Mike Rancourt and his son Kyle live and breathe handsewn shoes. The “breathe” is literal—one of Mike’s memories from growing up is the smell of soaked leather from the shoes his mother put together in their home.
For generations, the Rancourt family—from the time that Mike’s father David emigrated to Maine from Canada—has played an important role in Lewiston-Auburn’s handsewn industry. Not only have the Rancourts worked in and managed multiple shoemaking factories there, they’ve also facilitated major partnerships with companies such as Cole Haan and Allen Edmonds.
Private label manufacturing for them and other shoe brands was the Rancourts’ bread and butter for many years. Then, in 2009, the father-and-son duo decided to make a major leap—creating their own brand, Rancourt & Co. Aside from striking out on their own, the Rancourts expanded their wheelhouse from solely handsewn products into a wider spectrum of offerings including oxfords, boots, and even sneakers.
In our conversation below, Mike and Kyle recall growing up in that handsewn-focused family; discuss the challenges of recent years and how they’ve adapted through avenues like their Dirigo line and crowdfunding campaigns; and provide an inkling of what we can expect next from Rancourt & Co.
Josh Bornstein: You both grew up with shoemaking being a family trade. What was it like growing up in, and then joining, that world?
Mike Rancourt: Yeah, growing up, it was just all around me. I mean, in my family—my father and my mother, a couple of aunts and uncles—everybody was shoemaking, they were all doing some element of it. There was a cottage industry around something called whip stitching, and these leather uppers would come into the house. My mother would take components home to work on. At a really young age, like eight or nine, I can remember those uppers sitting on a string in a circle, kind of like a donut, and they would soak ’em. The smell of the leather and the water was so distinct. My father bought a factory in 1967, and then I was actually walking into the factory and observing people working, understanding how production came together and what it was all about, seeing what my father could ship out as finished products. It was very meaningful to me growing up.
Kyle, was it pretty similar for you growing up?
Kyle Rancourt: It’s all I remember, really. It’s always been part of my life and our family. Some of my earliest memories are visiting my dad and my grandfather’s factory when I was a kid. There were just always shoes around. There was still a kind of a cottage industry back then, and I remember my mom was working on shoes at home. My mom would be lacing boat shoes. A couple years ago, my mom gave me a box of some old things that she had cleaned out of my bedroom, some keepsake memorabilia stuff. In first or second grade I had written this composition, about what I wanted to be when I grew up. It was talking about my grandfather and my dad making shoes, and that I wanted to do that. I said something like, “…but I wanna own the place.” [laughs]
That cottage industry you mentioned, does that still exist in Maine?
Mike: Not to the extent that we described, those are done mostly in factories now, and whip stitches are not really a big thing like they were back in the sixties. But we still have handsewing going on at home. We have several handsewers that pick up the uppers, then last them and handsew at home.
These are Rancourt & Co. branded handsewn shoes that they’re taking home to work on?
That’s cool. Kind of keeping that tradition alive in a way.
So what kinds of roles have you guys played in the factory?
Mike: [laugh] To be perfectly honest about what goes on in the factory floor, they don’t really want me to handle anything too serious because I’ll just screw up the shoes. But recently, we had the Olympic boot program that had to be shipped and completed by a hard date. So, I found myself on three different machines during that process. But again, they were the types of jobs where they’re low-skilled, and I’m just kind of moving things along. Other than that, I’m really involved in operations. Everything from the moment we get a purchase order to purchasing the components, and working with staff in regards to scheduling. Unlike Kyle, I spend most of my time—90 percent of the time—actually on the factory floor, typically delving into quality issues, and process changes as well.
Gotcha. How about for you, Kyle?
Kyle: Like any small family business, I think we’re typical in that we’ve both had to do a little bit of everything in the time we’ve spent building this business. In the early days, like 2009, we didn’t have full time packing and shipping people, and my dad and I would have to go down and pack and box the shoes up and ship ’em out. A couple years ago, we lost a key person in the lasting department, and we didn’t have anybody trained or ready to step in. So I spent a four or five month stint working there, keeping products moving along. I know my dad’s also done leather cutting and outsole trimming. I’ve played around with hand sewing, but never seriously had to do it for production reasons. We’ve both been involved in a little bit of everything, but, like [Mike] said, 90% of our time is spent running the business. For him, it’s on the operations side, and with me, I’m primarily responsible for the product and design side of the business, anything creative, really. Marketing and eCommerce development is where I spend most of my time these days.
My grandfather was the opposite of the two of us. He was a shoemaker first. He was a handsewer, and he became the foreman of the shoe factory he was working at and eventually bought it, which got us into the shoe business as a family. I think he always carried that with him—he understood how to make shoes first, that was his biggest skill. When my dad joined him, he brought more entrepreneurial knowhow and business acumen to the picture rather than just the shoemaking side.
The original shoe factory David started at, was it also based in Lewiston?
Mike: Yeah. They did hand sewing, and then that whip stitching I was telling you about. That was big in the sixties, where they didn’t sew on the last, they sewed off the last. You’re just taking threads and almost just rolling it into an upper, there’s holes there and you just feed it in. So, the gentleman who owned the factory, he sold one part to his son-in-law, and he sold the handsewing part to my father.
I want to shift towards talking about how you eventually started Rancourt & Co. Mike, you and your father—and also you, Kyle—you spent many years working in private label production, right?
Kyle: Not me so much. When I joined the business, it was right after I graduated from college and my dad approached me about essentially starting this new company with the goal of developing our own brand. And for about 13 years now, I’ve been focused on our own company. But yeah, my dad’s and my grandfather’s histories are in private label manufacturing. We still do some of that, but our own brand is 60 to 70% of our revenue now.
Mike: Before I joined my father in the eighties, I would say 90% of my father’s business was making Quoddy handsewns. My father, by the way, wasn’t a traditional shoemaker, he was a moccasin maker. And it wasn’t today’s Quoddy, it was the original Quoddy out of Massachusetts back in the early seventies.
Outside of Quoddy, he had a few other small accounts that he was making for. Then Quoddy was bought out by a publicly traded company. My father went with them, and they had a fairly large factory here in Lewiston-Auburn, about 150 people. But, he got tired of it and said, “I just want to get back to making quality handsewn shoes.” So, he asked me to join him in ’82, which I did.
We were all private label, and Cole Haan became our largest private label account. These things kind of all end up in the same way. We either leave those types of customers—meaning you’re gonna drop a lot of revenue and probably not make it—or you join them. We elected to join. Well, my father needed to join. I mean, he was getting to a retirement age, and it just made sense to me that he came out of this thing with a retirement fund. So, we joined them in ’87.
I stayed with them for four years as president of manufacturing. Then as they started to close factories, I decided to leave them and start my own factory, Maine Shoe, with my wife. Then the same thing repeated—Allen Edmonds became our largest customer. They had never been in the handsewn business before, unlike Cole Haan. Cole Haan really established a quality handsewn business in the sixties. Allen Edmonds did not have any handsewns, so we were the only handsewn factory in their organization. It was a better partnership because they respected what we were doing. We sold the factory to them and stayed with them for 13 years. Then they were selling and the new investors wanted to close the Lewiston factory, and I did not want to do that. So, I convinced them to sell it back to me. Then I asked Kyle to join me and it’s kind of like history repeating itself. Here we are.
Well, that kind of leads into my next question. Why not walk away then? What did you feel like you still wanted to do with the industry?
Mike: You know, it’s a multi-level kind of decision. First, it was my love for community and people. My aunts and uncles, my parents were mostly from Canada, from Quebec. They were immigrants. They worked in factories and textile mills. It was devastating for thousands of families, as factories closed and textile mills moved away. I guess I always felt like there’s gotta be a better way to deal with industry and manufacturing, because it’s such a vital link to the health of a community. So, that was probably my primary goal. Secondly was this legacy of Rancourt. Being in the shoe business for as long as we have, and having a factory, a footprint in Lewiston-Auburn for decades—I wasn’t willing to give that up. And thirdly, I just thought I could do it better now than any other prior time. It’s turned out to be exactly what I hoped and I think we’re in a good position, a good place right now.
Good to hear. I wanted to also ask you too, with all your experience producing private label footwear, what would you say is the biggest difference between doing it for somebody else versus doing it for yourself?
Mike: Along the way, I think Kyle and I might have had multiple conversations as to what to name the company. I don’t know if Kyle remembers, I think we almost might have been called State Street Shoemaking or something like that. But when we decided to put our name on it, that was like, a huge difference. It was like this major commitment you’re making to your consumers and your community. I felt more acutely aware of the fact that failure wasn’t going to be anything that could be acceptable in any way. But when I look at this business today, it’s like, hey, Rancourt is first and foremost. Manufacturing decisions must be made, and private label is needed for volume, for level loading, for absorbing your labor cost. But the Rancourt brand is really dear to my heart.
Mike, you’ve kind of touched on this a little bit already, but overall, how different is the industry today versus how it was when you joined 40 years ago?
Mike: [laughs] It is so interesting, you know. When I joined my father, he was really making a name for himself in this very particular niche of the industry where he was doing handsewns and moccasins. He became kind of the guy that you would want to reach out to in regards to that product. But there were hundreds of them. I mean, literally hundreds. I don’t think he really understood that—the amount of competition we had was almost insurmountable, no matter what he tried to do.
But we blazed the trail, and we became shoemakers. I really pushed hard to make sure that we were a shoemaker and not a moccasin maker. But even then, there were dozens of really great shoemaking factories in the United States. Slowly but surely, we eked out a living. I mean, you didn’t get wealthy on this kind of stuff, cause we didn’t have a brand. It was almost more a labor of love than anything else. It was like, “This is what we do. We know how to do it. We’re gonna do it super well.”
It’s interesting because today, as those factories have been leaving and generations are now retiring, I would say that we are the leader in regards to shoemaking knowledge and skills, and people seek us out. Whether it’s a retailer or another manufacturer, they seek us out all the time, wanting to partner with us or train with us, whatever the case may be. I guess that’s when you realize that you devoted your entire life to this one thing, and you’re at the zenith now where people seek you out.
That’s amazing to hear. Okay, let’s talk a little bit about more recent things with Rancourt & Co., and the recent crowdfunding series of campaigns you guys did. I understand that this was at least partly motivated by the difficulty surrounding COVID-19 and what that did to your volume. What prompted you to pursue this crowdfunding model, and what have the results been like for you?
Kyle: Our revenue dropped substantially in early 2020. It was a really difficult time. It wasn’t just that incoming orders dropped by 80%. Even footwear we had shipped to private label accounts, they couldn’t pay for it, they had to delay payments. So we were in a really challenging position, and we needed some new ideas to get us through that period. I talked to a friend who suggested doing some kind of wholesale to the public or crowdfunding-type thing for our bestsellers. So I took it and ran with it, and it was, I mean, incredibly successful. We sold close to 3000 pairs of shoes in like a two or three week period, which is huge for us.
Huge even in normal times?
Kyle: I want to say that was what we would do normally in like a six month period, we did it in like three weeks. Just online.
Kyle: So because of the success of that, in 2020 we had our best year ever revenue-wise in part because of the crowdfunding, but then also business really picked up later in the year. Then in 2021, again, we had our best year ever. It was a significant growth, like 30% growth over 2020. We just realized that there was demand for this crowdfunding thing. It was a win-win for us and our customers. We essentially turn a large group of online customers into a wholesale account. We offer a select number of styles and colors, and there’s an ordering period, and then they get these shoes at wholesale prices.
Then we have the luxury of making them over a longer period of time, grouping the orders together. So there are economies of scale there, and essentially with those efficiencies, we’re passing the savings on to the customer. The margin is still good for us, it still helps us be successful. But it just became part of the business plan, because we had so much success with it. So now we’re trying to do it two times a year.
Do you have an idea of when the next crowdfunding campaign will start?
Kyle:That’s kind of on hold right now. We had a really successful one this year. But we’re struggling with some labor shortages on the handsewn side of our business. We’ve also been dealing with material shortages and delays for two years. It’s really important to us that we deliver to our customers’ expectations. We try to set realistic expectations when we do crowdfunding and we say, these will ship in four to five months, and it’s seeming like that could be more like six months now. So we’re not eager to start a new crowdfunding and potentially disappoint people. We want to get through the orders that we’ve taken, get through that, then we can reassess.
At that point, we might be getting into the holiday season where we get another big influx of orders. We usually have some sales and special things going on. So we don’t want those two things to run into each other. I think that the most important takeaway here is, this crowdfunding is really about wholesale to our customers because there’s demand for it, and it works for both of us. We’re not relying on private label as much, so we’re able to utilize our customer base to plan production for longer periods of time.
It even helps to fund inventory growth. If we’re selling some of our bestselling shoes in the crowdfunding and we’ve hit our goal of say, 150 pair of this specific style and color, we can add another 50 pair to that run, and make those extra 50 pair to go into inventory really efficiently. That always helps with everything—with customers getting shoes faster, and us taking some of the load off of our factory floor to have some supplemental inventory. I could go on and on about why it’s so great, but yeah, it’s a really good thing.
You’ve come out with some really fun products the last few years. Your sneaker line, for example, is amazing.
Kyle: Sneakers started with the Court Classic about five years ago, but we’ve continued to add new styles to our sneaker collection. I feel like it’s very much the same story that my dad was talking about when he joined his father, he was just making moccasins, and he pushed him to make real shoes like leather bottomed loafers, boat shoes, camp mocs, and just have this wider variety of product to serve their customers and serve the market. So that’s what we’re continuing to do. It’s the same philosophy.
We’ve always felt that while handsewn shoes and moccasin-style shoes are our heritage, we are shoemakers who can make just about anything. We want our customers to be able to come to us for all of their footwear needs. So boat shoes, moccasins, sneakers, dress shoes, all of that. We’ve put real time and resources and energy into developing boots, and then dress shoes, and then sneakers. And then, continue to add new stuff—we have some interesting new products that people haven’t seen from us before in the works right now. Maybe we’ll be able to unveil those next year. Probably a couple really interesting things.
Any hints as to what those might be?
Kyle: The Olympic boot program is a little hint that we developed some new skills there. So you could see something in that vein. The other thing, I probably shouldn’t talk about that yet. We’re still a long way from being able to release it. [laugh]
Oh FINE. The other recent development I was hoping to touch on was the Dirigo line.
Kyle: The first Dirigo release was 2017 and that’s been an interesting project and category for us. It all started because I felt like there’s a sweet spot in handmade footwear that’s probably between $150 and $200. And I don’t mean American-made, because it’s very hard to make American-made handmade footwear for under $200. But, you know, there’s good handmade footwear from Mexico or South America, and some other places, and those are the price points. I think there’s a lot of volume there.
So my dad and I kind of brainstormed about how we could hit a similar price point to maybe try to increase some volume and the idea we came up with. The other part that was kind of happening is, when we work on these big private label projects, we’re often placing these large blanket orders for materials, particularly leather and outsoles, and trying to anticipate future orders. Sometimes the programs stop—there’s a change in team at Sperry or Polo, and they decide they don’t want to continue with a specific product line, or maybe they don’t even want to do made-in-USA shoes right now. We’ve seen these cycles over and over again.
So, the programs end, and we’ve purchased all this material and we’re stuck with it essentially. In some cases, they might pay for it and buy it from us. But most of the time we’ll have a few hundred feet of leather, which could be worth a few thousand dollars. It’s nothing we use in our own brand, so we’re kind of stuck with these materials. My dad was trying to find a way to do something with them. And then I had this idea to make some lower-priced shoes, to hit a particular price point, to try to bump up volume a little bit. So we combined these two ideas into Dirigo, which is using overstock materials, like leather and outsoles, and…when we say, efficient shoemaking techniques, it means taking out some of the complexity of some of the shoes we make. Like they’re still all made virtually identically to what’s in our regular line, but we just take out some of the additional complexity that costs time and money. So again, it’s like we’re making these shoes more efficiently and we pass the savings on to our customers, and it’s been a great way to use up excess materials.
Yeah. It sounds like it. I know you’ve talked a little bit about how you’re dealing with ongoing labor shortages, material delays and shortages. Are there any other sorts of challenges that you’re concerned about in the years ahead?
Mike: I think the labor issue is gonna be ongoing. The traditional workforce here in Lewiston-Auburn, many of those people have been with us, with my family now for decades, they’re gonna be aging out, and they have been aging out over the last 10 years. We’ve had an influx of great workers coming out of Africa—Angolan and Congolese in particular for us—that have been willing to come in and learn these skills.
Kyle: Most of them are asylum seekers or refugees that already live in Lewiston. They’re part of our community and they already live here, but a few people have come to work for us, and then brought friends and family. So we have this nice group now.
Mike: No refugee can accept a job here in the United States until after a year and after they earn their work permit. So, even if they’re coming here by choice—which they are, in some cases—they’re earning money and making a living through their family connections. Much like my grandparents did when they all moved to Maine or Lewiston-Auburn, they have extended families that help support them. So by the time they come to work for us, they’ve been here for a year, and they now have a work permit. We bring them in and start training them on certain skills. It’s been truly successful and we need more of that as we move forward.
I think the second issue is that, if you look at the supporting industry around us, there’s a lot of family owners, you know, whether it’s Horween or Seidel or sole makers in France [like Reltex, which produces Lactae Hevea], and they’re facing the same thing, right. You know, is the next generation coming up? Are they gonna take over the business? And what does that look like? So that’s a concern, when we look at tanneries and sole makers and lace makers…are they still going to be around here in the United States? It’s so much easier and cleaner to do than sourcing outside the country. I don’t care how close they are, whether it’s Mexico or Canada. I think there’s always going to be a consumer for our products, no matter what, just because of the way we do things. We have a great following and great consumer base, and thank God for that because they really make the difference for us.
For sure. Alright, I have just one last question that I wanted to pose to you guys. What is your favorite Rancourt & Co. product?
Kyle loves them all.
Well, how about the pair you wear the most?
Kyle: The Bennett Court sneaker. That’s one I really love.
Mike: Skip Horween and I have been going back and forth on this now for almost two years…he has this milled cordovan material that I just love, I love the temper of it and I love to look at it. So anyways, I made myself a pair of lasted oxford shoes, and then I did a skin stitch on it, so they have a moc toe to ’em. Then I used one of my favorite soles, from Reltex. I wore those all summer and fall. And then I jumped into my boots for the wintertime, which is my other favorite pair.
Big thanks again to Mike and Kyle Rancourt for taking the time to sit down and chat. To learn more about Rancourt & Co., visit their website, www.rancourtandcompany.com.