Florsheim Shoe Company
Florsheim Shoe Company
Division of Interco Inc.
Incorporated: 1892 as Florsheim & Company
Sales: $210 million
SICs: 3143 Men’s Footwear, Except Athletic
Florsheim Shoe Company manufactures and sells one of the world’s best-known brands of dress shoes for men. In recent years, casual shoes have also been included in the company’s line, which contains a total of over 300 styles. Florsheim shoes are sold at the 300 Florsheim Shoe Shops and by about 3,000 unaffiliated Florsheim dealers nationwide. Florsheim is a division of the St. Louis-based Interco Inc., which also owns Converse, the athletic shoe maker. Interco went into bankruptcy in 1991, after going nearly $2 billion in debt fighting off a takeover attempt. Interco’s bankruptcy ended in mid-1992. About half of Florsheim’s 6,000 employees work in the United States, where the company has production facilities in southern Missouri and southern Illinois. In addition to its line of classic men’s dress shoes, Florsheim markets several specialized shoe types. Shoes in the company’s Florsheim Comfortech line weigh half as much as traditional dress shoes and feature a special insert with shock absorbing air bubbles. The Florsheim Outdoorsman line contains rugged casual shoes and boots that are water resistant and insulated for warmth, and the Florsheim Imperial line includes dress shoes with other special comfort features.
The company was founded under the name Florsheim & Co. in 1892. Milton Florsheim, the company’s founder, sought to produce high quality men’s dress shoes at a moderate price, and he opened his first factory in Chicago. The first Florsheim shoes were made by Milton and his father, Sigmund Florsheim. Florsheim’s distribution system was established in the company’s infancy. The company provided support for entrepreneurs who wished to set up stores that would sell Florsheim shoes retail. In this way, Florsheim shoes began to go on sale in small towns throughout the United States.
Florsheim expanded its distribution system in the early part of the twentieth century. Wholesale distribution was set up in several metropolitan areas. Company-owned retail outlets were also established in several cities. These stores were large enough to display and sell the entire line of Florsheim shoes and became the company’s flagship operations. In 1929, the company began manufacturing woman’s shoes. By 1930, there were five Florsheim factories in Chicago. The shoes were sold through 71 retail outlets, either wholly or partly owned by the company, as well as through nearly 9,000 dealers not directly affiliated with the manufacturer. The company had 2,500 employees by this time.
After approaching $3 million in net income in 1929, Florsheim, like most companies dependant on retail sales, was hurt badly by the onset of the Great Depression. By 1931, the company’s net income had shrunk to $717,000. As the Depression eased up somewhat in the second half of the 1930s, net income hovered around the $1 million mark, and sales began to slowly climb once again, reaching $9.4 million in 1940.
Despite its size, Florsheim was still very much a family operation in the 1930s. Aside from Milton Florsheim, the company’s two highest ranking officers in 1930 were his sons, Irving and Harold, who had joined the business in 1914 and 1920, respectively, after graduating from Cornell University. Two other Florsheims, Louis and Felix, also sat on the board of directors. In addition to its business successes, the Florsheim family was also prominent in the art world, both as patrons and artists. Helen Florsheim, Irving’s wife, had a distinguished career as a sculptor. In 1936, Milton Florsheim died and was replaced as head of Florsheim Shoe Co. by Irving. Sales at Florsheim stalled once again in the mid-1940s, hovering around $17 million. In 1946, Irving Florsheim ascended to the position of chairperson, leaving the company’s presidency to his brother Harold.
By 1949, Florsheim’s sales were $25.3 million. At that time, there were 82 wholly or partly owned Florsheim retail outlets, and another 4,500 unaffiliated stores that sold Florsheim shoes. The bulk of Florsheim’s manufacturing was still taking place at the company’s Chicago plants, principally the original facility near Chicago’s Loop and two others on the northwest side of the city. In 1953, Florsheim was purchased by International Shoe Company (now called Interco), the largest shoe manufacturer in the world, for about $21 million. Three years later, Florsheim’s status was changed from that of a subsidiary to a division of Interco. Florsheim was still run autonomously, however, with Harold Florsheim in charge of the division.
Florsheim quickly became International’s most important unit. In fact, in its first decade as part of International, Florsheim thrived, increasing its sales nearly every year, while the parent company struggled for the most part. Between 1953 and 1963, Florsheim’s sales doubled. By the end of that period, Florsheim was contributing an impressive 58 percent of International’s earnings, while generating only about a quarter of its sales. Florsheim was the overwhelming leader among producers of better shoes for men (with prices of at least $20 per pair), controlling over 70 percent of that market. The company’s success had much to do with Harold Florsheim’s marketing innovations, as well as with the company’s wise refusal to dilute its line with cheaper shoes, which could increase sales but would also trim its profit ratios.
Florsheim’s operations were again expanded in the mid-1960s. Facilities at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, were enlarged, and, in 1966, 39 new company-owned retail outlets were added, bringing the total number of stores to 238, while the number of outside dealers selling Florsheim shoes reached 5,000. Furthermore, a new Florsheim plant was opened in Anna, Illinois, and soon thereafter one of that facility’s units was converted for the additional production of women’s shoes, which were sold through Interco’s Thayer-McNeil chain of retail stores. Harold Florsheim became company chairperson in 1966. He held this position until his retirement three years later, and remained active in the company for several years before his death in 1987.
In 1971, two new Florsheim manufacturing facilities were launched, bringing the company’s total to 14. Retail stores run by the company sold about 25 percent of the shoes produced in these plants. By the end of that year, there were 546 Florsheim outlets, and, of these, 75 were Thayer-McNeil Shoe Salons, where Florsheim’s women’s line was sold. The following year, 36 more stores were added, including seven Thayer-McNeils. However, later in the 1970s, Florsheim began to phase out its production of women’s shoes. Although the company continued to operate its Thayer-McNeil stores, wholesale women’s operations were cut out completely, and all outside retail accounts for women’s shoes were discontinued.
During this time, an influx of imported shoes began to cripple the American shoe industry. By 1978, the number of U.S. workers in the industry was cut in half to 30,000. Furthermore, between 1980 and 1985, the share of imported men’s shoes sold in the United States rose from 44 to 70 percent. As a response to this trend, Florsheim shifted more of its production to foreign countries, where labor was considerably less expensive. About 200 people were put out of work in 1986, when Florsheim closed its Poplar Bluff, Missouri, factory, a plant that had been in operation for 40 years. Despite this industry-wide downturn, Florsheim reintroduced women’s shoes to its product line in 1986.
In 1985, Ronald Mueller took over as head of Florsheim. Mueller had worked for the company since 1951, when, at age 15, he was employed as an assistant window dresser. Under Mueller, Florsheim began to experiment with an electronic retailing system called the Florsheim Express Shop. The Express Shop was an interactive computerized system allowing stores to order shoes through a terminal connected to the warehouse at the company’s Chicago headquarters, which maintained an inventory of 1.5 million pairs of shoes. The system allowed the customer to view the shoes on a video monitor, and to select any style or size in the 250-style Florsheim line. The buyer then received the shoes via UPS within a week. The test placements of the Express Shop were a clear-cut success. By mid-1987, the terminals were in place at 200 stores.
By the beginning of 1988, 336 Florsheim Express Shops were in operation in 16 states, and the company set a goal of maintaining a total of 2,000 Express Shops. Stores with the terminals installed generally showed increases of 15 to 33 percent in sales. During that year, Interco consolidated its International Shoe Company division into Florsheim, moving its operations into Florsheim’s Chicago headquarters. Toward the end of the 1980s, there were actually fewer Florsheim stores, about 250 total, but these stores garnered more sales. This was partly due to a broadening of the Florsheim line to include casual and athletic shoes for the first time in the company’s history, including the Florsheim Comfortech line, which incorporated elements of athletic and walking shoes into a dress shoe design. Many stores that had to supplement their inventories with lower priced casual shoes were now able to carry stock composed entirely of Florsheim products. In 1989, Florsheim stores that carried the company’s comfort shoe line showed a ten percent increase in sales over the stores that did not.
Meanwhile, Florsheim continued to cut its production costs by moving more of its manufacturing overseas. Between 1986 and 1989, the portion of the company’s shoes made in the United States shrank from 80 to less than 50 percent. In 1988 and 1989, nine Florsheim and International Shoe Co. factories in the United States were shut down, leaving only four domestic facilities in operation, all located in Missouri and southern Illinois. In 1990, the company began developing a franchising program, in which smaller stores were opened under franchise agreements in secondary markets (initially Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Clarksville, Tennessee), while the company continued to operate its own stores in the major market areas. Florsheim also began to withdraw from its leased shoe department arrangements in other stores due to their unimpressive sales volume.
Around this time, testing was begun on in-store sales at some well established chains, particularly Kuppenheimer’s discount men’s clothing stores and Sears, Roebuck & Co. outlets. The Sears test was a huge success, and in 1990, the company announced that Florsheim footwear boutiques would be opened at 100 Sears locations, replacing the regular men’s shoe departments of stores in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, southern California, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. The boutiques would include electronic Express Shop kiosks, which by this time numbered over 500 nationwide.
In 1991, Interco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Interco had been starved for cash since fighting off a 1988 takeover attempt by the Rales brothers through their private investment firm, City Capital Associates. That battle saddled Interco with a debt of $1.9 billion, which it sought to reduce by selling off or liquidating most of its holdings. Florsheim was one of the few parts of Interco left intact. In spite of Interco’s problems, Florsheim remained active in the early 1990s. Two new shoe styles were introduced in 1991. One of them, the Bantam Walking Shoe, was an attempt to tap into the popular walking shoe market that had long been dominated by such brands as Rockport and Reebok. The Florsheim Comfortech Imperial was a new spin on Florsheim’s traditional top-of-the-line Imperial, adding its patented Flor-Flex cushioning and heel padding.
A joint venture was also launched in 1991 with a Mexican investor to sell Florsheim shoes in Mexico. Although this project was reasonably successful, it too was sold off the following year by the cash-poor parent company. Florsheim made another international move in 1991, establishing a wholly-owned subsidiary in Italy, the company’s most important European market. That year, the company focused on sales abroad, and was able to increase its exports by 35 percent.
Domestically, the alliance with Sears continued to pay off handsomely. A presence in such a widespread chain helped Florsheim increase its market share significantly. The arrangement also helped Sears, which benefitted from the presence of products with a reputation for high quality in its stores.
Although dress shoes remained Florsheim’s principal product in the early 1990s, an overall shrinkage of the U.S. market for dress shoes prompted the company to focus more on casual footwear. Florsheim courted younger buyers in its attempt to beef up sales, unveiling a new, more modern, brass plate logo to replace its longstanding shield logo. Furthermore, the company hired popular sports commentator John Madden to endorse Florsheim shoes in media spots, a move which resulted in increased sales for the Comfortech line. The share of Florsheim’s sales contributed by Comfortech (which sold an estimated one million pairs) grew from less than five percent to 23 percent in the four-year period ending in 1992.
The century old Florsheim Shoe Company possesses a far greater brand name recognition than any of its competitors. Although increasingly fewer pairs of dress shoes are being purchased in the United States, a trend that will likely continue, Florsheim is expected to increase its share of those shoes sold for a long time. Florsheim’s ability to successfully expand during its parent company’s bankruptcy is regarded by many as evidence of its solid grounding in its industry.
Goldenburg, Jane, “Casuals, Athletic Lines Add to Florsheim Punch,” Footwear News, January 9, 1989, p. 1; “Florsheim Puts Thumbs Up For Video Buying System,” Footwear News, January 11, 1988, p. 10.
Gruber, William, “Florsheim Success Work of ’Sole’ Man,” Chicago Tribune, April 6, 1987, sec. 4, p. 4.
Howard, Tammi, Florsheim Mulls Reentry into Women’s Wholesale,” Footwear News, March 25, 1985, p.l.
“Interco: Making Big Strides,” Financial World, February 9, 1972, p. 5.
“Interco Strides Toward Third Successive Peak,” Barron’s, April 17, 1967, p. 29.
Lassiter, Dawn, “Harold Florsheim Dies at 87; Industry Pioneer,” Footwear News, February 9, 1987, p. 2.
Lazarus, George, “Florsheim Sees Good Fit in Franchising Venture,” Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1990, sec. 3, p. 4.
“Nepotism: Good & Bad,” Forbes, July 15, 1964, pp.32–33.
Randle, Wilma, “Florsheim Works to Capture Heart and Sole of Younger Men,” Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1990, sec. 4, p. 1.
Rooney, Ellen, “Florsheim Grows Beyond Dress Shoe Foundation,” Footwear News, August 31, 1992, p. 2; “Florsheim, Sears Team Up With Boutique Operations,” Footwear News, September 10, 1990, p. 4.
Schechter, Dará, “Florsheim, Converse at Interco Still,” Footwear News, January 16, 1989, p. 1.
Schmeltzer, John, “Florsheim Steps Forward While Parent Company Treads Water,” Chicago Tribune, May 4, 1992, sec. 4, p. 1.
Waterman, Phil, “Interco Strides Toward Ninth Straight Peak Year,” Barron’s, February 21, 1972, pp. 26–28.
Wessling, Jack, “Florsheim Expanding Its Electronic Retailing,” Footwear News, June 29, 1987, p. 2; “Int’l Shoe Name May Be Dropped,” Footwear News, March 21, 1988, p. 1.
—Robert R. Jacobson
"Florsheim Shoe Company." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 25, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/florsheim-shoe-company
"Florsheim Shoe Company." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved March 25, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/florsheim-shoe-company
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