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Lacing up a legacy: Premium boot company stays true to American workers, history

Weinbrenner Shoe Company earns craftsmanship award, customer loyalty with more than 130 years of footwear

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July 8, 2024

MERRILL – German immigrant Albert H. Weinbrenner opened his first shoe factory in Milwaukee in 1892. 

Though its operations would eventually move to Merrill, the Weinbrenner Shoe Company continues its march into the future, as the business itself displays every bit the durability advertised for its boot brand – Thorogood Shoes.

Jeff Burns, president of Weinbrenner Shoe Company, said history is a significant part of the brand’s enduring appeal and “humble confidence.”

“I think it’s a great story,” Burns said. “We’re the real deal – we’re not a marketing company that’s come up with a story, that’s going to have a different story five years from now. We’ve been living this story for a long time.” 

Recently, that story had something of a fairytale moment as Weinbrenner Shoe Company was recognized with the Time Tested American Craftsmanship Award by the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce business association. 

“It validates everything that we do,” Burns said of the award. “We show up at work everyday, we work our tails off and we’re proud of what we do. We’re committed to making the best boots in the world.”

Kindred soles

Burns said the more common, yet no less substantial validation for the shoe company, comes from the passionate support of Thorogood customers.

“Why do people own 20 pairs?” he said. “We’ve got people sending us pictures, and they’ve got more shoes than I do – they just love Thorogood. Why is that? We know who our core customer is, and we know whatever we develop – whether it’s a new product or maintaining the old product – we’ve got to be rugged, and we’ve got to have our legacy in it.”

The concept of Thorogood Shoes’ core customer, Burns said, is something his team has helped to define in his five years as Weinbrenner Shoe Company president. 

At different times in the last 100 years, he said Thorogood has produced a variety of styles in addition to its mainstay work boots – including kids shoes, golf shoes and dress shoes.

“Today, people know us as a work shoe company,” he said. “We decided, ‘you know what? That’s what we do best.’ Whether you’re a construction or iron worker, postal worker, law enforcement, fire, whatever – if you’re working in this country, we can supply you with footwear.” 

This inter-industry coalition, Burns said, engages with one another across Thorogood Shoes’ social media accounts, where more than 100,000 followers (on both Facebook and Instagram) comment on the different styles of footwear and express their support for the brand.

“We’ll get people who come on social media and they’ll say, ‘my sole fell off,’ or ‘these are the worst boots ever – I’m never going to buy another Thorogoods,’” he said. “And then you get 30 people jumping on, saying, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ They defend us way better than we could defend ourselves.”

A man in a blue striped collared shirt holds a brown boot.
Jeff Burns said Weinbrenner Shoe Company worries less about what the competition is doing, “and more what we’re doing.” Submitted Photo

Burns said he thinks the enthusiasm for the company stems from the more organic and personal means in which the brand’s awareness continues to spread.

“Not everybody knows about us,” he said. “People, when they discover something, it’s (a feeling of) ‘I can’t believe I just discovered this.’ And they kind of like that.”

In this sense, Burns said perhaps the most meaningful way for people to learn about Thorogoods is via word-of-mouth recommendation.

“‘Hey, what are you wearing?’ ‘These are Thorogoods. They’re the greatest boots in the world – you should try them,’” he said, describing such an interaction.

Quality, comfort, safety

Regardless of the other options available to consumers, Burns said Weinbrenner Shoe Company simply focuses on making Thorogoods the best they can be.

“We worry less about what the competition is doing, and more what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re not going to try and tell you we’re better than (other companies) in this or that (way). We’re going to tell you why we are a company you should spend your money on – on our own merits.” 

Though less expensive options are available on the market, Burns said serious workers are willing to invest in Thorogood boots.

“They’re tradesmen,” he said. “And our footwear is like a tool. They would not think about buying a cheap, imported hammer. They would buy a better hammer because that’s part of their trade – that’s part of their equipment. We build our boots like they’re equipment for you.”

Perhaps the top reason workers value boots, Burns said, is the comfort they provide.

“If you’re not comfortable on your feet, your whole day’s not going to be very fun,” he said. “We keep hearing over and over again that they’re just really comfortable shoes. The person who’s working on their feet eight, 10, 12 hours a day – we’ve had people tell us, ‘my back used to hurt, my knees used to hurt – they don’t hurt anymore. Your boots really are that comfortable right out of the box.’”

Burns said Weinbrenner Shoe Company gets “your boots saved me” comments every day – which continues to fuel the company’s desire to make a difference.

“People call in and tell us they got in an accident, and they say, ‘without the quality of Thorogood on my foot, I would’ve lost my foot,’ or ‘I would’ve lost my toes’ or ‘I’d have broken my foot,’” he said.

Built to last

The boots’ value, Burns said, further lies in the ability to extend their lifecycle with repairs.

“You spend a little bit more money up front, but you don’t throw them away in six months,” he said. “You can rebuild them a couple of times.”

Burns said this process allows customers to wear a pair of Thorogoods for anywhere from three to 10 years, depending on their usage.

“We’ve got some good shoe repair people around the country who specialize in repairing the boots,” he said. “What they’ll do is take the sole off, reinforce the needle stitching, condition the leather, put the sole back on and you’ve essentially got yourself a new boot – but it’s broken into your foot. It’s like an old baseball glove – it fits your foot, and it gets character with age.”

Burns said the company’s one-year warranty for manufacturing defects provides customers extra assurance.

He also said when workers try out Thorogood shoes the return rates are “some of the smallest in the industry.”

The Weinbrenner Shoe Company team, Burns said, feels a sense of responsibility to continually earn the loyalty of Thorogood customers with each passing year, pair or repair.

He also said the company feels respect and kinship with its domestic competition – and genuine sympathy for the brands that have had to shut down.

“Between 1980 and today, more than 1,000 shoe companies in this country have closed,” Burns said. “There aren’t a lot of companies left in the United States that are making footwear. A lot of (what’s on the market) is imported.”

Being one of the few remaining American footwear companies is one thing, Burns said, but it’s a meaningless distinction if the products disappoint consumers.

“Just because you’re made in the USA doesn’t give you the right to make a sub-quality boot,” he said. “We only use U.S. hides. We try to use as many USA parts as we possibly can. We’ve got great shoemakers. A lot of companies now, they’ve gotten rid of all their factories and shoe manufacturing people – they’re run by designers. They can draw pretty pictures, but we have the luxury of having people who actually know how to make a shoe.”

Foot on the gas 

Burns said it’s a credit to each of the nearly 400 team members throughout Weinbrenner Shoe Company for not only staying in business for more than 130 years, but continuing to grow.

“In the last six years, we’ve doubled the size of the business, so we’re doing a lot of things right,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good people – and we plan on doubling it again in the next six years.”

Burns said the company moved into a 142,000-square foot facility in Merrill four years ago, and is breaking ground on a brand-new 70,000-square foot facility in Marshfield this fall.

The expansions and upgrades have allowed Weinbrenner Shoe Company to sustain its growth and meet increasing demand for Thorogoods, Burns said, while keeping boots on the ground and workers employed.

“We had several states who were very interested in luring us away, but Wisconsin is our home,” he said. “We really feel it’s important to become good stewards of the communities that we’re in.”

Burns said the company’s commitment to its people goes beyond the improved facilities, including an employee stock ownership plan, an 8% 401(k) match for its union employees and a program to help pay for continuing education. 

These actions addressed what Burns said had once been a 75% turnover rate – which is now under 20%.

A man crafting a pair of boots.
The pride and dedication of Weinbrenner Shoe Company employees, Jeff Burns said, is the reason the company has continued to have success. Submitted Photo

He said the most important factor in improving the culture was to listen to and learn from the Weinbrenner Shoe Company’s employees – many of whom he said have devoted decades to the company.

“You have to make it a good place to come to work,” he said. “Talk is cheap. Let’s show our employees that we really do care about them – because without them, Thorogood is not what it is.”

Another benefit Burns said he’s helped to implement is a program for company employees to receive one free pair of Thorogoods a year. 

“We’d go out into the factory and (team members) were all wearing different types of shoes. (And I thought), ‘wait a minute – we make shoes. Why are they not wearing our shoes?’” he said. “You go out there now and almost everybody is wearing our shoes.”

Though Burns said Thorogoods are designed with much more ruggedness in mind than fashion, he said the shoes have an “iconic, timeless look” which allows them to be worn after work – or even to award shows.

“When we got nominated for the (Time Tested American Craftsmanship) award, it was a black-tie event in Milwaukee,” he said. “The women were all dressed in evening gowns and the men were dressed in tuxedos – and we had Thorogood boots on with the tuxes. They’re a heck of a lot more comfortable than the shoes they wanted to rent for us.” 

As Burns looks to the continued growth of Weinbrenner Shoe Company, he said, he’ll ensure its products remain true to the rigorous standards of the legacy. 

“We take that very seriously – it’s a huge responsibility, continuing to invest in quality,” he said. “How many brands out there got bigger and their quality went down, and they’re not the same company they used to be? We want to be a better company today than we were 20 years ago.” 

Burns said these efforts include staying attuned to its customers’ and shoe dealers’ feedback, which he said has led to a forthcoming product line called Genesis – utilizing new technology to add an advanced, lighter shoe option while maintaining the durability and support for which Thorogood is known. 

“You uphold the tradition – you continue to make the best 70-year-old styles that you can make,” he said. “You do that, but you also look to the future and (figure out) how you can use your knowledge and the essence of the brand to come up with something even more technical than you’ve ever done before. That’s what we’ve done with Genesis.” 

Though technology and trends will always change, Burns said, Weinbrenner Shoe Company has enough wisdom and self-awareness to keep working on work boots.

“We’re going to stay true to our brand,” he said. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should – so we’re not going to go into athletic footwear, and we’re not going to go after slippers and sandals. We’re going to stay who we are, grow the company and if we do that, we’ll be successful.” 

Does that mean customers won’t see any foam, Croc-style products from Thorogood anytime soon?

“If you see those, know full well I’ve finally lost it,” Burns said.

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