One third-generation family business has survived imports, mergers, offshore manufacturing and new technologies.
Like every other shoemaker, third-generation family business Rocky Shoes and Boots has seen its industry transformed by imports, mergers, offshore manufacturing, and new technologies. Unlike most, Rocky has managed to come out ahead
The years haven't been kind to America's small old-line manufacturers.
Time was, those businesses were the economic heart of small towns and city neighborhoods. Their employees were often longtimers, on a first-name basis with the boss.
The companies provided steady work, steady pay, and the self-respect that accompanies both.
Then came the maelstrom of the past two decades, the imports and the new technologies and everything else that turned the business world upside down. The market's demands grew relentless. A new economy, fast-paced and tumultuous, came into being.
Like beachfront cottages in a hurricane, the old manufacturers were buffeted and battered. Many collapsed. Others were sold off, bought out, combined, and recombined until they were scarcely recognizable. Gone were the original owners. Gone, too, were most of the workers.
But now and then you stumble across a survivor, a small old-line manufacturing company that has stood its ground against the tides of history -- a company that somehow, on the fly, learned to compete in today's turbulent marketplace.
The scene of one such unlikely story is Nelsonville, Ohio, a dot on the map near the West Virginia border. The industry is shoe manufacturing, as brutal a business as you'll find anywhere. The company is Rocky Shoes and Boots Inc., the fellow in charge Mike Brooks.
Brooks, like his father before him, belongs to that uncommon and unheralded breed of American businessperson: the kind who doesn't know when -- or maybe doesn't know how -- to quit.
Mike Brooks could scarcely contain himself. It was the spring of 1975, and he had taken the phone call at his office in Milwaukee. Now he was excited, antsy. Back home in Nelsonville, Ohio, Dad was buying the William Brooks Shoe Co.
By one reckoning it was a predictable, even inevitable, move. Bill Brooks, Mike's great-uncle, had started the business back in 1932, in the heart of the Great Depression. Mike's dad, John Brooks, worked in the plant full-time since age 17. The company was his whole life.
By another reckoning, though, buying the company was crazy. Shoe manufacturing in the United States had been on a long downhill slope. Great-uncle Bill had announced he was selling the company way back in 1958, and Mike's dad had asked for a chance to match the buyer's price. But Bill had refused point-blank. John, he had said, you have a family to support. The shoe industry has no future. I'm doing you a favor.
So the business had gone to outsiders, a women's-shoe company in nearby Lancaster. John stayed on, eventually rising to plant manager. Mike worked summers at the factory, but he could see it held no long-term opportunities. Nor was there much else to do in Nelsonville, a down-at-the-heels town of maybe 5,000 in the hilly, rural countryside southeast of Columbus. Mike loved the place. But when he left after high school, he never expected to return.
Now, in 1975, the owners were getting ready to unload or shut down the business. And John Brooks was telling Mike that this time, finally, he was really going to buy it.
The next day, Mike walked into his employer's office and resigned. "I told my boss," he recalls, "that my father was buying a business and needed his son back."
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. Maybe buying a business never is. The company wasn't worth much as a going concern, but it owned plant and equipment worth close to $1.3 million. John had bargained the owners down to 50¢ on the dollar, so the purchase price was $640,000. He had worked for a modest salary all his life and had raised five children. He figured he could put up $500. The rest would have to come from somewhere else. Where, he wasn't quite sure. Mike didn't know, either. The William Brooks Shoe Co. wouldn't be high on anyone's list of hot investments or good loan prospects. Its machinery was aging. Its work force was discouraged. The company had lost money for three years running.
On the other hand, there were dreams at stake here. Mike's father's, certainly. Mike's own, increasingly. And maybe those of his four siblings. Then there were the jobs and livelihoods of the 140 or so people who worked at the company, most of them neighbors or acquaintances of the Brooks family. Mike, the oldest son in the family, had never lacked self-confidence. When college hadn't worked out, he set off for Milan, Italy, and spent a year studying shoe design at the well-known Ars Satoria trade school. His business career already showed promise; it included stints at U.S. Shoe Corp. and at two tanning companies. Now, at age 30, energetic and ambitious, he'd be damned if a few hundred thousand dollars would get in the way of those dreams. He and his father visited banks. They looked into government-guaranteed loans. They began talking about saving jobs. They called their congressman.
Soon enough, the Farmers Home Administration agreed to guarantee 90% of the purchase price. A five-bank consortium would provide the rest. Some of those banks were nervous and showed up at the closing with lawyers, forms to sign, and a barrage of questions. Vic Oakley, president of the lead bank in the consortium, the one picking up most of the risk, was a Nelsonville neighbor of the Brookses'. He arrived late, with no forms or lawyers, just a check. He threw it onto the table. "If John Brooks says he'll pay me back," he announced, "he'll pay me back." Then he walked out.
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