By Jeff Sherman Staff Writer Published Jul 13, 2004 at 5:40 AM

{image1}When Inc. magazine published its 25th Anniversary issue in April, it named "25 Entrepreneurs We Love." On page 129, there was Wauwatosa native and Allen Edmonds president and CEO John Stollenwerk.

Every president since Reagan has bought at least one pair of Allen Edmonds, and the company now cranks out more than 6,000 pairs of American-made footwear at its Port Washington plant every week.

Stollenwerk bought the company -- founded in 1922 -- in 1980. It's still privately held and has more than 700 employees, agents and distributors (or co-workers as Stollenwerk calls them) in 33 countries. Its handcrafted shoes are sold in retailers like Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Marshall Fields and in its own 26 stores throughout the country.

And even though the company doesn't have a downtown Milwaukee store, it's visible in the community due to Stollenwerk's commitment and loyalty to his employees, many whom he buses everyday from Milwaukee.

With another successful tent sale behind him, Stollenwerk recently sat down with to talk shoes, Milwaukee, life, fashion and more in this latest installment of "Milwaukee Talks."

OMC: Where'd you grow up? Please give us the John Stollenwerk story.

JS: I was born and raised in Wauwatosa, at about 84th and Wisconsin, near the old County Grounds. I went to St. Jude's grade school, Marquette High School and Marquette University and I received my master's in communications arts from Marquette, too. So, I've been in Milwaukee, more or less, all of my life.

OMC: What was your first business venture?

JS: My first business adventure was an animal feed manufacturing company in Brazil, which I still own part of with a Brazilian partner. I was exporting some raw materials and machinery and found out about Allen Edmonds and purchased Allen Edmonds Shoe Corp. in 1980.

OMC: Can you please tell us more about Allen Edmonds?

JS: It's a great company. We started out with $9.5 million in sales in 1980 and we are looking to do $90 million this year. We had 150 co-workers in 1980 and our latest census is about 750 co-workers. We have a plant in Maine where we actually hand-sew moccasin-type shoes, hand-sewn penny loafers and that type of shoe. Then we have a plant in the inner city/near south side, and 3 plants in this (Port Washington) area. Plus, our Woodlore division that manufactures cedar shoe trees and related shoe products.

We do all of our manufacturing in the United States except for a small segment of Italian-type shoes. Some people like that type of footwear; it's what we call cemented footwear where the sole is actually cemented to the upper. We have four Italian styles, but it's a very small part of our business -- yet it rounds out the business. We truly are a U.S. manufacturer of footwear.

It's great fun, it's a great company and it continues to grow. We really have a beautiful market niche for that customer that wants a value and top quality, value for the price, top quality with a certain fashion. We are not the leading edge of fashion; we are more or less the banker, lawyer, the doctor, the candlestick maker (he laughs).

OMC: How are the shoes made?

JS: Our construction is called Goodyear (just like the tire) Welted Construction. It's a construction that was patented by Charles Goodyear back in the 1800s. We are one of the few companies in the world that still manufacturers that way today. And also our shoe does not have a metal shank in it so you don't have to take it off at the airport. Also, this means that the shoe conforms to the foot and your foot does not have to conform to the shoe -- so you are not breaking in our shoe.

Today in the United States, 95-98 percent (of all shoes) are imported. And out of that about 95 percent comes from China. None of those shoes are manufactured with Goodyear Welted Construction. They are all throwaway shoes. Our shoes can all be recrafted, new soles, heel, top lifts. So they have a long, long life.

{image2}OMC: Why are the shoes so comfortable and timeless?

JS: If you have 2-3 pairs of shoes in the closet, a normal guy ... those shoes should last any where between eight and 10 years. It's really a value for the money. Having a Goodyear Welted Construction truly means something. It's like a foundation of a building or a house. It's absolutely a lot more comfortable than any other footwear. We use all natural materials, too. We have more sizes and widths in stock than any other company in the world. In SKUs we have something like 160,000 SKUs, so we can fit just about anybody. From small sizes 6 or 6 1/2 all the way up to 18. And all the widths from AAAA to EEE.

We have two separate channels of distribution. One is through our own stores and through the Internet and phone, too. The other side sells to retailers, such as Nordstrom, Macy's, Saks, Bloomingdale's, Lord & Taylor.

We have approximately 46 retail outlets that we own. Some of these are factory outlet stores where we dispose of seconds. And these are truly seconds, we don't manufacture seconds on purpose, if you will. Because these factory outlet stores have become a big racket, if you will, in the U.S., kind of a scam. I mean many really aren't factory outlet stores. Many of these companies go to China and they have products of lesser quality that they put in those stores. We do not do that!

OMC: What's your biggest challenge?

JS: Our biggest challenge is people. We are fortunate in this neighborhood to have a young workforce. We run two buses per day from Milwaukee and we bring people up from Milwaukee. We have a heavily populated workforce that is Hispanic. They are first generation immigrants and they really work well and are very, very dedicated. We are very pleased with each other, I hope. Our turnover rate is very, very low.

We can't say the same in Maine. Maine is a challenge for us, the workforce there is elderly and we don't see young people coming in that are looking to be hand sewers. It's a very taxing job, and it takes a very long time to learn it.

OMC: How long does it take to introduce a new style?

JS: It takes a year to introduce a new style. You have to do fit trials, you have to make sure it looks good and make sure that the size 7 looks as good as the size 18. You have to grade the pattern, and there's a lot of work to do. We are able to do this very efficiently, though, being so close.

OMC: Did you know what you wanted to do early in life?

JS: I didn't start working until I was 30. I did a lot of traveling all over the world. I worked at Marquette for a while; I was really searching for what to do. I've always been entrepreneurial, and could always (find work to) get enough beer money! In college, I had a painting company with another guy. I delivered beer. I enjoy working; it's a lot of fun and really enjoy what I'm doing ... especially with a great product and great people.

OMC: Who was your mentor?

JS: I had a mentor when I started off in business. A gentleman named Al Zmolek. He was Executive VP of Merrick Foods in Union Center, Wisconsin. And Al really helped me get started in business. Al was a great help with the Brazilian business, and just really gave me good advice. Hard-working guy that really took me under his wing. I spent a lot of time with Al and his family up in Union Center.

Later in my career, on the shoe side of my career, it's Don Schuenke, the former chairman and CEO of Northwestern Mutual and Nortel and Freddie Mac. And he was chairman of my board here at AE, a great mentor and friend and a great person. He passed away about three weeks ago. I miss him a lot. He not only had the good business sense -- besides being a great human being -- he mentored all of us at the company, and he was just someone who was interested in footwear and for lack of a better word, dressing up. When he was on the road, he'd call back here with ideas ... he was always buying a new suit, matching it up with shoes. He always stopped in, and everyone was always interested in seeing him. He had a lot of good comments about the styling in the footwear. We will really miss that a lot. (He had) an unusual talent, especially for an executive like that. He was a great help to us.

What else put me on this path? I really believe that my Catholic school education -- grade school and high school. The nuns I had, they channeled my energies and the Jesuits at MU. I'd go back to school in a minute. I'd start morning kindergarten again. I loved it and had a ball, I loved school and the teachers I had. Had some difficult ones, some that I didn't love as much as some of the others. I think my children do, too.

OMC: How do you manage the fashion trends?

JS: We have a department, well not really a department but three people who work on shoe design, and the salesmen in the field see things and bring them back here and talk. Our chief designer lives in Maine, and he has a real sense of styling. I mean that's something you have in you. You have a feel for it. I can tell by the way this man lives, by the cars he drives, by the way his office is set up, the way he dresses, you can tell this guy has a feel for shoes. Every so often, we have to reign him in a bit back to the practicality of our customer as he tends to go off just a slight bit, not too much, just a bit though.

There's a lot of copying in this business. Ours tends to be a little different because of the contoured lasts (cork linings that create custom fit) and what we do -- so our shoes will never be an exact knock off of the guy's across the street. We are not working here with plastic or raw materials that you throw into a machine. So every shoe factory has our character and feel, and even though we might knock off a buckle shoe from another company, it will always be a little different - nothing is exact, nor do you want it to be. Really died in the wool 'shoe dogs' can tell an Allen Edmonds shoe from a Florsheim shoe, from a Bostonian, so there's a feel for the product.

We are in the fashion business. We have two seasons, we come out with new shoes twice per year. We have a small warehouse in Europe, and we distribute through Europe and Canada and a couple of countries in the Orient, but Europe and especially Italy is where men's shoes and shoe styling originates. We go to trade fairs that we show at -- the best one for us is a show in Florence, Italy called "PittiUomo." It's high-end men's suits, accessories, shirts, ties and four of us that show men's shoes.

{image3}OMC: Is casual still strong today?

JS: Casual used to be real, real strong. As the economy gets worse, people get more serious, and they dress up so the business world has back to more dress, a bit. However, we have seen over the years composite rubber bottoms on shoes. The purists will only wear a dress shoe with a leather bottom, but that's really gone away today.

OMC: What's your take on business climate in Milwaukee?

JS: I think we are on an upswing. I hope with Mayor Barrett, we will join with the suburbs, because they are a big part of the area. Milwaukee has fought with the suburbs for the past 50 years, it's been a real battle, but it shouldn't be. It shows that we are not unified in number or strength. I sure hope that this mayor extends hands out to the rest of the community surrounding us and works with them. It's too bad that the taxes keep rising.

OMC: What about education?

JS: I think school choice has done a lot. I was co-chair, now I'm chair of PAVE (Partners Advancing Values in Education). I think it's done a lot of good for everybody in the city. We have a very efficient choice system of school and the public schools are becoming stronger in the city of Milwaukee. It's too bad that the (teachers) union doesn't work with us and work this to grow this and make it strong. Education is the basis for the future of the city.

OMC: What are two other items that are important to Milwaukee?

JS: Continued development of the downtown is really needed. When you go to places like Minneapolis, Denver, Los Angeles -- some of those are much bigger cities of course, we are more like Minneapolis -- you see a vital downtown. Our downtown is just starting to come around. A strong downtown is really necessary for a community. And, the whole Menomonee Valley needs to be done. This can be a big plus. Light industry, service, etc.

OMC: Has AE ever looked at a downtown Milwaukee retail location?

JS: No, it just doesn't make sense. Our customers live out here in Mequon, Brookfield ... There isn't a strong enough base to run a retail Allen Edmonds only store in downtown yet. We've done it in Washington, DC, Boston and one in Phoenix, two in New York ...

The customer base is there Monday-Friday from 9-5, where's the customer after that? Is that customer ...going to walk from the US Bank Building 10 blocks when he can drive home and stop on the way. For just an Allen Edmonds only store, the base isn't there. Plus we have Van's down there (in the Shops of Grand Avenue).

We need to continue to build up the downtown. There is good retail downtown, but it's got to continue to build. Look at all the building that's going on!

OMC: If you could sit down with one person today and have a drink/cup of coffee, who would it be and why?

JS: I guess (probably a few years ago since he's pretty elderly now) it's the Pope. I tell you, there's a man ... we'll never experience a man like this in our lifetime. He went through World War II as a laborer with the Nazis invading Poland -- all the problems he's seen. He was a great catalyst for the whole breakdown of communism in the eastern world. To sit down with him and talk would be very, very interesting.

OMC: Define success for us please?

JS: The ability to do things for others and having a good family. That's success, these things on an equal basis, are success for me.

Jeff Sherman Staff Writer

A life-long and passionate community leader and Milwaukeean, Jeff Sherman is a co-founder of OnMilwaukee.

He grew up in Wauwatosa and graduated from Marquette University, as a Warrior. He holds an MBA from Cardinal Stritch University, and is the founding president of Young Professionals of Milwaukee (YPM)/Fuel Milwaukee.

Early in his career, Sherman was one of youngest members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and currently is involved in numerous civic and community groups - including board positions at The Wisconsin Center District, Wisconsin Club and Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.  He's honored to have been named to The Business Journal's "30 under 30" and Milwaukee Magazine's "35 under 35" lists.  

He owns a condo in Downtown and lives in greater Milwaukee with his wife Stephanie, his son, Jake, and daughter Pierce. He's a political, music, sports and news junkie and thinks, for what it's worth, that all new movies should be released in theaters, on demand, online and on DVD simultaneously.

He also thinks you should read OnMilwaukee each and every day.