Weinbrenner Shoe Co., which has been making boots in Wisconsin since 1892, is embarking on a new era with the acquisition of another factory space in Merrill, Wis.
In March, Weinbrenner finalized the purchase of a facility on Genesee Street formerly occupied by Hurd Window & Door and Great Lakes Alfalfa. The deal will expand the shoe company’s manufacturing and warehouse space by more than 120,000 square feet.
President Jeff Burns told FN that Weinbrenner’s leadership team had been in the process of exploring ways to expand its capacity, in order to respond to growing interest in its boots. “Demand for our Thorogood product has never been higher,” he said. “We’re projected to end this year with sales revenue up 54% from where we were just three years ago. That’s explosive growth.”
Then the city of Merrill presented Weinbrenner with a proposal to purchase the Genesee Street facility, which had been sitting vacant and is located nearby. “It was an aggressive proposal, so we worked very closely with them to get it done,” said the president. “Timing really is everything.”
Renovations on the property have already begun, and the company expects to begin producing footwear there by this fall, with a full completion set for March 2022. The Genesee Street factory will specialize in welt-construction boots and shoes, while the current Polk Street facility will handle cement and injection-mold constructions. Weinbrenner also has a third factory in Marshfield, Wis.
Burns noted that the company is making significant investments to convert the space for footwear manufacturing. However, he added, with this expansion Weinbrenner has the opportunity to double its production capacity within the next several years.
“The building that we’re in now — we’ve been here since 1936 — is not that great a footprint for a factory,” Burns explained. “We’ve been doing lean manufacturing initiatives for the last several years, but were limited to how far we could go with efficiencies.” By contrast, the new space has a “big-box” structure, which allows for creating a more efficient layout.
However, like other U.S. shoe manufacturers, Weinbrenner continues to face a challenge in regard to hiring. The company estimates that it will need an additional 60 to 80 employees within the next four to five years. So to recruit skilled workers, it is partnering with local high schools and trade schools on training and apprenticeship programs, as well as attending job fairs.
“We think we’re a great place to work, and we’re becoming an employer of choice in this area,” said Burns. “But we’re continuing to look at ways we can make this an even better place to work.”
He noted that team members have already responded positively to the new Genesee Street facility — especially one particular aspect. “Quite frankly, our bathrooms at this 1936 building leave a little to be desired,” said Burns. “So when we took the whole company over there to debut the building and showed some renderings, what got the most applause was the rendering of the new bathroom.”
In late January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order aimed at boosting domestic manufacturing in the U.S. The order pledged to raise local content requirements and revise the definition of “Made in the USA” products, as well as make it more difficult for federal agencies to purchase imported items.
Overall, only a tiny fraction of shoe production remains stateside — 99% of all shoes in the U.S. are imported, with 2.5 billion pairs of shoes shipped to American shores in 2019.
However, several other shoe companies that manufacture in the States have recently made bigger commitments to American-made products after seeing a surge in demand. In January, Keen announced it would increase its Portland, Ore., boot production by 26% and expand its partnership with sock-maker Nester Hosiery in North Carolina. Meanwhile, New Balance is due to open its new “Factory of the Future’ in Massachusetts this summer (though it also closed a Boston facility late last year).