What’s intriguing is not how much the shoemaking process has changed over the decades but how much it remains the same within the walls of Weinbrenner Shoe Company.
“We have been able to modernize a few processes, but the majority of the shoe making still requires skilled craftspeople creating footwear by hand much like they did 100 years ago,” said Jeff Burns, president of the company. “We have updated machinery and our factory. Yet, it takes 125 steps to make our shoes. It’s an art.”
He would know. Before joining the company in 2011 as the senior vice president of sales and marketing and then being appointed to the presidency of the firm, he held management positions with Rocky Brands, HH Brown and Novation North America Inc. Weinbrenner has provided an opportunity to further escalate the company and its Thorogood brand of job-fitted footwear to the next level.
“We make job-fitted footwear for people who work for a living,” he said. “This includes soldiers protecting our country, First Responders keeping our communities safe, and tradespeople building America.”
The company’s main demographic is tradespeople, followed by the public-safety market, but it’s not all work. As part of its effort to expand its appeal, the company also offers lifestyle shoes. Collectively, their shoes are available in more than 2,000 authorized dealers across the world, everything from small, independent stores to national chains and online retailers. Demand for the brand is at an all-time high and includes everything from the popularity of lifestyle footwear in Asia to public safety contracts in South America.
While the shoes may vary, the common thread laced among all of the shoes is authenticity.
“Our customers trust us to deliver quality footwear at a great value,” Burns said. “They are emotionally invested in Thorogood, and we take that responsibility seriously.”
During the past 10 years, the company has witnessed a huge increase in demand for Made in the U.S.A. footwear — a feat that Burns acknowledges is not easy. For one, it requires finding skilled workers, a growing challenge for this market as well as others as baby boomer retirements accelerate and competition for skilled workers increases. To this end, the company has teamed with the University of Wisconsin on process improvements that will result in increased efficiency and productivity.
“We anticipate this to increase output by at least 30 percent at our two Wisconsin factories,” Burns said. Weinbrenner is also investing in an additional facility in Maine to try to meet the unprecedented demand for the Thorogood brand.
Burns credits word of mouth and the growth of social media in spurring growth. Social media in particular has helped the company connect with its customers, introduce new products and respond to customer service efficiently. “It’s really allowed us to stay in tune with our customers’ wants and needs,” he said.
Maintaining a mindset of innovation is longstanding at Weinbrenner; the company initiated many of the significant occupational safety features that are common today, even securing patents for footwear safety and comfort designs as well as manufacturing technologies. The company was the first to patent the Internal Flexible Matararsal Guard for its workboots. In 2020, Weinbrenner is excited to launch its Infinity FD series featuring high rebound energy return technology and patent-pending Flex-drive construction.
The Marshfield and Merrill production facility workers are part of UFCW 611 and 717 whereas the corporate office employees are employee owners. “Collectively, they have an excellent work ethic and take pride in what they do every day,” he said. “The remarkable thing about being in Central Wisconsin for so long is seeing multiple generations working in our factories. We have employees who have been here for 20, 30 and even 40 years.”
Being an employee-owned company is unique in the footwear industry, and Burns sees it as a huge opportunity and differentiator.
“I have worked with companies with great people, but the mentality changes when you have an ownership stake,” he said. “At the end of the day, we all hold each other accountable because this is our company, and we want to ensure the legacy for generations to come.”
Burns spends most of his time focused on supporting the team and planning for future growth — often while wearing one of his favorite Weinbrenner shoes: the iconic 6” moc toe, white wedge style number 814-4200. “This shoe has been in the line for more than 75 years and continues to be our most popular style. It’s very comfortable out of the box and looks great with a pair of jeans,” he said.