This Spokane, Wash. boot manufacturer builds the kind of footwear that can last a lifetime. In today’s throwaway society, it is increasingly harder to find the kind of high quality, handmade goods that are built to last a lifetime. However, for White’s Boots, a commitment to making boots that are built to last isn’t just a marketing strategy, it’s a tradition.
“We have a lot of fathers and grandfathers who have always worn White’s Boots who bring in their children and grandchildren to buy their first pair of White’s Boots,” said Steve Scheller, vice president. “And once they get their first pair of White’s, they are typically sold on the quality and craftsmanship for life.”
The company has its roots in West Virginia, where it first began producing boots shortly after the Civil War. By the turn of the 20th century, the company had moved to Northern Idaho, and it moved to Spokane in the 1930s.
“What makes us unique is that there are very few companies that make custom, handmade products,” said Scheller. “We do custom work, so if someone needs something special to work for them, whether it be orthopedically or for the shape of their foot, we can do that. The handmade product allows for a lot more flexibility and durability.”
Unlike mass-produced footwear, White’s Boots can be repaired and rebuilt, adding to their durability and long life. “This is getting to be more of a throwaway society, so I think the younger generation has come up not appreciating the benefits of a high-end product as much,” he said.
The company manufactures four lines of boots, high-end White’s, two midlevel lines, and entry-level Explorer boots. “We offer boots at all price points, but the White’s is still the high end that we take pride in promoting,” Scheller said. “We can explain to customers that they are paying more initially for the boots, but they are going to get more life out of it than they will for a pair of $200 throwaway boots.”
The company has about 650 wholesale accounts. Until about three or four years ago, almost all White’s accounts were based in the US, but the company has recently begun to expand internationally.
“The retail business used to be really based on the logging industry, but we’ve now opened up the market to Japan, China, and Europe,” Scheller said. “The international market has probably been better than we anticipated.”
The company’s Tokyo account is now its biggest. “They’ve just gone gangbusters over there,” he said. “It’s really more of a fashion statement that the younger generation is picking up on. It’s a retro look back to some of the styles we did in the 1940s and ’50s.”
Even with the great potential for growth in Asia, Scheller said the company is not willing to sacrifice its commitment to quality. “We are only able to build so many pairs of boots per year in each of our lines because we are limited with the hand-built process,” he said.
Because of the troubled economy and the impact of larger retailers, a number of the smaller mom-and-pop stores that used to carry the company’s line of boots have gone out of business. However, as those markets have become weaker, Scheller said he has seen more farm stores pick up the midlevel and entry-level boot lines.
The company has also expanded its sales force to broaden its customer base in the Southeast and the Midwest. “We want to branch out and find new groups that are willing to take on our line and have some knowledge of footwear,” he said.
When it comes to educating retailers about the benefits of carrying the company’s boots, Scheller said it’s important to have a sales staff that is responsive and well versed in the benefits of the products. The company also holds clinics for the retailers that sell the boots.
“We put them through the fitting process, show the different styles, and give them a tour showing how the boots are built,” Scheller said. “If a customer asks them why they should pay $450 for a pair of boots, they need to have an answer.”
Although there is a limit to the number of boots the company can manufacture each year, it does not ignore adding new styles or tweaking existing ones if demand warrants it. Most recently, the company added 15 new looks and leather styles to its semi-dress boot, which is an extremely popular style in Asia.
White’s Boots also has a retail store in Spokane. Scheller said there are no plans to expand the retail operation and that the company has needed more space for manufacturing than retail sales at its Spokane headquarters.
A commitment to employees
White’s Boots has about 100 employees, with the makers of the high-end boots going through a three-year apprenticeship program. “Most of the guys building the boots started in other departments; either finishing, soling, or heeling,” Scheller said. “When there is an opening for building custom boots, we’re usually able to move someone from the company into that position. Right now, the average age for that group is 40, so it could be a while before anything else opens up in that area.”
Scheller said he takes pride in the company being stable and taking care of its employees. “I’ve been here close to 31 years,” he said. “I thought I would be here for a year after college and then move onto something else. The company offers good benefits, which is something we are proud to be able to do, especially in this economy.”