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Employed is a weekly reporting series focused on the new Northwoods.The landscape of living, playing, and working in the Northwoods is changing. Where we work, where we shop, where we reside, and how we support our families looks different than it did even a decade ago. It continues to shift as industry, tourism, retail, services, and natural resources shift.Entrepreneurship, broadband, work-from-home, and COVID-19 are all part of that mix. What makes you wonder, or what story ideas do you have for Employed? Submit them below.

Surging Demand is Forcing Weinbrenner Shoes to Turn Away Customers, So It’s Expanding

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Full hides of brown and black leather are draped over a cart and wheeled by a worker from place to place in the maze-like Weinbrenner Shoe Company factory in Merrill.

“Not everybody realizes what goes into making the shoe. I always tell people, if you get a chance to tour a shoe factory, take it,” says Rick Hass, a costing engineer serving as a tour guide of the factory floor.

The factory, which produces premium shoes and boots sold under the Thorogood brand, dates to 1936.

It has low ceilings, some dark corners, and worker after worker focused on their task.

Some solve a sort of puzzle, operating machines that cut the leather into different shoe parts while maximizing every inch. Others put temporary staples in the shoe, easing the way for binding the soles to the uppers. The stitching is done with a steady hand, with both speed and precision in mind.

Dozens of people handle each shoe along the path, producing thousands of pairs per day.

“We look to make it as streamlined as possible. You said it before. Efficiency is what we’re looking for,” Hass says.

Hundreds of thousands of high-quality shoes and boots depart this factory and its sister plant in Marshfield annually.

Some lines have doubled their output in the last three years.

Even so, it’s not enough.

The company says the demand is so intense, it could quadruple its current production and have plenty of buyers.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A worker cuts shoe pieces out of a full hide of leather.

That puts Senior Vice President Todd Hanson in a tough position. He has to say “no” a lot. Even if new customers are desperate to buy, he can’t take any more accounts.

“It’s the worst ever. It’s the worst ever,” Hanson says with a laugh. “But it’s the right thing to do. At the end of the day, the people that got us to the party, we have to show them the respect they deserve.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Boots progress down a newly-installed conveyor line, the latest attempt to increase efficiency at Weinbrenner.

Weinbrenner shoes started in 1892 and the company has always been fully made in the USA.

“[Starting in] 1892 puts us older than Ford or Chevy or Harley-Davidson. We’re truly a legacy American brand,” says President Jeff Burns. “We make the best boots in the world. Nobody does what we do better than what we do.”

The pandemic knocked more than one company off balance.

Not Weinbrenner.

“A lot of our competition shut factories down, laid people off, stopped ad marketing campaigns. We didn’t do any of that. We didn’t lay anybody off. We actually stepped up our ad campaign, stepped up our manufacturing schedule. What we were going to do was whenever the people were pulling back, we were going to go out and take their shelf space, which is what we’ve done,” Burns says. “In the pandemic, there was winners and there was losers. We came out a winner.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Both the Merrill and Marshfield Weinbrenner factories are crowded, with little room to expand. That's one reason why the company is moving to a much bigger space.

Pre-pandemic, production was already sagging behind surging demand, a trend that was then magnified. Weinbrenner needed more space to churn out more shoes.

It could have cut costs and moved overseas, like many competitors have.

Instead, it’s expanding just down the street in Merrill, to a huge warehouse that used to store alfalfa.

“For the Weinbrenner Shoe Company with the Thorogood brand, we’re committed to the communities that we’re in, and we’re committed to the families that work here,” Burns says. “We take that responsibility very, very strongly.”

Most of the equipment will be moved the few blocks from the old facility to the new.

It has to be. Little new shoe-making equipment is available in America these days.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Weinbrenner's new Merrill facility, which should be operating by next February.

The converted warehouse should be operational by next February, expanding production capacity.

The workers will migrate too. Todd Hanson doesn’t foresee greater automation as much of a threat, at least at Weinbrenner.

“Making footwear is an art. It’s not just a craft. There’s science to it. But there’s an art to it as well,” he says. “These people take an incredible amount of pride with every single stitch.”

Right now, Weinbrenner makes 400,000 pairs of its most popular style each year.

In just four years, it projects, that number will be 1.4 million.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He then contributed with periodic stories until 2024. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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