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LaCrosse Footwear still in former workers’ hearts

LaCrosse Footwear still in former workers’ hearts

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LaCrosse Footwear Inc. has been sold to a Japanese firm.

It’s another leap from its roots in La Crosse, where the shoe manufacturer was an economic powerhouse for more than 100 years until it moved its headquarters to Portland, Ore., in 2001. Still, the company remains anchored in the hearts of former local employees. News of the sale evoked fond memories for those who worked at what once was the city’s largest employer.

“I made very, very good friends there,” said Patty Stetzer, who worked at the North Side company for 12 years. “We’ve stayed in touch. We have strong friendships because we grew up together.”

Some friendships blossomed more than others, Stetzer acknowledged a romantic twist to her recollections: She met Randy Stetzer at the company in 1991, and they were married in 2001.

Stetzer, who lives in Holmen and now works at Bertrang Financial in Onalaska, recalled the company’s “booming” days, before manufacturing moved to China and LaCrosse moved its headquarters and sold the factory.

“I started in customer service and ended up in product development, so I worked a lot with the China factory to get that up and running,” she said.

Although the company’s move saddened workers and the community, Stetzer chooses to put it in a positive light, saying: “We didn’t lose our jobs for nothing. The company still exists.”

John Medinger, who was mayor of La Crosse when the company moved, said, “Obviously, it was a big player for decades, creating jobs for people. When you’re mayor, you never like to see anything close.”

Medinger also marveled at the numbers as he recalled his politicking days at the plant gate when he was a state representative in the 1970s and ’80s. “You could shake 500 hands at 6:30 in the morning,” he said. “It was an anchor for the North Side.”

Stetzer and Medinger find comfort in the fact that the complex is enjoying a renaissance.

“It was a tough blow when it closed, but it’s good that the building now is being used, with the Boot Hill Pub and the Pearl Street Brewery,” Medinger said. “That gives us hope for the future.”

The ongoing development comes courtesy of The Fenigor Group LLC, which bought the plant in 2005, and continues to renovate and manage the 10.5-acre group of buildings.

LaCrosse Footwear was founded in 1897 as the La Crosse Rubber Mills Co., which manufactured all sorts of rubber goods, including horseshoes — but not shoes for humans, according to a company history compiled by Patricia Hass of Fenigor.

The company eventually started making human footwear, especially rubber boots. By 1930, it was the city’s largest employer with 2,000 workers. In the 1950s, its production featured a full line of rubber footwear, as well as sporting boots, tennis and basketball shoes and novelty shoes, according to the company history.

In 1983, the company was producing 2.2 million pairs of footwear a year and sales hit $27 million. Sales reached $30 million a year later, $50 million by 1989 and an all-time high of $108.3 million in 1994.

The company, which made LaCrosse one word when it changed its name to LaCrosse Footwear Inc. in 1985, was a leader in its market during its centennial year of 1997. But mild, dry winters dealt setbacks in the late 1990s. Revenues slipped into the red before the company’s eventual move to Portland and subsequent closure of its other Wisconsin operations as well.

About the sale

LaCrosse Footwear, which moved its headquarters from La Crosse to Portland, Ore., in 2001, was sold to Tokyo-based ABC-Mart Inc. for $138 million on Aug. 16.

That priced LaCrosse shares at $20 apiece, an 82 percent premium over their closing price when the proposed deal was announced July 5, according to ABC-Mart, billed as Japan’s leading retailer of athletic, business and casual footwear.

Shareholders were able to sell their stock to ABC-Mart for $20 a share or will receive paperwork to do so, the company said.


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