Made in Milwaukee: Jockey
Made in Milwaukee is new series about the businesses that sell to the world but call Milwaukee home. Presented by House of Harley-Davidson, Milwaukee's locally owned Harley dealer, we're shining a spotlight on these iconic companies – their histories and their futures.
Year founded: 1876
CEO: Debra S. Waller
Number of employees: 1,500
Location: 2300 60th St., Kenosha
The fact that Jockey International is headquartered in Kenosha might come as a surprise to some people. Jockey – one of the largest manufacturers, distributors and retailers of underwear and sleepwear for men, women and children – sells products in 120 countries. However, all of the sales, marketing, customer service, product development, packaging, design, sourcing and more take place in a Kenosha building.
"The global operations for the entire Jockey company comes from right here, in Kenosha," says Matthew Waller, spokesperson for Jockey.
Jockey did not originate in Kenosha, however. In 1876, Samuel T. Cooper founded S.T. Cooper and Sons, the predecessor of Jockey, in St. Joseph, Michigan. Cooper, a retired minister, befriended some Minnesotan lumberjacks while on vacation and learned that they were suffering from serious foot infections.
The infections were due to blisters that came from their wool socks that wore out erratically. They lived in isolation with little to no access to better socks or viable ways to treat infections so many of the men lost toes and feet.
"The cure for infection then was to just cut it off, and in doing so, these men lost their livelihood," says John Cronce, the director of Jockey's consumer care who serves as the unofficial company historian, too.
Cooper started making socks for the lumberjacks with the help of some elderly women in his town. The business started to expand and Cooper tried to join forces with larger hosiery companies, but couldn't find an interested partner. In 1893, he decided to move the expanding company to Kenosha because of the harbor and rail lines to Chicago.
Cooper's perfectionism and commitment to quality went a long way in the otherwise unimpressive sock market and it would go even further in the underwear market.
"Quality is what drove Cooper," says Cronce. "He had a wild-eyed passion for it and other manufacturers did not, so he really found his niche."
During the Great Depression, Cooper introduced the world's first brief. For a brief amount of time, people could not accept the brief as a proper undergarment. Men were accustomed to wearing what we now call "long underwear" or a baggy boxer short-type underwear. But before too long, men found tighter-fitting underwear to be comfortable and the brief became a huge success.
Jockey did not really get into making women's underwear until the '80s. There was a short-lived experiment with women's underwear manufacturing in the '50s but, according to Cronce, it didn't go very well.
"It was the '50s and a group of men got together and they tried to create underwear for women but it ended up looking like men's underwear," says Cronce.
In 1982, however, Donna Wolf Steigerwaldt became the company CEO and Jockey started to make women's apparel. Steigerwaldt passed away in 1999, but her daughter, Debra Waller, serves as the current CEO.
Today, Jockey sells about the same amount of men's and women's underwear. They also sell sleepwear, robes, active wear and scrubs. Since 1876, all Jockey products came with the same guarantee: if a customer's not totally satisfied, they can return the item for a full refund.
The Kenosha office employs roughly 300 people and there are more than 100 Jockey outlets throughout the United States. Depending on the time of year, Jockey employs anywhere between 1,000 and 2,500 people.
The style and color of Jockey underwear ranges slightly from country to country. For example, because red is considered to be the color of luck in some Asian countries, they sell more red garments and therefore need to manufacture more than they would for other cultures where the color might have other connotations.
Last year, Jockey officials made the announcement that they had evaluated the location of the headquarters and decided they were going to stay, indefinitely, in Kenosha even though they have expanded the facility three times.
"Kenosha is home for Jockey," said Waller. "The company's soul is here. The community means a lot to us."
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