Weinbrenner celebrates 130 years
TINA L. SCOTT
On Saturday, June 4, 2022, Weinbrenner Shoe Company held a 130th celebration for all of their employees in Merrill, with a private company picnic, in conjunction with the official Grand Opening of their new building at 211 S. Genesee St. The day prior, on June 3, the company held a ribbon cutting with the Merrill Chamber.
Weinbrenner employees, Chamber officials and members; Chamber Ambassadors; the Mayor, many Aldermen, and representatives from the City of Merrill; and other interested community members were invited to attend and tour the operations in the new building to see production in action. Employees and families were welcome to tour the new building in conjunction with the Saturday picnic.
The newly renovated nearly 130,000 square foot facility allowed Weinbrenner to expand their manufacturing and warehouse space by more than 110,000 square feet.
The building, formerly occupied by Hurd Window & Door and then Great Lakes Alfalfa, stood vacant since 2017, until it was acquired by Weinbrenner from the Merrill Area Development Company for $300,000 on March 1, 2021 .
In 2020, Dave Johnson, Merrill City Administrator, and Bill Bialecki, Director of the Lincoln County Development Corporation, approached Weinbrenner with the idea of taking over the Hurd building, said Jeff Burns, President of Weinbrenner Shoe Company.
“The building was in pretty rough shape,” Burns said. “Our first response was thanks, but no thanks.”
“But Dave and Bill had a vision for the potential of this building,” he said. “Their persistence eventually brought us around to also see that potential.”
Since then the building has been extensively renovated to increase efficiencies and create a better work environment for employees. Brighter and more spacious, painting, new roofing, adding lots of new lighting, new floors, new break rooms/cafeteria, and new bathrooms were just a few of the updates.
“Our 265 Merrill employees deserve the best environment we can deliver, and this new facility is an example of how we are investing in our team and our Wisconsin-based operations and living up to our promise to grow jobs in Merrill, our world headquarters,” Burns said.
“Weinbrenner has been a vital part of the Merrill community since 1936, and we are committed to this great city that has been so supportive of us for nearly a century,” he said.
From raw materials and cutting, to production lines and quality control, all the way to packaging, finished goods, and shipping, the new facility will greatly enhance production and efficiency. “This expansion provides the space needed to support the increased demand for our domestic footwear well into the foreseeable future,” Burns said.
It is also convenient, as the renovated property is nearly next-door to Weinbrenner’s existing facility.
Celebrating 130 years
At the ribbon cutting ceremony on June 3, Burns addressed the crowd of employees and community gathered and set the scene in his opening words: “In 1892 there were 44 states in the United States and 66 million people in the United States. Thomas Edison was granted a patent for the first two-way telegraph. The Dalton Gang unsuccessfully tried to rob two banks at the same time in Kansas.”
“1892 was the year Coca-Cola was invented, but Ford, Chevy, and Harley Davidson didn’t exist yet.”
“And in 1892, Albert H. Weinbrenner and Joseph Pfeifer started the Weinbrenner Shoe Company in Milwaukee.”
“Very few companies can say they have been in business for 130 years. Not only can we proudly say that, but we can also say demand for the Thorogood brand has never been stronger,” Burns said.
“In 1936, the City of Merrill convinced Weinbrenner to open a factory here,” he said.
An employee-owned boot and shoe manufacturer, Weinbrenner is the largest manufacturer of “Made in USA” footwear and today has manufacturing plants in both Merrill and Marshfield.
Demand for footwear increased 54% in 2021, a trend Weinbrenner expects to continue into the future, so additional production operations and increased efficiency was needed to meet the demand. “We had outgrown our existing facility on Polk St.,” Burns said.
“We explored many options, including putting up a location in another state,” he said. “But once again, the City of Merrill convinced us to expand right here.”
Burns thanked Johnson and Bialecki, saying they were instrumental to that decision. He also thanked the Merrill Area Development Corporation and recognized Melinda Osterberg with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) [who “provided needed financial assistance to make this a reality”], and Todd Nagel, Adam Keuler, Susan Ryman, and the entire team at Incredible Bank, saying, “We could not ask for a better partner. Thank you for your incredible (pun intended) support.”
The Weinbrenner Board of Directors, including Dave Gisselman, Chairman of the Board, Ron Nicklaus, Gary Stroyny, and Jon Krueger, were also recognized. “These are some of the finest business minds I’ve ever been around,” Burns said. “They provide us support and wisdom. They are committed to USA manufacturing and to keeping Weinbrenner in the city of Merrill.”
The WEDC supported the acquisition/expansion project with a $250,000 Idle Sites Redevelopment Grant, and the City of Merrill contributed a $300,000 development incentive.
These are healthy investments, officials say, because they increase the city’s tax base by converting a vacant, run-down property into a robust, profit-generating and property-tax-generating property.
“And most importantly,” he said, “Thank you to the men and women of Weinbrenner who show up every day. And make the best damn boots in the world. This building is dedicated to you.”
“130 years after Albert started his company, I know he would be proud of the company and this building that bears his name,” Burns said.
Hiring for planned expansion
Next steps are to work on renovations to the current corporate headquarters at 108 South Polk St, company representatives said.
Weinbrenner is currently actively hiring for immediate openings and also needs more employees for planned expansion.