Brannock Device Company
Brannock Device Company
Sales: $1.5 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 334510 Navigational, Measuring, Electromedical, and Control Instruments Manufacturing
Designed in 1927, the Brannock Device quickly became a ubiquitous but publicly unheralded product. Despite a publicity shy owner, the device remained the retail shoe industry’s standard foot-measuring tool more than 75 years later with virtually no changes and sales topping well over a million units. It was also one of the very few products produced by the Brannock Device Company. Its measuring accuracy, quality construction, and simple but functional design kept it dominating the market with at least a 90 percent market share into the 21st century.
Intrigued By Foot Measuring Problem
In 1906, Otis Brannock partnered with Ernest Parks to establish the Park-Brannock Shoe Company in a small storefront at 321 South Salina Street, Syracuse, New York. The store, catering mostly to women at first, quickly grew successful. In the early 1920s, when Charles Brannock, the son of Otis, worked at the store during college vacations, he noticed a problem. Shoe stores at that time used an over-sized ruler-type device to measure a customer for her shoe size. This crude block of wood measured the length of the foot but not the width. People with wide feet, long arches, or unusual foot sizes frequently ended up with the wrong size shoes.
The shoe industry lacked a tool that could calculate shoe size accurately enough to allow room for comfort and prevent foot problems. Charles Brannock became so fascinated by this problem that he had trouble sleeping. In Brannock’s words, “The shoe salesman, like a doctor, has a distinct responsibility to his customers, because a mistake in the fitting of a shoe, particularly a child’s shoe, can definitely endanger the health.” Charles Brannock often woke up at night in the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house at Syracuse University to scribble notes and make sketches of a device that would measure the foot in three ways at the same time. He wanted to measure heel to toe length, arch length, and foot width.
It took two years to perfect a device that would provide the three measurements at once without repositioning. Brannock built the first prototype from his childhood Erector Set. Then, he carefully studied shoe and foot sizes. He created the next working model out of cardboard and included calibrations. After a third prototype, production began with hand assembly of aluminum parts.
At the time, Brannock was thinking only of his father’s store. He failed to see the global marketing potential of his invention. The device immediately saved the store’s salespeople time while providing more accurate and complete measurement of its customers shoe sizes. Word traveled quickly throughout Syracuse that no store could fit a person with shoes as well as Park-Brannock. The store began stocking shoes for customers with unusually sized feet. After a national shoe representative visited the store, orders for the device quickly followed.
Device Company Founded in 1927
By 1926, Charles Brannock began offering his device to shoe retailers on a rental basis. That soon changed to an operation with a sales force scattered across the country. In 1927, the Brannock Device Company was founded. A year later, on August 28, Brannock received a patent on his invention. By 1929, Brannock began phasing out the sales force. Instead, he provided deep discounts to shoe companies that distributed the devices to their stores, an arrangement that cost less than selling the device directly to shoe stores.
The device frequently earned enthusiastic new customers. A captain in the United States Navy asked a shoe salesman in 1933 to study why so many sailors’ suffered from foot problems. The salesman used the Brannock Device to determine that the problem was not the Navy shoe but improper foot measurements. The navy captain responded by writing an article in the July 1933 issue of United States Naval Institute Proceedings detailing how the Brannock Device eliminated foot problems aboard his ship.
Sales Reach 33,000 Before 1940
By 1939, some 33,000 Brannock devices were in use around the world. The first non-U.S. sales came in 1929 through I. Singer of London, England. Seven years later, the distribution rights went to Henry Maitland Marler of Feature Shoes Limited, an affiliate of the Selby Shoe Company. Global sales reached into Canada, South America, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, South Africa, Palestine, Australia, New Zealand, and the Malay states. Selby absorbed the high costs of the trademarks, patents, and designs required for international sales and had exclusive rights to distribute the device in South America, South Africa, and other regions.
While the Brannock Device developed, so did the Park-Brannock Shoe Company. By February of 1937, the store’s growth required a move to a three-story building at 427 South Salina Street. In 1946, Park-Brannock built a six-story, state-of-the-art store at 473-475 South Salina with individual floors for different types of shoes. The partners had also expanded into other lines, including hats, women’s hosiery and purses, and children’s shoes. To entertain children while their parents shopped, the store boasted several merry-go-rounds. Its design caused several shoe magazines to write positive reviews. An example of the store’s innovations was the men’s department, which was created to look like a great room inside a ship. At least one of the Park-Brannock Shoe Store advertisement’s declared the store “one of America’s finest shoe stores.”
1941: War Helps Push Sales
Brannock built upon the successful publicity the Navy captain generated in 1933. He sent the captain’s article to other ships and soon had his device in use by several branches of the U.S. armed services. World War II gave the device another sales push. In 1941, the U.S. Army hired Brannock to ensure its soldiers were properly fitted for shoes and boots. Brannock spent several weeks at army camps studying their shoe fitting problems and testing various models of his device geared specifically toward fitting the regulation army shoe. To dramatically save time, Brannock created a version of the device that measured both feet at once and was calibrated specifically for standard army shoe sizes.
By 1947, high demand forced Brannock to move his device company out of the Park-Brannock Shoe Store and into a small machine shop at 509 East Fayette Street. It remained there for 50 years. Brannock walked between the two locales to supervise both the shoe store and the device company.
Brannock took on marketing the device with aplomb. He advertised both the store and the device in local newspapers and in trade journals like Boot and Shoe Recorder. He gave other stores the idea of using the device in their own advertising. Its popularity led it to be shown in advertisements for a wide array of other products, including insurance, magazines, carpets, floorings, and die castings. For several years the Proctor and Collier Advertising Agency handled the advertising.
Never A Serious Competitor
From 1938 to 1968, Brannock attended the annual National Shoe Fair in Chicago to increase awareness of his device. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, the Brannock device never faced serious competitors. Year after year, it commanded at least 90 percent of the market. The Brannock Device seemed foolproof and never wore out. Many shoe stores used the same device for 30 or 40 years. “They’re almost impossible to break, unless maybe you run over one with a truck,” said Tim Follett, the company’s vice-president in 2002. The biggest concern seemed to be the numbers wearing off. In addition, competitors had trouble finding any way to distinguish their own product.
In 1962, both Otis Brannock and Ernest Park died, leaving Charles to head the Park-Brannock Shoe Store. Nineteen years later, in 1981, the Hotel Syracuse purchased the shoe store site for its new Hilton Tower. Rather than consider another site, Brannock chose to let the store permanently close its doors. It was a time when many downtown retailers had or were moving to suburban malls or to the city’s outskirts. Brannock seemed shocked by the steep decline in downtown shopping. He took a tour of other New York cities to do an informal study on the health of downtown areas. The tour convinced him not to attempt to re-open the store downtown, and no other site pleased him. Throughout the 1980s, when Brannock was in his 80s, he still came to work every day. Total sales of his device topped 900,000 by 1983.
The Brannock Device Company strives to follow the philosophy and passion of the company founder, Charles Brannock. The company believes there are a lot of ways to make the Brannock foot measuring device better, but not cheaper. Its goal is not to redesign or re-invent but to improve the process by which the device is made.
Device Unchanged 75 Years Later
Even 75 years after its invention, the Brannock Device remained essentially unchanged. However, Brannock had developed many different models of the device. There were models designed especially for women, men, juniors, growing girls, athletes, ski-boots, and the military. The latest model, developed in 1996, was the Pro Series designed to fit customers with feet from size ten to 25. Basketball players from the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks field tested the model. Nevertheless, all the models worked and looked the same. Each had four basic parts: the base plate, the width bar, a length pointer made of cast aluminum, and a length-width scale. All were made of aluminum in the same cross-like shape, with the same two sliding attachments and the same graduated calibration markings. Most still had the traditional black and chrome colors but some did come in green, purple, or red. The cost in the early 1990s for a single Brannock Device was about $56.
Beyond its great functionality, Brannock’s device has also been hailed as an example of great design. “Like most superior examples of industrial design, it feels utterly modern, as if it had been created yesterday. Best of all is its spectacular functional specificity—simply put, it’s a perfect execution of what it was meant to be,” wrote Paul Lukas in the September 2001 edition of Fortune Small Business. “It shows incredible ingenuity and no one has ever been able to beat it. I doubt if anyone ever will, even if we get to the stars, or find out everything there is to find out about black holes,” remarked Manhattan graphic and industrial designer Tibor Kalman.
With a dominant market share, a unique product, and worldwide sales, the company could have become widely renowned. However, Charles Brannock, a very private person, kept his company out of the spotlight. He hated publicity and would not talk to reporters. Very little was written about him or the company. Longtime friend Gus Charles stated that Charles Brannock expressed deep pride in his device and was devoted to his work. Two of Brannock’s passions outside of work were downhill skiing and Syracuse University sports.
Brannock’s Death in 1992
Brannock deliberately kept his business small. Every Brannock Device Company employee received the same quiet courtesy from the company owner. Although he ran the firm until shortly before his death, Brannock gave employees input into major decisions. He believed in hard work. In fact, he was actively working until about six months before his death at age 89 on November 22, 1992.
After Brannock’s death, the company became part of the Brannock Estate. A close friend of Brannock and the company’s accountant, Gus Charles, was executor. During this time, the company ran much as it had in the past. Gus Charles wanted to continue Brannock’s philosophy and way of doing business. For that reason, all potential buyers were interviewed and were only considered if they agreed not to change or cheapen the product.
Leonardi Buys the Company in 1993
In November 1993, Salvatore Leonardi bought the Brannock Device Company from the Brannock Estate. A graduate of the University of Miami, Leonardi held a series of jobs until 1972, when he joined the family business, Leonardi Manufacturing, a factory that made women’s handbag frames and later became a job shop. Leonardi spent 21 years at the factory until his brother’s sons were ready to take the reins; subsequently, he began to look for a product-line business.
When Leonardi took over Brannock, the company had no computer-based accounting system or manufacturing capabilities. The company outsourced most production steps and handled just the final assembly of the device. To increase efficiency and control, Leonardi wanted to bring more of the manufacturing inside the company.
In 1995, Leonardi moved the company from its cramped headquarters in Syracuse to a larger facility just outside the city in Liverpool. The new facility provided room to install machinery and expand manufacturing on site. Leonardi drew on his knowledge of high-end machining tools and production work to install computer-controlled machinery for some manufacturing steps. He also installed a robotic sanding machine station and upgraded the company’s accounting process.
As a result, the company virtually eliminated the normal 12 week waiting period for orders. It also began custom work, putting a company’s name, logo, colors, and calibrations onto the Brannock Device. In 2001, as much as 40 percent of the company’s business came from custom work done for Foot Locker (Europe), Nike, New Balance, Lang Ski Boots, and others. “We’ve brought a lot of processes in house that were previously done by other people. This has given us better control, better quality, and reduced the cost to us,” explained vice-president Tim Follett. “Shipping, accounting, billing—all have been computerized and updated to run in the 21st century.”
The device attained even greater renown after Brannock’s death. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History deemed both the Park-Brannock Shoe Store and the Brannock Device Company historically important, accepting 12 cubic feet of company records into its Archives Center in November 1998.
Woodrow Engineering (Ritz Stick).
- Charles Brannock invents the Brannock Device.
- The Brannock Device Company is founded.
- The Brannock Device is patented on August 28.
- 33,000 Brannock Devices are in use worldwide.
- Total sales of the device top 900,000 units.
- Charles Brannock dies on November 22.
- Salvatore Leonardi buys the company.
- National Museum of American History accepts company records into its technology and invention collection.
Craig, Barry, “Why the Shoe Fits,” Technology and Innovations, Summer 2000.
Davidson, Martha, “A Fitting Place for the Brannock Device Company Records,” Lemelson Center News, Fall 2001.
Lukas, Paul, “Sole Proprietorship,” Fortune Small Business, September 2001.
Watia, Amy K., “Brannock Device Company Records: 1925–1998,” Archives Center, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History, Fall 1991.