I’ve long been a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy, and moving back to California several years ago only reinforced that lifestyle. I think the last time I wore a tie was at my father in-law’s funeral about a year ago, and that was again the first time in at least a year or so. Dressing up usually means throwing on a Tommy Bahama shirt.
One luxury I did allow myself a couple years ago was a pair of Allen-Edmonds shoes. A great product, and you can see the full line here. I’m glad I invested the shoes… both because they feel and wear great, but also because the company is committed to lean manufacturing. I first came across that aspect of the company about a year ago, but since the owner was selling the company I decided to wait to see if the new owner would keep them lean. Apparently they have.
John Stollenwerk bought Allen-Edmonds in 1980 from descendents of the founders, and over the last 25 years he has built the brand and grown the company. And he has leveraged lean manufacturing methods to keep production at his facilities in Wisconsin and Maine. Those factories employ over 700 people and crank out over 500,000 pairs of shoes each year. Finely-crafted shoes, as an average pair takes seven hours to make. Traditional outsourcing lemming thought would indicate that this would be an ideal situation to send to an overseas sweatshop, but not this company. Stollenwerk obviously recognized the off balance sheet value of the experience of his workers and the value of maintaining very low inventory with short supply chains.
When he entered his later 60’s, Stollenwerk decided to retire and sell the company. But he wanted a buyer that would keep production domestic, maintain the quality of the shoes, and protect the workers and managers. And he was willing to sacrifice a probable higher price to achieve it. The story of how he identified potential buyers and decided on the final owners is a good read, and includes lessons for many business owners in similar situations. The new owner is Goldner Hawn, a private equity firm, and after many months they remain committed to Stollenwerk’s ideals.
"Most people would be led to believe you can’t make shoes in America anymore. But Allen-Edmonds does it, and does it very efficiently," [Goldner Hawn managing director] Sweeney says. "This isn’t slash and burn, drive efficiency, get rid of all the chaff. This is the opposite of that. This is finding a fabulous Midwestern business. From a manufacturing standpoint and a quality standpoint, the company is already there."
So there’s yet another story of successful American clothing manufacturing. A couple weeks ago we told you about Joseph Abboud’s suits, a couple months ago we told you about American Apparel’s t-shirts, and many in the lean world have already heard of New Balance and their lean success. Perhaps it’s time for a "lean clothing mall"… unfortunately with just a few stores: