While footwear manufacturing in the United States is never a simple process, the past year has been a true stress test for these businesses, bringing unanticipated difficulties — as well as opportunities — due to the ongoing pandemic, a change in leadership in Washington and unprecedented congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
“2020 was a challenging year for everyone, but business is coming back quickly,” said Doug Hogue, VP of product and marketing at Lucchese, which has been making boots in Texas since the late 1800s.
Last spring, when COVID-19 temporarily brought the global economy to a halt, domestic shoemakers in the United States tapped into one their greatest assets — their nimbleness — to keep workers employed and be of service in a time of need.
Keith Duplain, president of the St. Louis brand portfolio at Caleres, recalled that when nonessential shoe production halted in the spring, the team at the Allen Edmonds factory in Port Washington, Wis., stepped up. “Our associates used their incredible skills to pivot to mask production for several local hospital chains. They were able to make more than 200,000 masks for local health care heroes,” he said.
Several other shoemakers, including Chaco, L.L. Bean and New Balance, took similar steps, using their manufacturing expertise to make general-use facemasks. Additionally, New Balance, San Antonio Shoemakers and other companies that produce footwear for essential workers and the U.S. military were able to continue those operations due to their “essential” status.
“Our San Antonio, Texas, factory stayed in production throughout the pandemic,” said Nancy Richardson, CEO of SAS. “And Texas had a briefer shutdown than most states so we were able to get our second factory in Del Rio up and running in a quick manner.”
For Sarah Irvani, CEO of Okabashi — which makes flip-flops out of its Buford, Ga., factory — her focus was on protecting both workers and their livelihoods. “The primary impact [of the pandemic] has been in changing our operations to ensure we maintain a safe and happy work environment,” she said. “Initially, the changes reduced production, though we are proud to be creating more careers than ever before in our 35+ year history.”
Safety was also a priority for New Balance, according to COO Dave Wheeler. “We continue to follow CDC and state guidelines, which reduce our available working associates due to proximity or COVID-19 symptoms,” he said. “Although our output is not at 100% every day, our associate’s safety and health continues to be our No. 1 priority.”
Late last year, New Balance announced it would close its Boston Factory, citing an ongoing organizational transformation that was sped up by the pandemic. However, the company continues to move forward with plans to open a new factory in Metheun, Mass., in summer 2021 that will exemplify its new standards for sustainable manufacturing.
Below, the executives from Caleres, Lucchese, New Balance, Okabashi and SAS discuss the state of Made in America now.
Will the change in leadership in Washington, D.C., impact U.S. shoemaking?
Nancy Richardson: “SAS was founded in 1976, so we’ve seen a lot of politicians come and go over our history. We don’t let the partisan politics impact our commitment to U.S. manufacturing, quality or our workforce. Changes in tax laws and business regulations are factored into our business plan, but the company has always been committed to our team here in the US.
Dave Wheeler: “The PPE supply chain challenge last year highlighted the need for a strong U.S. manufacturing industry and supply chain. So New Balance will continue to advocate for support for domestic manufacturing initiatives and speak to our long commitment to employing American workers at our New England factories.”
Sarah Irvani: “In addition to creating policies that support U.S. manufacturers, I believe that fostering positive conversation around the importance of local job creation and production will do the most to move the needle.”
Keith Duplain: “Having U.S. manufacturing for a large portion of our Allen Edmonds line, it is one of those moments that is a bit of an advantage for us.”
In today’s marketplace, what are the advantages of manufacturing in the U.S.?
Doug Hogue: “For our brand, speed to market, small production runs, personalization and custom orders are part of our manufacturing
S.I.: “A local supply chain enables agile supply chains through replenishment and just-in-time drop-ship inventory possibilities. It also empowers circularity with end-of-life recycling programs.”
K.D.: “Today, it is all about speed, flexibility and customization, and those are the exact things that domestic manufacturing allows you to do. It allows us to innovate quickly so we can rapidly adapt to the consumers’ changing footwear needs.”
Overseas shoe imports are severely delayed right now due to port congestion. Is that creating any opportunities for your companies?
D.H.: “Today, there seems to be more conversation and interest in producing footwear and accessories in the U.S. We see that drive coming from a desire to be closer to the consumer and faster to market.”
S.I.: “Yes, the freight issues over the past six months have further highlighted the need for an agile supply chain, particularly through U.S. manufacturing. Our partners can leverage replenishment models to perfect inventory throughout the season, which is key to strong performance as well as a positive customer experience.”
N.R.: “All the challenges for overseas manufacturers, like port congestion, are actually business opportunities for SAS. We have inventory in stock, and new stock arriving into our warehouse every day from our US factories. For our global customers it has created some unique and cost-effective freight opportunities out to the rest of the world.”
What are your main challenges now?
D.W.: “Our challenges are similar to what all businesses face today: In a changing and competitive marketplace, how can we work together to enhance our operations to be the most effective, efficient and innovative to deliver on ever-changing consumer needs. We sell our domestically produced footwear globally, so a strong global supply chain is important for us. Additionally, material inflation is a concern going forward.”
D.H.: “As the older, skilled footwear labor force reaches retirement age, finding, training and retaining younger workers has become a challenge.”
What will it take to bring shoemaking back to the States at a larger scale?
N.R.: “A change in mindset. [At SAS], rather than chasing the cheapest labor across the globe, we choose to focus on the benefits of keeping our manufacturing here. We have a talented and stable workforce that supports the communities we live in. There is less stress on our team from excessive travel and time away from home. Domestic factories also provide for daily control over the quality of our product and more flexibility to act as our customers’ just-in-time inventory. There is no need to set a ‘minimum investment’ in our brand for an initial order by a new account.”
D.W.: “We believe that constant innovation in productivity and models that are designed for manufacturing will make domestic manufacturing more and more attractive.”
S.I.: “At the end of the day, it is a consumer appreciation of what ‘Made in America’ means that will be the biggest driver of change.”