For 125 years, Weinbrenner Shoe Co. has provided tradespeople, firefighters and soldiers with boots that safely plant their feet on the ground.
The Merrill, Wis.-based company, known for its Thorogood brand, continues to meet its customers’ rigorous demands with shoes produced in its two Wisconsin factories — Weinbrenner is among the largest manufacturers of domestically made footwear. Founded by partners Albert Weinbrenner and Joseph Peffer as a cobblery in Milwaukee, the company introduced the Thorogood label in 1918 with performance boots designed for the area’s loggers.
Since then, Thorogood has expanded its offering to include work, uniform, fire, outdoor, military and lifestyle products. Weinbrenner’s commitment to domestic production is a source of pride for the employee-owned company. “Demand for our made-in-U.S.A. workboots is growing,” said President Patrick Miner. “It has nothing to do with [today’s] political climate. People are [simply] getting attached to the [idea] and realizing it’s a good thing to support made-in-U.S.A.” While domestically made footwear has given the company an edge, Thorogood has its challenges. One is that finding workers to support its factories has not been easy.
To compensate, the company is focusing on upgrading its production capabilities. “We have to look at our infrastructure and robotics,” said Miner. “We have to [figure] out how we can automate as many of the processes as possible.”
Here, Miner talks about the changing workboot customer, overseas opportunities and the power of American goods.
What’s been the biggest change in the workboot market over the past few decades?
The income of workers. About 80 percent of workers have seen their incomes go up, with most earning over $100,000 a year and their helpers earning $50,000 to $60,000. We [consider] electricians, pipe fitters, welders, plumbers and heavy machinery guys highly skilled labor. Warehouse workers make upwards of $15 to $20 an hour, and factory workers get $18 to $25. Since this [workforce] is making good incomes, they’re not resistant to higher-priced U.S.A.-made [products].
How have the footwear needs of workers evolved?
Our average consumer is 28 to 50 years old and grew up wearing tennis shoes, [often] a throwaway item. Today, with their [higher] incomes, they’d rather buy two or three pairs of comfortable work shoes a year that may not last as long. [Although] our domestic product has always been very traditional and heavy, we’ve now been able to construct shoes that are lighter, more flexible and comfortable out of the box without losing durability. While waterproof is the [biggest] growing segment of the market, performance today also means how cool workers will look in their boots when they get off the job and go to a bar.
What are the leading industries for today’s workboot wearers?
[The country isn’t] making as much steel anymore, but until the last few years, when President Obama went after drilling, we had heavy-duty [footwear] users. They get out in the muck and water, so they demand durable shoes. These guys are [often] union tradesmen, so they have no problem buying [higher-priced] American-made quality. They can afford it. If the [new administration] builds new infrastructure, there are concrete and asphalt workers and heavy-machinery guys that are highly paid and will buy American-made shoes.
How important is Thorogood’s non-work footwear business?
Uniform runs about 22 percent of the business, fire is 9 percent and outdoor/lifestyle and Department of Defense make up the rest. Our contract with the DOD is for safety-toe military [footwear]. On our uniform side, we have high volumes of oxfords, dress shoes and casuals, and there are fire boots for both structural and wild-land firefighting.
Are there marketing tactics designed to appeal to the workboot consumer?
We’re doing a lot more social media. Until 2000, we [relied] on word-of-mouth. Three years ago, I started investing in a team headed by marketing manager Bianca Boettcher to go after social media. Turns out customers like to talk to us [this way], and we can tell our story. There’s an emotional tug, and they start to [connect] with us, especially for American-made [products]. They want to make sure they’re buying from a company with a story to tell.
Where is the workboot consumer most likely to shop today?
It depends on the worker’s age. The younger one is more likely to shop online. The older worker will want to go to a sit-and-fit store. If a worker has a new [footwear] requirement, he or she [might] go online first to see what features and benefits are out there.
As retail challenges continue, what are the top vendor concerns?
The biggest challenge for companies is keeping their minimum advertised pricing clean. We can balance online and brick-and-mortar as long as it’s a fair playing ground. But sometimes online retailers let a third party come in that isn’t a [certified] dealer. We don’t know how they get the product. That’s the hard part.
In a tight workboot community, who is Thorogood’s key competition?
Domestically, Red Wing. For offshore [product], Timberland PRO and Keen are coming on. It’s interesting to see rivals like Keen, coming from the fashion side, [move into] the workboot business. What lifestyle [brands] don’t understand is that they [must] keep bigger inventories since work product’s an in-stock [business]. It’s what retailers require. They want to go back to the [same product]. Lifestyle companies [typically] want to turn their inventory four to six times a year. You can’t do that with work.
How has Thorogood approached the overseas market?
Right now, our [international] business is in lifestyle. We created a line called 1892 — traditional high-end boutique lifestyle looks — in addition to some [core] workboots that [double] as lifestyle. [However], we’re [still] untapped overseas since [business there] depends on the strength of the dollar. A lot of retailers abroad don’t want big bites of [our product]. And it’s too expensive to ship shoes that way. They want a centralized distribution center in Europe or Asia that they can pull from. We have to do that to serve them better. So I will be making a trip to Europe to look at setting up distribution there.
What overseas markets have the biggest potential for Thorogood?
The Asian market. Korea and Japan are No. 1 and No. 2. After that, it’s Thailand and Taiwan. We’re now seeing people in China wearing our product. That’s been a turnabout. It’s fair play since for many years it’s been the other way around. Europe, Germany, England and the Netherlands are the areas where we mostly sell our lifestyle looks.
Workboots appear to be similar in design from season to season. How closely does Thorogood follow fashion trends?
Since we’re a black and brown [house], we look at leathers rather than colors. We do, however, watch the athletic side of the footwear business. If you look at our work and uniform looks, there are lots of materials, such as nylon [from] the athletic market. But you’re dealing with higher [import] tariffs that way. If the shoe’s not 51 percent leather, you’re going to almost a 37½ percent duty. We’re doing some uppers outside the country but bottoming them here. We call those shoes built in the U.S.A. [versus] made in the U.S.A.
Thorogood has been employee-owned since 2000. How has that impacted management decisions?
On a day-to-day basis, we’re pretty much operated like any other company. We are run by a board of directors and a president. If we perform [well], our benefits come in the form of our employee stock. Our latitude comes from being a manufacturing versus a marketing company.
As more women join the trades, how has Thorogood addressed this market?
Men will find [a style] they like and stay with it until someone [suggests] they try something [new], or something changes in the shoe’s performance level. For a woman, a [particular] boot may have been the greatest one she ever had, but she will come back and say, ‘What do you have that’s new?’ They want to see change. We had some ladies’ styles in our domestic line but ended up discontinuing them. Since half of women will fit into a men’s style, such as our 4200 boot, we make it down to size 4 and cover them that way.
As a U.S. manufacturer, have you been challenged to find workers with the necessary skills?
It’s not easy to find workers today, so we’re [increasingly] looking at robotics [for our factories]. The hardest part is finding workers who know how to sew. On average, making a shoe takes 130 steps. But we have to learn to automate as many of the processes as possible.