Hans Heierling: Ski boot innovator

Passing Date: 
Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hans J. Heierling Jr., who for four decades headed his family’s ski boot business, died December 22, 2016, at age 91.


Hans Jr. was the third in a line of cobblers who made custom ski boots in Davos, Switzerland. The firm sprang from the workshop of his grandfather Franz Heierling, who opened a shoe store in 1883 and sold his first ski boots in 1887 – making Heierling the oldest ski boot factory in the world.


Hans Jr. began skiing at age four, but excelled in ice hockey. During service in the Swiss Army as a tank officer in the closing years of World War II, he became the leading defenseman in the Davos hockey club. Named to the Swiss national team, he competed in two world championship series and in the 1952 Olympics. At Oslo the team finished fifth, beating Norway, Finland and Germany but losing badly to Canada, the United States and Sweden, the medal teams.


Returning to Davos, Hans Jr. passed the exams for his master craftsman diploma and, in 1953, took over the family firm. The company already had a reputation for equipping top athletes. Hans Jr. devised the firm’s entry into the American market – ahead of most European bootmakers -- and supervised the adoption of the boot buckles patented by Hans Martin. He became fluent in French, Italian and English and thus did business in four languages.


In the course of his training, Hans Jr. had met Doris Farrer, an apprentice at the Bally shoe factory who had grown up in Arosa and Davos. They married in 1955 and had three children.


By 1960, Heierling equipped dozens of top ski racers, notably the Swiss and American teams.  Over the course of the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, Heierling’s skiers won five gold and three silver medals.


That success led, in 1965, to real mass production. Over the next two years, Hans Jr. ramped up production from 3,000 hand-lasted boots annually to about 15,000 pairs a year with injection-molded soles. Eventually he moved production of plastic boots to Germany, Italy, Slovenia, and sold them around the world.


In 1995 he handed the firm off to his children but remained active in the hiking boot side of the business. With Doris, he hiked throughout the alps, and sailed Switzerland’s mountain lakes and the Dalmation coast. In 2009, at age 85, he finally hung up his ski boots.


Doris died in October, at age 86. Hans Jr. is survived by his children Hans Martin, Thomas and Susanne, and by grandchildren Fradri, Florence and Nick.


(Also see „Whatever happened to Heierling?“ in the November/December 2016 issue of Skiing History.)

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