Her strides are long and purposeful. This tall, slim descendant of bootmakers grew up in the family business and has worked in it for most of her 57 years. On a tour through the low-slung building on Shoe Factory Lane in Scappoose, Roberta Shoemaker expertly explains the details that her West Coast Shoe Company puts into every one of the 13,000 boots made each year. That she wears her custom-fit Packers easily is not surprising.
What the CEO of Wesco doesn’t wear lightly is the stewardship of the 91-year-old family business founded by her grandfather, John Henry. Staying afloat in the shark tank of the global footwear industry isn’t easy when your product is hand-built and takes 155 steps and five days to make, when you try to buy all your materials from the U.S., and when you don’t borrow money — have never borrowed money. But then the Jobmaster, or the Boss in special edition roughed-out red leather gets on the Japanese schoolgirl/French designer/Hollywood grapevine, and you’ve got a whole other future beyond work boots for linemen, arborists and loggers.
Shoemaker, who took over from her father, Robert, in 1999, is as guarded about her numbers and strategy as any CEO of a small business in a competitive industry. She will say that over the past decade she has sweated 25% from overall expenses and revenue grew 17% from 2007 to 2008. But the recession is at the door. The workforce, trimmed from a high of 48 to 32, recently went on reduced hours after a drop in orders for occupational boots started in December. And with boots that cost from $400 to $1,375, more are coming back for repair as owners put off a new pair.
So the challenge for this niche player is to find new customers because failure is not an option for Shoemaker, who owns Wesco with her two sisters and one day hopes to hand it over to her nephew. But the solution is not so complicated. “We don’t have to learn how to make a boot,” she says. “I don’t need a whole bunch of equipment. I use the minds and the hands.
“I’ve been fortunate to have inherited a unique brand, a solid brand. It’s something that people can count on, not something that just sits on a shelf.”
She sees the custom boot as the key product — it’s already 60% of the business — and plans a hard push into foreign markets because Europe and Japan are the biggest customers for the non-occupational custom boot. The two stores in Tokyo that sell Wesco brands even carry styles not offered in the U.S.
Shoemaker’s strategy includes making it easier to design and build a boot on the company’s website. “It all started with the basic black work boot and we just keep adding on,” she says. Customers can pick their lining, boot height, lacing pattern, heel style, leather, toe cap and insulation. Not to mention all-important accessories such as a knife or credit-card pocket.
The occupational boot still has opportunities, too. She’s investing in new equipment that will enable Wesco to manufacture a specialty boot used by electrical workers. “It’s a huge new market for us,” she says.
But there’s another demographic Shoemaker has in her sights and she brings it up only at the end of a long conversation. It’s an idea that John Henry and Robert clearly never considered, an idea waiting for a daughter to run the show.
This fall, Shoemaker plans to launch a line of women’s boots. Women customers now have to order a custom fit. There’s nothing off the rack for them and “I’m getting tired of not finding boots that fit me,” she says.
She grabs the prototype from the shelf in her office and puts it on the table in front of her. This is one sexy, knee-high maroon beauty, with folds that hide a back zipper. Maybe she’ll add metal accessories or cashmere lining; maybe it could command $1,000. “It’s a big departure for us,” says Shoemaker, whose direct, no-nonsense demeanor softens a bit as she gazes at the boot, which even in its half-finished state creates some serious shoe lust.
Just wait until the grapevine gets wind of this one.