Paul Grangaard chuckles when asked if a midlife crisis prompted him to become president and CEO of Allen Edmonds in 2008. At the time, prospects for the venerable Wisconsin shoe manufacturer seemed dim. Grangaard was a partner in a Minneapolis private-equity firm that had bought a majority stake in the company in 2006 for more than $100 million, but sales had fallen as the economy tanked. Where others saw doom, however, Grangaard saw possibility, so he resigned from the firm to head the shoe company that turns 90 this year.
By combining quality, innovation and American pride, men’s shoe manufacturer Allen Edmonds emerged from tough times stronger than ever.
“I knew we had a tremendous opportunity, and we just needed to get through a rough patch,” Grangaard says.
The turnaround wasn’t easy; there were layoffs after Grangaard took over, and shoes costing more than $300 a pair were selling considerably slower than hotcakes as the recession deepened. Yet today, the company thrives. Since 2010, the company has hired more than 100 workers. Production last year topped 500,000 pairs of shoes, an increase of 150,000 from the year before. And Grangaard is making plans to expand to Asia.
“We’ll be sending a boat filled with American shoes back in the other direction,” he says. “There are 2.6 billion feet in China — that’s an awful lot of feet that need good shoes.”
Founded in 1922, Allen Edmonds is a quintessentially American company, from the shoes and boots the company made for the military during World War II to upscale cuff links made today out of major league baseballs and seats from such baseball shrines as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.
The company was founded by Elbert W. Allen Sr., whose original business partner was quickly bought out by William Edmonds. Allen’s family sold the company in 1980 to investors led by John Stollenwerk, who bolstered the business in the face of increasing overseas competition. The company survived a 1984 fire that destroyed their factory, and it went on to supply shoes for the U.S. Olympic team to wear during that year’s opening ceremonies. By the late 1980s, Allen Edmonds was a takeover target. Timberland made an offer, but Stollenwerk bought out his partners and kept the company independent and in Wisconsin.