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Wellco Company History
The Company presently known as Wellco Enterprises. began operations in Waynesville, NC in 1941 under its original name, Wellco Shoe Corporation.
By way of background, the history of Wellco goes back to the nineteenth century when the grandfather of the founding partners started the family's first shoe factory in Germany. In the early 1930's, the German company developed the first practical method for molding and attaching a rubber sole to a shoe upper in a single vulcanizing operation. The German company had the foresight to patent this technology worldwide.
When Wellco began manufacturing, it specialized in light-weight slippers and casual footwear with sponge rubber soles. Except for a brief time, during World War II when the use of rubber was restricted to defense purposes, wellco continued to manufacture and market such footwear, trademarked Wellco Foamtreads, until approximately 1985. Wellco footwear had as many as thirty exclusive salesmen calling on independent retailers and department stores around the country and established a network of several thousand customers, who touted the merits and comfort of Wellco slippers and casuals for children and adults. In addition, however, Heinz Rollman was convinced of the merits of Ro-Search's patented technology for the manufacture of heavy duty footwear, such as military boots, and he began in the early 1950's to call this technology to the attention of US Army Natick Laboratories in Massachusetts. In 1965, as a result of unsatisfactory performance of previous Army combat footwear in the jungles of Viet Nam, the Army adopted Wellco-Ro-Search technology for the manufacture of its hot-weather boots, and this product thus became known as the "Viet Nam Boot." Later the technology used to manufacture the Viet Nam Boots were adopted for all Army combat footwear. Wellco became a prominent supplier of such footwear to the US Military in 1965, and the remainder of the Army's needs were supplied for a number of years by three other companies, all of them using Ro-Search-supplied molds and presses, as well as technical advice. To this day, the technology used to manufacture military combat boots, although significantly modified and no longer covered by current patents, retains prominent features of the original "Viet Nam Boot."
By the mid 1950's Wellco had grown to more than five hundred employees at its original location in the Dayton Rubber complex and at an additional location in Hazelwood. Eventually, the company relocated all operations to the present site at Westwood Circle and Georgia Avenue in the Hazelwood community of Waynesville. Parenthetically, the association between Wellco and Dayco did not quite end with the relocation of the shoe factory. In the late 1960's Messrs Freedlander and Heinz Rollman, by then both retired but still active as consultants and on the Boards of Directors of their respective Companies, conceived of a plan for Dayco to acquire Wellco Enterprises. That plan did not survive the due diligence of Dayco accountants and others, who mistakenly concluded that Wellco could not long survive in the event it lost its military business. It is ironic that Wellco has thus retained its autonomy and has long outlived Dayco in Haywood County.
As early as 1956, Wellco founded its manufacturing subsidiary in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico under the original name of Moda Shoe Corporation. The US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico had just initiated its Operation Bootstrap at the time, offering some very desirable tax and cost incentives. In 1963 a second Puerto Rican subsidiary was founded under the name of Kaufman Shoe Company. The two were later merged as Mo-Ka Shoe Corporation, which today is Wellco 's primary manufacturing entity. For a brief time, in the late 50's and early 60's, Wellco also operated a plant in the Caribbean nation of Jamaica.
In March 1964, a disastrous fire gutted the old rock apple warehouse that served as Wellco 's main manufacturing and office facility in Hazelwood. (Fortunately, the finished footwear warehouse and the Ro-Search building were saved). Production in Puerto Rico was immediately ramped up to seven days a week, and Haywood County operations resumed within days in trailers and other makeshift quarters, while a new building was erected in record time on the site of the destruction. Dedication of the new office and manufacturing facilities took place less than four months after the fire. For many weeks before that event, employees were already manufacturing shoes in parts of the new building, while walls were still being erected around them.
True to its heritage as a developer of footwear manufacturing technology, Wellco 's subsidiary Ro-Search Inc., perfected and patented in 1957 a new technique for molding and attaching a rubber sole to a welted upper. This was known as "Process 82," to indicate that it was considered to be twenty five years ahead of its time. In addition to licensing Process 82 worldwide, Wellco co-founded in 1963 a company known as Hi-Pals Footwear Inc. in Darien, Georgia, dedicated to manufacturing rugged Process 82 footwear for children and youth, and, subsequently also men's work shoes. The Darien factory was sold several years later, but Wellco continued to manufacture Hi Pals boots in Waynesville until the mid 1980's.
Unfortunately, like many labor intensive industries, the shoe business became dominated by imports from low-cost producers in the Far East and elsewhere. This process accelerated to the point where manufacturing Foamtread slippers and casuals and Hi Pals boots in Waynesvlle and in Puerto Rico was no longer competitive in the marketplace. For this reason, wellco had to make the decision in 1985 to discontinue manufacturing these two brands and to concentrate on its military footwear production, which, by that time, had become an important component of the Company's business. Under US law, military apparel (including footwear) purchased by the Department of Defense must be produced under the US flag, so long as producers are available. This gave a degree of protection from the Far East import invasion to a small group of rugged footwear manufacturers, including Wellco. In addition to producing footwear for the US government, Wellco today produces and markets similar and related products for sale in the commercial marketplace to sportsmen, law enforcement and other uniformed personnel, etc. It is noteworthy that the import penetration of the US commercial footwear market has today reached a level in excess of 95%, so that only an extremely limited selection of specialized items can be successfully sold by a US producer. Thanks to its basic business for the Military, Wellco feels that it can be a viable competitor by marketing such items commercially from both domestic and foreign sources.
Initially, the uppers for Wellco military combat boots were cut and stitched in Puerto Rico, and these uppers were then shipped to Waynesville for lasting (forming), and sole attachment. Unfortunately, even though protected from the flood of imports, the military footwear business has become extremely competitive, to the point that Wellco footwear could no longer successfully bid on government procurements with major components of its manufacturing in two separate locations. Therefore, the decision had to be made in 1999 to relocate the majority of the lasting and sole attachment operations from Waynesville to an expanded location in Puerto Rico, together with the upper making.
Today, Waynesville continues to be the site of Wellco 's home office, its distribution warehouses and its Ro-Search machine shop and footwear development operations, as well as some specialized footwear bottoming production, featuring a modern polyurethane direct injection process.
Just like Wellco 's products and manufacturing operations, the Company's ownership and management structure have evolved over the sixty five years since its founding. The members of the partnership which initially owned the majority of Wellco 's stock had very few assets outside the Company. Therefore, in order to achieve some financial stability for their families, they determined in 1961 to "go public," by offering the Company's shares on the stock market. The first public offering took place in December 1961, and the first Report to Shareholders covered the period from July 1 to December 31, 1961. Net sales during that six month period were approximately $2.5 million. This compares with annual net sales between $40 and $50 million today.