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BROCKTON

FootJoy closing ends era

Shoe-making dates to 1880s

By L.E. Crowley
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2009
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For decades, workers at the FootJoy plant in Brockton have walked under a sign at the entrance that reads: "Through these halls pass the greatest shoemakers in the world."

In about two weeks, the last remaining shoemakers in Brockton will walk under that sign and shut the doors on an industry that powered a bustling city and offered job security and a middle-class life for generations.

For more than 20 years, FootJoy executives have managed to keep the plant open through higher efficiency, lower costs, and city-sanctioned tax breaks.

But early this month, executives concluded there was little left to do but close the factory and lay off 103 leather cutters, stitchers, making room specialists, and packers.

"I haven't been sleeping well," said FootJoy President James Connor, who made the decision to close the plant and called it the hardest thing he has ever done.

"All 103 people are like family. We're a close-knit family. It's a very painful thing," he said.

The decision resulted partly from the current worldwide economic crisis, Connor said, but more so from the decades-long decline in sales of the factory's products.

"We were losing millions," Connor said.

The FootJoy division of Acushnet Co., which also owns the Titleist and Cobra brands, remains a leading manufacturer of golf shoes and gloves worldwide.

But the only FootJoy plant in the United States, and the only one operating in the red, is the Brockton facility, which produces a costly, labor-intensive shoe that can't compete with lower-priced models.

"The quality at the FootJoy plant is unsurpassed," said John Learnard, director of Brockton's Shoe Museum. "They don't make shoes like that anymore. They are the finest quality and craftsmanship."

FootJoy's "Classic" line of shoes, introduced in 1959, has been the only product rolling out of the Field Street factory and is a throwback to old-style shoemaking.

The Classic is made through the Goodyear welt process, a century-old way of making shoes that requires a leather welt be stitched to the upper sole.

Today, cement is used in most shoes. Classic models retail from $250 to $350, and special orders for exotic materials such as ostrich, eel, or alligator skin sell for more.

"The people here are highly skilled craftsmen," said Jack Erickson, FootJoy's vice president of sales and marketing. "It's like cabinet-making. When the process is complete, they're making a very fine, finished product."

Shoemaking became a major industry in Brockton in the 1880s and reached its peak in the early 20th century. Though shoemaking has been essentially extinct for decades, Learnard said, the FootJoy plant served as a reminder of the city's proud tradition.

Closing the factory marks "the official end of shoemaking in Brockton," he said.

The factory was opened by Field & Flint Co. in 1857, and the FootJoy brand was rolled out in the 1920s.

A factory worker came up with the name as part of a competition to name the new golf shoe.

The company was bought out in 1957 by Stone & Tarlow Co., another Brockton shoemaker, which moved all of its operations to the Field Street site two years later.

The company was sold to General Mills Inc. in 1977 and to Acushnet in 1985.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the company moved most of its operations overseas.

Then in 1995, word spread that FootJoy was considering closing, said former Brockton mayor John Yunits.

The mayor contacted Connor and Erickson and put together a package of tax breaks, land grants, and other incentives to keep the plant open, especially since the MBTA had planned to open a commuter rail station steps away from one of the entrances.

City officials also cleaned up the Field and Spark street area, an industrial neighborhood that had become decrepit and overrun with crime.

The FootJoy executives "showed great courage and determination. I know Jim [Connor] was taking a huge chance with his board," Yunits said.

Several years ago, FootJoy built a new plant next to the 1857 building, a move that streamlined production, cut costs, and offered hope the plant would remain open.

"The recession really killed them," Yunits said. "Nobody's going to buy $300 golf shoes."

Erickson, who began as a designer with the company in 1980, wiped away a tear as he talked about the day he and other executives gathered workers in the plant's cafeteria to announce the closing.

"This has been a great place to work," Erickson said. "I just want to make sure everyone is all right."

Unfortunately, the skills that FootJoy's men and women - some whose families have worked there for generations - have acquired aren't easily transferred to other jobs, leaving some middle-aged and senior workers with few options, except a new way of life.

Layoffs will go in the same order as the manufacturing process.

The first group on the factory line and layoff line are the leather cutters.

Next will be the stitchers, followed by making room specialists.

Then the packers will ship out the last FootJoy Classic and the last shoes made in Brockton.

The Classic line, which has been produced only in Brockton, will be discontinued.

Workers have been offered severance packages, job training, and counseling to help with the transition.

Erickson and other managers will remain for an unspecified time until plans and security measures can be made for the plant's vacancy.

Managers will move to other FootJoy operations. All other employees will be gone in about two weeks.

The closing leaves Alden Shoe Co. in Middleborough, a highly regarded manufacturer of men's dress shoes and boots, as the sole survivor of the once-thriving shoe industry in New England.

"It's a disappointment," Robert Clark, Alden's vice president of sales, said about FootJoy's decision. "Our industry has been such an important part of our economy in Southeastern Mass. A loss to the industry is not welcome."

In its final days, the plant will have a special visitor. Brockton natives William and Richard Tarlow took over Stone & Tarlow from their father, and for 55 years, William walked the factory floor's wooden planks overseeing production and greeting workers.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, William Tarlow preferred to be surrounded by the smell of leather, the sounds of machinery, and a view of workers making a high-quality shoe rather than a courtroom or a traditional office environment.

"I grew up in the plant," the 83-year-old Tarlow said in an interview from his winter home in Florida. "Brockton was a shoe city. It was in my blood."

"It's like a death in the family," he said. "You may know it's coming, but it doesn't make it any easier."

L.E. Crowley can be reached at lecrowley1@yahoo.com

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