Happy feet

Wigwam Mills maintains dedication to crafting made-in-the-USA socks

Posted on Feb 27, 2019 :: Cover Story
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Since time immemorial, the humble sock has inhabited a utilitarian space in the apparel landscape, a necessary yet mundane addition to people’s daily wardrobe.

In recent years, though, there’s been a sock awakening. From millennials expressing their sense of style and individuality to professionals shaking up their wardrobe with a fun design or pop of color to athletes seeking a performance product, hosiery has become a hot item. Indeed, a recent InStyle headline gushed that the accessory was “a new status item at Milan Fashion Week” for the spring and summer of 2018.

Sheboygan’s Wigwam Mills has seen and embraced it all, from its start in 1905 as a maker of socks for lumberjacks and people working outdoors to today as a manufacturer of a product that has become an “it” accessory.

In 2016, consumer products and apparel industry veteran Tom Wheeler stepped into the role of president and CEO of the family-owned company. The Chicago native brought with him decades of executive-level experience, serving in the past as president and CEO of Wormser Apparel and running a couple of divisions for Hartmarx Corp., maker of Hart Schaffner Marx menswear.

 

Wheeler says he was drawn to the company he describes as iconic. In the course of its 114-year history, Wigwam has crafted socks through world wars and recessions, he says, and now it’s embracing the garment’s popularity.

“The wonderful formula for years and years for us was quality, technology and performance. But that other leg on the stool right now is fashion forward, whether it’s high-leather boots and high socks that go with the outfit or hiking with your shoes or running with your shoes,” he says. “There’s a huge uptick in … trend-right merchandise, and it’s an aesthetic, it’s part of your ensemble.”

A report from Transparency Market Research found that the global socks market was valued at $42 billion in 2016 and was expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 6.7 percent from 2017 to 2025.

With its reputation as “My Favorite Pair” among its fans, a solid history of innovation behind it and ownership of two patents and another pending, Wigwam is poised to make a play for its part of that pot.

 

 

A good yarn

Wigwam began in 1905 as the Hand Knit Hosiery Co. Herbert Chesebro, whose family still owns the company today, founded it with Lawrence A. Bentz and Robert H. Ehaney. The company filled the niche of producing socks for lumbermen laboring in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

From small beginnings, Wigwam eventually branched into making athletic socks — one of the first companies to do so. Other early offerings included letterman sweaters and even woolen bathing suits. Eventually, the Chesebro family gained complete control of the company, and in 1957, Herbert Chesebro’s son, Robert Chesebro Sr., changed the company’s name to Wigwam Mills. Thus was born its familiar logo, which, like the company, has evolved over the years.

Robert Chesebro Jr. became the third generation of the family to come into the company in 1960. He set his sights on expanding Wigwam’s headwear line as well as focusing on its athletic and outdoor socks, which today remain as the company’s staple offerings. In 1970, the sock maker built its present-day facility in the Sheboygan Industrial Park, moving into it fully in 1974.

During Chesebro Jr.’s tenure as leader of the company, which lasted through 2016, Wigwam embarked on a campaign of innovation. In 1983, it debuted its Moraine wool sock, which would go on to become a best seller. Its Merino wool offering, revered for its softness, came out in 1996.

The company also achieved two patents. Its Ultimax trademarked socks, designed to keep feet dry, wick moisture away from the bottom of the foot and carry it to the top, where it evaporates. INgenius, its second patented product, integrates a liner sock and outer sock knit together as one garment.

“We look at that innovation side of the business, whether it’s new yarn development or construction, as a very important ingredient to our company and our culture,” says Wheeler, the second-ever CEO from outside the Chesebro family to lead the company. “We like to say that we’re looking forward to where the market is going and not where it’s been in a lot of things we do.”

 

 

Next generation

A fourth generation of the Chesebro family is helping execute the Wigwam vision. Chris Chesebro and Margaret Chesebro Newhard, who serve as Wigwam’s director of operations and director of product management, respectively, grew up in the backdrop of the “sock factory.”

The young Chesebros often visited the office with their father after church on Sundays, running around cubicles, playing with remote control cars and skateboards in the warehouse and swiping candy from their grandfather’s secret stash. The siblings, who both attended Villanova University, followed the family “rule” of working elsewhere and getting experience before returning to work for Wigwam.

Chesebro Newhard says the cycle for retail has become shorter, meaning Wigwam must innovate continually and “go where the puck is going, not where it is or where it’s been,” using a Wayne Gretzky-ism.

“Retail is changing faster than ever, and it’s more and more difficult to see where that puck is going. It’s a shorter distance, and it changes direction more often,” Chesebro says.

Wigwam is taking a multifaceted approach to its growth. The company’s broad product lineup, which encompasses the   outdoor, sporting goods, health, work wear and everyday markets, sets it apart. In addition, many of its products are multifunctional — a ski sock could double as a tall boot sock, for example, Chesebro says.

That breadth presents the challenge of ensuring the company is meeting the needs of each market. Market segmentation, expanding to new retailers and getting products to new channels has become important, he says.

To continue to build its customer base, the company has launched a new marketing campaign, “Why Wigwam, Why Now.” Wheeler says it’s a call to action designed to reintroduce the product to those who have drifted away and to familiarize a new generation with it as well.

“We’ve learned the hard way, all of us in business, that if you don’t tell your own story, no one is going to tell it for you,” he says. “That’s our ‘Why Wigwam, Why Now’ campaign, and we’re very crisply and directly, through our social media and our public relations, communicating our story to our retailers and our consumers. If we can get a pair of socks on you, you become very loyal to our company.”

Wheeler says the campaign is resonating with people, driving new customers to the Wigwam website as well as drawing old ones back. While Wigwam still sells the majority of its products in brick-and-mortar stores, the pendulum is beginning to swing toward increasing online sales.

The sock maker also is embracing the latest trends, such as athleisure. Its Peak to Pub line of hiking socks marries fashionable designs and performance.

Chesebro Newhard says consumers increasingly seek cross-functionality in products. It used to be that people would wear one pair of socks for hiking and then change to a different pair to meet up with friends, but that’s shifted. Wigwam’s patents mean its socks don’t just look good but also perform.

“There’s performance built into pretty much everything we do,” she says.

Roy Pirrung, an ultramarathoner and Sheboygan native, can attest to that performance. He connected with Wigwam in 1987 and serves as a product tester and consultant in his role as a brand ambassador. He put its socks to the test with a 100-mile run in New York in 90-plus-degree heat. They effectively wicked away moisture and kept his feet dry, and he went on to win the national championship at that race.

“It’s a family-owned business, and I’ve been associated with a number of companies that are family owned. I think they just have a little different attitude,” he says. “It’s not always about the bottom line. It’s about the customers and the vendors and the people they work with.”

The innovation continues at Wigwam. It’s spent the past two years working on a proprietary process aimed at building a better-fitting pair of socks. That product will hit the market soon.

 

American made

heeler says he sometimes hears skepticism and even cynicism when he tells peers about Wigwam’s commitment to its made-in-the- USA products.

“There’s not too many of us in the U.S. left, like this company. When I tell people that I’ve known for a long time that we compete successfully in a global market by making socks in a U.S. union plant in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I get an eye roll. I get some questions about how you can do that,” he says.

In its 100-plus years in business, Wigwam has never strayed from that dedication. All its products are made domestically, with a majority manufactured in Sheboygan on the company’s 330 machines. Wigwam also sources most of its raw materials from U.S. wool ranchers. It all comes back to believing in the importance of supporting the community and its economy, Chesebro Newhard says.

John Briggs, author of “Simply American,” featured Wigwam in his book that shares the stories of American-made products. When he visited the company’s Sheboygan operations, he was struck by its family feel and its sense of everyone wanting to pitch in.

“I really wanted iconic American firms, and they don’t get much more iconic than Wigwam,” he says.

In addition to its commitment to offering family-supporting jobs, Wigwam makes sustainability a priority. A 27-panel solar array sits atop its roof. Its energy heats the water used in the company’s dye house. In the process of dying, which uses water-soluble colors, the company ensures the water going out is just as clean as it is when it comes in.

Wigwam re-engineered its facility to add high-efficiency lighting and added a zero-landfill policy for its fibers. The company creates first-quality goods, and irregular items are donated to homeless shelters. All other fibers are bailed and sent for recycling.

“I hate to say it, but a lot of people are jumping on this marketing bandwagon, but for us, it’s just been what’s built into the company,” Chesebro Newhard says. “We’ve done all this knowing that we need to protect our environment. We want to have a  small carbon footprint.”

 

Workers wanted

n December 2018, Sheboygan’s unemployment rate sat at 2.1 percent. While that’s good news for workers, it creates a challenge for employers such as Wigwam. In addition, the company competes for talent with nearby first-rate companies such as Sargento Foods, Bemis Co., Kohler Co. and Plymouth Foam, Wheeler says.

“What fuels a business like this is the human talent we plug into the business at all aspects of it, and that chain is only as strong as that weakest link, and that includes everybody in this building and the 100 people on the road selling the product, so it’s a lot to keep up with,” Wheeler says.

The company, which employs about 170 across two shifts, needs talent at all levels, from designers and merchandisers to mechanics and production workers. Wigwam offers a four-year, state-certified in-house apprenticeship program for its skilled labor positions. It’s important to convey to employees that the company is investing in them for the long-term, Chesebro says.

Patience is key when it comes to bringing on new talent, Chesebro says, and the company’s positive reputation as an employer does help when it comes to recruiting. Wigwam gets a fair number of employee referrals, he says.

Throughout the decades, the fundamentals of knitting have remained the same, but Wigwam has added much automation to its processes. It’s gone from a belt-driven line shaft that ran all the machines to automated, computer-driven knitting equipment, and much of its packaging equipment is automated.

Despite all that, the human touch is vital, and Wigwam would never be fully automated. Adding several touchpoints to the processes is key to ensuring quality, Chesebro says.

“Having hands on product is important because this isn’t injection molding,” he says. “You’re working with knit goods. You have to have hands on the product to inspect it.”

As the company moves into the future, its leaders have grand plans — maybe even a fifth generation someday if Chesebro and Chesebro Newhard can woo their kids. Beyond that, Wigwam aims to continue to expand into new retail spaces, develop product line extensions and look to add items beyond socks it can produce with the same quality and craftsmanship.

“It just is this continual evolution of the brand while still really adhering to our core values and this foundation of what has made us so strong over 114 years,” Chesebro Newhard says.

 

 

A darn good deal

Many of Wigwam’s premium socks sell for about $15 a pair, but those lucky enough to live close to Sheboygan can make their way to the Wigwam Mills warehouse sale, held the second Thursday of each month.

Bargain hunters can bag specially priced Wigwam merchandise, irregulars and products with slight imperfections, as well as overstock socks, hats and accessories for a fraction of their retail cost.

Visit wigwam.com/support/monthly-sale for more information.

 

 

Wigwam by the numbers

What it does: Produces up to 18,000 socks each day.

Years in busines: 114

Machines: 330

Number of employees: 170 across two shifts

Wigwam.com