Sole success

The Heel moves to Ashwaubenon, sets sights on expansion

Posted on Jan 2, 2018 :: Small Business Spotlight
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Troy Dempsey managed to launch a successful business during a recession, move it out of the city center and build an even bigger retail business focused on expansion.

What did it take? Having a dream and saving for it early.

A longtime employee in the retail shoe industry throughout the Midwest, Dempsey had honed his skills and deepened his interest in footwear for many years when, by chance, he met Bob Sanderson’s niece, who mentioned her uncle may be interested in retiring soon. Sanderson founded The Heel in downtown Green Bay in 1970 and had built it into a specialty footwear destination.

“I had already been thinking I wanted to get into independent retail,” says Dempsey. “Instead of starting from scratch, I figured there were stores looking for a succession plan.”

And that worked out just fine for Sanderson, then in his 60s; he and Dempsey partnered in 2009 at the Green Bay location on Adams Street. In a few short years, Dempsey, who is a certified pedorthist, took full ownership and was able to bring more of his health expertise to the store and to customers.

“I came into it with some health background … a pedorthist is kind of like a pharmacist for your foot,” says Dempsey, who earned his certification from Northwestern University in Chicago.

As a pedorthist, he’s qualified to evaluate footwear or orthotics to help resolve foot/back issues. Two full-time cobblers on staff are on hand to make modifications to footwear to best accommodate a customer’s health needs.

“I found a need … because the quality of shoes continued to go down and foot problem (were increasing),” he says. “The part of my job I enjoy is helping people with issues.”

About 30 to 40 percent of his business, Dempsey estimates, is customers coming in to resolve a foot/ back health issue. He notes that about one in three people is dealing with some sort of foot issue.

“If footwear can play some sort of a role in that, it’s a small investment,” he says, adding The Heel receives a fair number of medical referrals and, in some cases, customers are able to use health savings accounts for medically required items. “We have a pretty robust medical referral business. They know that footwear can make a difference.”

Dr. Dan Wautlet, a chiropractic specialist in Green Bay, often recommends The Heel to patients.

“I typically assess patients’ footwear and feet as part of my initial evaluation,” he says. “Poor footwear can cause mechanical stress to the low back, hip, knee or ankle/foot, which can be a primary cause or significant contributor to a patient’s condition.”

Dempsey was 29 years old when he and Sanderson became partners, but he says he always had a “really good discipline … to see the future … that having money was going to allow me to do what I wanted to do.”

But even with the money he had saved, the mid-recession timing was not great.

“I came in at the beginning of 2009. I was a little bit concerned, but it helped having Bob as my business partner,” he says.

Sanderson financed part of the business as part of the sale to Dempsey, who later refinanced through Nicolet Bank when he moved the business to Ashwaubenon, where he purchased 25,000 square feet of property, some of which houses other tenants.

“I liked a lot of parts about downtown,” says Dempsey. “I did feel bad. I didn’t want people to feel like it was a rebuke of anyone’s policies. It just came down to operations.”

Dempsey says The Heel had outgrown its space and was encountering challenges with unloading trucks and finding sufficient convenient parking. He says staying in the downtown space could have resulted in significant loss. The near-highway location offers improved accessibility, Dempsey says.

In studying customer demographics, he learned people were coming from Appleton and Upper Michigan.

With 22 employees (including three pedorthists) and a vast showroom floor, The Heel stocks 15,000 pairs of shoes — everything from woolen Haflinger clogs from Germany to Birkenstock boots and sandals. The store features soaring wood ceilings.

“We wanted to create a really neat experience for people; we wanted to have the ‘wow’ factor,” he says. “People can go online and buy a lot of what we have; they’re probably not going to get it any cheaper, but here, they have a retail experience.”

In upcoming months, Dempsey plans to expand his shop to an 8,000-square-foot adjacent building, where he’ll open The Heel Next Door, an outlet store that will offer excess inventory and closeouts but also introduce children’s footwear.