Part of the “Made in America” feature
By Nick Beversdorf
Merrill has always been known for local businesses, both large and small, but one of the larger companies has been in Merrill longer than most people realize. On a small strip of land, where the Praire meets the Wisconsin River, sits the Weinbrenner Shoe Company.
While everybody in Merrill probably knows someone who has, or does, work at Weinbrenner, few people probably realize the sheer scope and reach the company has. Weinbrenner not only has a national reach with their product lines, but has an international reach, with many of their products being very popular in countries all over the world. One of Weinbrenner’s most popular product lines is Thorogood occupational footwear.
“Our main shoe line, the Thorogood Shoe line, is a popular line of occupational footwear,” says International Sales Manager Richard Martens. “But in Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, the footwear is more of a lifestyle brand of shoes. In America, a mill worker or other blue collar worker would wear these shoes. Overseas, your everyday person wears these shoes, so we adapted our sales to those markets.”
This is in addition to the professional occupations, such as police, fire, SWAT, and other “uniform” professions that use the Thorogood line.
“In that area we have had immense success also,” adds Martens. “In that capacity you usually secure large contracts that go from 3-5 years. Organizations usually go from brand to brand during these years, but we have enjoyed continued success with the Thorogood brand in these professional markets.”
The Thorogood brand is still a mainstay in the USA as well. An interesting point that marketing manager Bianca Boettcher makes is that a majority (60-65%) of all Weinbrenner shoes are made in America.
“We strive to make as much product as possible right here in central Wisconsin,” says Boettcher. “All of the assembly happens right here in either our Merrill facility or our other facility in Marshfield. It is also noteworthy that for our federal contracts, such as the US military or Postal Service, we are required by federal law to have our Thorogood footwear be 100% made in the USA with USA components.”
This compliance with the Berry Amendment (10 U.S.C. 2533a) and the sheer amount of American-made products has been a source of pride for the company.
Another product line has drawn considerable attention to Weinbrenner shoes in recent years. The 1892 Wisconsin Collection, which was originally started for international markets back in 2008, has been making waves here in America in recent years.
It started with an international initiative to break into casual footwear markets overseas. The 1892 collection saw immense success, particularly in Germany and Italy, where attendants at trade shows saw that it was American made and pushed to have it sold in America.
Today, the 1892 Wisconsin Collection is sold in America at specific locations, namely habidasheries and professional menswear stores.
Other brands under the Weinbrenner name include Wood ‘N Stream outdoor footwear and Shoe-In slip-on footwear.
Today, the company has a large reach, but the beginnings were much more humble. Weinbrenner shoes was started by Albert Weinbrenner in 1892 at age 27. He started a business with partner Joseph Pfeifer repairing and selling boots and shoes out of a storefront at 140 W. Water St. in Milwaukee. They called their new cobblery “Weinbrenner and Pfeifer.”
During the depression of the 1930s, most of Wisconsin, especially Northern Wisconsin, was on an economic downturn thanks in no small part to the decline of the lumber industry, among other things. Representatives from Merrill and other towns went south to large cities like Milwaukee to pitch their cities and labor forces to prospective businesses.
The company was moved up to Northcentral Wisconsin where the first factory was built in 1935 in Marshfield. The second factory and headquarters were built in Merrill a year later. Weinbrenner has been continually operating out of these two locations for 80 years.
Since then, Weinbrenner has always been an active member in the Merrill community. Weinbrenner has participated in the Labor Day parade, has been a major sponsor of the Chamber of Commerce Golf Outing and most recently has sponsored the Merrill Historical Society’s “History Hunt.”
Most recently, Weinbrenner has made the foray into social media. While using Facebook and Twitter is common today, Weinbrenner has found unusual success on Instagram.
“Our presence on social media has exploded, especially on Instagram,” adds Boettcher. “Not only do people all over the world love taking pictures of themselves wearing our products, but we seem to have reached an interesting demographic with our shoes, namely the more ‘artistically inclined’ people. We have people tagging our products in pictures of paintings and drawings of our shoes! Who would have even though of that? We already have over 25,000 Facebook likes and we seem to be developing a ‘cult following’ with our products.”
Loyal adherents to Weinbrenner Shoes, especially the Thorogood and Wood N’ Stream brands, love to post themselves wearing their products. Search the brand on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and you are flooded with customer generated content, from military personnel in full combat gear, to hikers putting sepia filters on their selfies as they trek up a mountain.
The success in social media is only part of the equation, as the company is currently increasing capacity and investing in new equipment, such as a new leather cutter. The changes are coming on the eve of the company’s 125th anniversary. When asked if Weinbrenner had big plans in store for 2017, Boettcher gave an emphatic “yes!”
Weinbrenner Shoe Company is headquartered at 108 S. Polk St. in Merrill, along with another production facility in Marshfield. Weinbrenner Shoes produces products under the brand names Thorogood, Wood N’Stream, 1892 Wisconsin Collection, and Shoe-In. For more information or to view or order a product catalog, visit www.weinbrennerusa.com or call 1-800-826-0002.
You can also find out about most brands on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Twitter by searching the brand name.