There is only one shoe last manufacturer left in the United States, and its only U.S. production plant is in Walnut Ridge.
Lewiston, Maine-based Jones & Vining Industrial Products, founded during the 1930s in Massachusetts, is the only American-based company to build lasts — the models used to make shoes — senior model maker Allen Smith told Talk Business & Politics. The company also has operations in China, Thailand and Vietnam.
This year the company projects it will sell 60,000 lasts, nearly triple what it sold on average during the Great Recession.
“We’re the last business of our kind in the U.S., no pun intended,” Smith said.
There are about 25 employees at the Walnut Ridge facility. The last comeback in the domestic market has been a pleasant surprise, Smith said. The company hopes the rebound will continue into the future.
“It’s been astounding how companies have been re-shoring,” he said. “It’s something I’d like to see more of in the future.”
The Ozark foothills, the Missouri Boot heel, and Northeast Arkansas were a major footwear manufacturing center for decades. There were as many as 100 footwear-related factories in operation from the 1940s through the 1990s. Thousands worked in the sector, and it was a good fit for the region, Smith said.
Many men in the area owned or leased small farms and needed extra incomes. Women could sew and had other skills that could be utilized in the footwear factories. Ancillary businesses, such as last manufacturers, appeared alongside the factories. At one point, millions of lasts were made in the U.S.
The dynamic changed when free trade agreements lured major shoe manufacturers to other countries such as China and Mexico. Labor and material costs were significantly lower in those countries, and the number of shoe factories dwindled. By 1998 there were only three last makers left in the U.S., including Jones & Vining. The company bought out its two competitors, one of which was Vulcan, a last maker based in Walnut Ridge. Jones & Vining moved its manufacturing operation to the Vulcan building in 1998.
The last market in the U.S. continued its downward spiral until recently when labor and other costs started to rise. “Made in America” is a popular theme with American consumers, and it even bleeds down to the models used to make shoes, Smith said.
THE ‘SHAQ’ LAST
Jones and Vining can often deliver engineered lasts quicker to American shoe makers than foreign competitors, and that has helped to reinvigorate the domestic market, Smith said.
A well taken care of last can help make about 300 shoes. Some specialty lasts, that are still usable, were made during the 1930s, Smith said. Often, they get requests to remake lasts that were designed decades ago. Jones & Vining makes lasts for every kind of footwear including athletic shoes, designer footwear, all manor of boots, and others. One famous last the company kept at its facility was a last used to make NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 shoes.
Footwear is has a robust domestic market. The sector generated $17.5 billion in sales during 2016, a 3% increase from 2015. Sales in 2015 topped $17.2 billion, an 8% surge from 2014. The U.S. footwear market typically grows 4% annually. It’s estimated 99% of shoes sold in the U.S. are made in other countries.