LEWISTON, Maine — One of Maine’s few remaining shoe manufacturers plans to double its workforce and at least triple revenue over the next five years, and it will do so deliberately, using lessons learned from the past.
Quoddy, a moccasin maker started in 1947 by Anne and Jack Spiegel, at one time had 1,000 employees in Auburn and more than 30 retail stores. Quoddy was sold and resold, and its operations shrank when its owners began importing shoe parts from Asia, current owners Kevin and Kristen Shorey said.
The widespread move to “offshoring” for cheaper parts and labor in the 1970s and 1980s decimated the shoe industry in Maine and the United States. Today, 99 percent of all shoes sold in the country are imported, mostly from Asia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Shoreys said it’s not possible to fully source all parts of shoes, even the custom handmade shoes it makes, in the United States.
“None of our shoes is completely made in the United States,” said Kevin Shorey, a fourth-generation shoemaker and one of Quoddy’s four co-owners. “Some soles are made in Italy, the laces in Mexico and the leather comes from Chicago.”
Lewiston-Auburn’s shoe industry peaked in 1922, when 12 major factories employed 8,000 workers making 70,000 shoes a day, according to Museum L-A’s footwear exhibit, which runs until Dec. 31. At the time, Auburn was the fifth-largest shoe producer in the country, comprising a large part of Maine’s economy and workforce. There were also another dozen smaller shoemakers.
Some of the famous brands at the time were Ara Cushman, Hames Monroe and B.F. Packard.
Today, about half a dozen shoemakers remain in the state. They include Quoddy, Rancourt & Co. in Lewiston, Globe Footwear in Auburn, New Balance in Norway, L.L.Bean in Brunswick and Eastland in Freeport.
A storied history
Quoddy makes about 13,000 pairs of shoes and boots based on moccasin construction that wraps leather around the bottom of the foot. That gives it a better fit and durability and makes it easier to repair, Kirsten Shorey said.
The shoemaker occupies 3,000 square feet of space on the second floor of the old Pepperell Mill on Lisbon Street. The Shoreys said that even with their growth plans, that’s enough room.
The couple revived Quoddy shoes in 1997. In a stroke of luck, Kevin Shorey was able to buy the Quoddy trademark for $375 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after Wolverine, one of the companies that bought the original Quoddy, let the name protection lapse.
“I was pretty psyched when I saw the name was available,” Shorey said.
He and Kirsten bought his grandfather’s store, Quoddy Wigwam, near Passamaquoddy Bay in 1995. It sold Passamaquoddy baskets, moccasins and other goods. They set up shop in their barn in Perry and later next to the store and began selling moccasins at fairs and then online.
“The internet made us,” Kevin Shorey said. “We were up in a corner of Maine and suddenly people knew about us.”
The company now ships to 80 countries.
The company moved from Perry to Lewiston in 2009, when it also took on another co-owner and investor, John Andrew Andreliunas, who currently serves as the company’s president. In 2013, it added another investor and co-owner, New Orleans-based investment firm Advantage Capital. The Shoreys own a majority share in Quoddy.
Quoddy grew quickly. It formed a number of partnerships, including with UGG, specialty retailer J.Crew, L.L.Bean and Sperry.
J.Crew was a turning point for the company, Kevin Shorey said. That contract ran from 2010 to 2013, though Quoddy still does some business with J.Crew.
During the J.Crew contract, Quoddy had 50 employees. About half of its $2 million in revenue came from that contract.
When the contract ended, it still was able to keep revenue at $2 million and stay profitable by streamlining to 14 employees and pivoting to make more expensive, custom shoes and that it sold directly to consumers on its website.
“Customers could pick the sole type and the shoe color. The sales price point was higher, on average $250 to $300 a pair,” Shorey said. The higher price made up for the fewer employees making fewer shoes, he said.
Quoddy has grown its business and stayed profitable using Yankee ingenuity and frugality.
“We need to grow smarter, not bigger,” Shorey said.
Learning from the J.Crew experience and the seasonality of the shoe business, Quoddy has used just-in-time techniques to pay for what it uses when it needs it.
The Pepperell factory’s owner has let Quoddy expand and contract space as needed. A new tenant is the expansion space now, but the Shoreys said they have enough room to expand in their existing space, and can rent storage for any inventory they need to house.
They also tapped both the Finance Authority of Maine and Community Concepts for loans to buy materials, especially expensive leather. Those organizations can respond more quickly than banks and tend to take on more risky clients.
That includes funding the 1,000 slippers the company has made in advance for this holiday season and a line of “ready-to-wear” shoes that it started in April.
Ready-to-wear gives customers fewer options to customize their shoes in exchange for getting them in 3 to 5 days, compared with 4 to 6 weeks for fully custom shoes. It already makes up 25 percent of sales.
The company also saves money by putting soles on the shoes only after the customer orders them to avoid having to resole them if the buyer wants a different color.
“We want to grow, but banks don’t want to talk to us because of the risk,” Shorey said. “And they want so much collateral.”
Quoddy expects next year to expand its shoe lines for women and add a line of waterproof boots through a collaboration with DMG International, a Dominican Republic-based contract shoemaker that moved into the space abutting it in the Pepperell factory.
But the made-to-order shoes will remain the heart of its business, Shorey said.
Plant manager Danny Maillette, who also designs and patterns shoes, said what Quoddy shoemakers do takes a lot of skill.
“It’s a craft learning how to deal with different stretches of leather,” said Maillette, 53, who first learned shoemaking at age 19 from his dad. “A cutter has to learn how to stretch leather.”
And a designer must leave just enough room in a boot so the customer can stand straight and bend forward and backward and still be comfortable, he said, swaying to demonstrate the leeway needed in his corner work station at the factory.
Another skill is shoe repairs, a moneymaker for Quoddy. Shorey said some shoes last as long as 20 years, and owners for $129 can get new soles, insoles and laces. Repairs add up to 5 percent to 8 percent of total revenue.
To expand its business, especially marketing and product lines, Shorey said Quoddy plans to raise $500,000 from family and friends next year. He expects to more than double revenue to $5 million to $10 million in five years, at which point employee numbers could double to 30 people.
“We’ll still stay in Lewiston,” said Andreliunas, who noted the “made in Maine” tagline is important to buyers who associate quality and hand-made goods with the state. “We compete on quality and durability. We try to build in more value so we have moccasin construction, but we add more function.”