an actual steel spring mounted at the heel with its own platform sole, he said. Its models include sandals, clogs, hiking boots, work boots and street shoes. Several designs hide the spring.

But the best seller is still the company's first product, a sneaker, which retails for about $160 to $170.

On an obstacle course outside the company headquarters in Albuquerque, customers walk over mismatched planks and cobblestones with ease.

The springs are designed to absorb the impact of walking and running, but also work to balance the wearer on uneven surfaces, preventing twisted ankles, Gallegos said.

The shoes have come a long way since 1989, when he first took a band saw to a conventional sneaker and glued in a spring. The company went into business in 1996 after seven years of design and testing.

Last year, the company reported $2.5 million in sales from its network of more than 150 distributors in the United States -- a growth of about 270% over the previous year.

Gallegos' son, Andres, returned to New Mexico from a corporate marketing job in New Jersey to become vice president. Two of Gallegos' seven other children also work for the company.

Andres Gallegos, 35, and his father, 71, launched a grass-roots fund-raising effort that boosted the company from an entrepreneur's dream to a possible commercial competitor. The kicker is that the business' success continues to come mostly from word of mouth. Andres Gallegos said he is often asked how the company can survive on such low-tech advertising.

"It's easy when you've got someone crying in your showroom, and they go around and tell every single friend and family member, 'You have to get Z-Coil shoes,' " he said. "... It's like, who would tell you 150 times that you've got to get a product? It is unheard of."

Most of the investors who put money into the company during three stock offerings were already customers, the younger Gallegos said, including podiatrists, chiropractors and surgeons.

Alvaro Gallegos -- who designed the shoes to help him run faster and farther with less pain as he aged -- believes that Z-Coils could find a place in the athletic market.

He holds five patents for spring shoes and secured another this summer for a basketball shoe with a built-in ankle support, a revolving plate in the sole and, of course, a spring coil in the heel.

But for now, the company is focusing on the issue that brought it this far -- pain relief.

"The athletic market is a very big sandbox in which we would be a very small player," de Jager said. "Right now, we basically have our own sandbox."

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