As we reported a few months back, Wisconsin-based shoemaker Russell Moccasin, long a source of fine handsewn moccasin footwear for outdoor folk everywhere, is now under new ownership and management.
Joe Julian of woodworking company Julian and Sons is now a co-owner of the company, as is new Russell CEO Luke Kolbie, who previously founded Kingfisher Leatherworks. To say this is a monumental shift feels like an understatement—Russell had officially changed hands only two other times since its founding in 1898. Outgoing owner and company president Ralph “Lefty” Fabricius had worked at Russell since 1956!
From the outside looking in, one couldn’t be blamed for seeing this new development and feeling a bit uncertain about Russell’s future. Sure, Kolbie and Julian’s respective companies were part of the same world of sportspeople and safari-goers that Russell Moccasin had long tread in. But, coming from non-shoemaking backgrounds, did they really know and understand how to lead Russell Moccasin?
After our conversation with the new owners, we can say we feel happily confident in their vision for the company. Not only are they keeping some continuity with the previous management—with longtime Chief Operating Officer Joe Gonyo continuing in his role—but they’re focused on streamlining and speeding up their production capacity, all while embracing a mindset they constantly refer to: “conservation through craftsmanship.”
In our chat below, we talked to Kolbie and Julian about their respective longtime relationships with the Russell Moccasin brand, what led them to purchasing the company, and how they plan to prepare Russell Moccasin for the future.
Stitchdown: Just to start things off here, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how you first got introduced to Russell Moccasin.
Joe Julian: So my father discovered Safari Club International [a hunters’ advocacy group and convention organizer] in 1986, and he met Lefty [Fabricius] there. He eventually had Lefty build him a shoe for bow-hunting elk. My introduction to Russell was in the late eighties as a young teenager. Around the early nineties, I got my first pair of Russells, because we built a Safari Club trade show booth for them. My brothers and I set it up and tore it down every year, and stored it at our shop. So they gave us a pair of boots every year for doing that.
Stitchdown: Do you remember your first pair?
Joe Julian: Yes, I do. It was a PH, with regular brown leather with the canvas panels. I don’t have those anymore, but I do still have my second pair of Russells. I also had a pair of rhino hide Russells that I loaned my cousin and never saw them again…I’ve lost two pairs of Russells, but I still have four.
Stitchdown: And how about you, Luke?
Luke Kolbie: My family is from southwest Georgia originally. The Camilla area, very close to Thomasville, the center of the quail hunting South. Russell was something that I didn’t necessarily know about specifically, but I saw a lot. I guess the first real introduction I had to Russell was when I started going to the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston in 2018. Russell ended up being a couple booths down from me, and I got to meet Lefty and his daughter Suzie, and we ended up becoming friends from that event and doing a lot of events over the years.
They kind of became mentors for me. I went up to Wisconsin not long after and got to see what they did at the workshop. My dad and I had both ordered pairs that were in production, but I also brought along a pair of Russells that were my great-grandfather’s. He was a shoemaker and a shoe repair guy, he wore Russells, and his pair had been passed down to my grandfather, Bruce Roberts. So, I brought that pair up to be just touched up a bit.
Lefty told me that that pair was over 70 years old, based on the tag and the numbers inside it. My grandfather still wears those boots, but I was able to steal them from him for a little bit to wear them for some photos when we got involved with Russell. So that was my introduction, ordering a pair and then realizing that there had been a pair in my family for 70 years.
Stitchdown: How did you and Joe meet each other? Trade shows as well?
Luke Kolbie: The trade shows bring a lot of really neat people together. Joe, I guess you and I met at Orvis Pursell Farms in…2020, ’21?
Joe Julian: It was October 2021. I had seen Luke’s stuff but we officially met at that event at Orvis. We started talking and developed a relationship. Before Russell, we were collaborating every week on various projects, just trying to hone in on what we were doing and how they correlated with each other. That just kind of created a bond for us.
Luke Kolbie: I had seen Joe’s work, like with the Overland Chest. The sporting community is really, really small. Even if you haven’t met somebody, we all see each other’s stuff. So there was a lot of mutual respect before we even met.
Stitchdown: What eventually motivated your decision to purchase Russell Moccasin?
Joe Julian: My father passed away in 2019. I’d been business partners with my dad and my brother Jacob when my father passed. My brother, he was tired, worn out. With the tragic way our dad died, 2019 was just the worst year ever. I ended up buying out my brother and my dad’s widow. Jacob agreed to work with me for a year. But I knew this 35-year-old company was struggling to grow.
We were creating a great product, and had a network that was as deep as we would ever need to get work for the rest of our lives. But we weren’t getting over that hump. I felt like I had to carry that legacy that my dad started. The hardest part is that first year or two after a generational business has been handed down. So far, we’ve made it, and that had to do with me hiring somebody outside to come help run the company, which allowed me to keep carrying on my father’s, my family’s legacy.
I found out Russell was in similar trouble. Everything that I heard from the Russell team was basically, “We all love it. We’re all doing everything we can to hang on. But we’re all getting tired.” I knew that script. I had just worked the past three years trying to flip it. Everything made sense for taking over the company, except for the fact that we needed somebody to run it. I needed somebody that was not just going to come in and run it, but really somebody who was an invested partner.
Luke was the only person I was willing to go into business with. What really struck me is how much he loved and was passionate about his craft. He’s the only guy I want to work with who can be a steward of a legacy brand, a 125-year-old brand. I found that in a guy that I hadn’t known for a long time, and honestly couldn’t have known for a long time, because he was only recently in elementary school. [laughing]
Stitchdown: [laughing] Can I ask real quick, what’s the age difference here?
Joe Julian: We are 23 years apart.
Stitchdown: Gotcha. Luke, what was your perspective on all this? Did Joe tapping you to lead the company take you by surprise?
Luke Kolbie: When Joe called me and said, “Hey, this is what’s going on, I want you to be a part of this,” it was definitely a surprise, but in the best sort of way. We thought from the get-go that if we were gonna do this, it’s gotta be with the mindset of stewardship. It can’t become a Filson, or an Abercrombie and Fitch, or a Banana Republic, where a once-great brand with a core identity and a way of doing things gets changed because other people became involved.
And so our decision was: if we’re gonna do this, it’s because we have a longstanding love for the company as customers. I’m the fourth generation in my family to use their products. There’s not many brands that I can say that about. The Russell community is very small, but it’s extremely tight knit. They’re very loyal. They’re like Tennessee football fans, they waited that long for something good to happen. I was completely taken aback by Joe’s offer. But it was good timing and aligned with what I wanted do, in continuing with Kingfisher.
Stitchdown: Are things still business as usual with Kingfisher and Julian and Sons?
Luke Kolbie: We’ve decided to keep everything separate on those fronts, but we’ll find ways to partner our different companies and work together. Our “Conservation Through Craftsmanship” coalition is, I think, a great way for us to do that. But yeah, Kingfisher’s doing its thing, and most of my time is now directed towards Russell.
Joe Julian: And Julian and Sons is not missing a beat. We’re booked for over a year. It’s really working. I’m not there every day, but the majority of my focus is still going to be on Julian and Sons. I’m not an employee of Russell, but I’m gonna dedicate as much time as I can towards it.
Stitchdown: Luke, do you have plans to move to Berlin, Wisconsin to be closer to the action?
Luke Kolbie: With Joe Gonyo staying on as part owner and COO, I will not be relocating up to Berlin. Currently I’m spending about two weeks a month up there helping with the transition. The rest of my job as CEO centers primarily on the business model, company processes, and organization. And being in Birmingham allows me to be within a few hours of a majority of our customers and partners who are densely located in the southeast.
Stitchdown: When I read the press release about you both buying Russell Moccasin, I was sort of struck by the fact that somebody who runs a leatherworking company and somebody who runs a woodworking company were coming in to run a shoe company. You’ve spoken a bit already about your love of the company. Is there anything else about your unique experiences and skillsets that you’re hoping to introduce to Russell Moccasin?
Luke Kolbie: Joe Gonyo is our COO, he’s the common thread between the previous ownership of Russell Moccasin and ourselves. When Joe Julian and I were talking with Joe Gonyo, he was super excited about the ideas and fresh takes we had coming into this. But we knew that we couldn’t do it without him. I mean, he’s got 30 years of experience in the actual production side of the business, being able to run a team, knowing the ins and outs of the product and the process. It’s not something that I think Joe Julian and I would’ve ever tried to undertake without somebody like Joe Gonyo who was going to continue to be an owner and a huge part of the day-to-day operations of Russell. Joe, would you agree with that?
Joe Julian: Absolutely. When you have a product that’s been made for 125 years, they probably know what they’re doing. I think what I bring to the table is the experience and understanding of what the value of that product is, and the way to help people understand and appreciate it. And, a lot of people don’t know this about Luke, but he’s already made boots on his own. I think we have a lot more experience and knowledge than maybe how it looks from the outside. I know that tradespeople will understand: if you know one trade, you may not be able to do the other trade, you may not understand all the things about it. But you can definitely see the skill levels and the details, and you can focus on the craftmanship and the work.
I’m very familiar and intimate with this type of product. My history’s with Russell, I’ve worn Russells to work for so many years. I think from the outside looking in, it’s a fair question to ask, but from our perspective there are many more things that tie us to this company in Berlin, Wisconsin than an opportunity to own a company or grow a brand.
Luke Kolbie: One of the things that I think Joe Julian brings to table that he’s very humble about, but is something that I think has a lot of weight behind it, is his experience with Julian and Sons and creating a business that does worldwide projects on a huge scale and is very, very logistics-intense. The fact that he’s been able to build a business model that has worked where he doesn’t have to necessarily touch on a day-to-day basis, that’s a testament to the fact that the systems, the people and the training that he has developed within his company have been a success with Julian and Sons. Those same systems, those same principles, those same ideas and structures can be applied to Russell Moccasin.
That’s one of the things that Russell has been hugely lacking in. When you have a 124 year-old company and you don’t have outside perspectives, I mean…Joe Gonyo will brag that he was the first outside shareholder since 1928 when the company was bought by Lefty’s father-in-law. This business was owned by the Fabricius family for…96 years, I believe. So, one: that’s an amazing stat. Two: when you have a company that’s owned by so few people, you tend to get in your own bad habits, and you tend to have things that don’t get fixed, because you’ve never had anybody from other industries or from even the same industry come in and look at what you’re doing.
The thing that I think I bring is on a more technical level: costing, product development, and making a business model around a smaller product with the margins that Russell’s gonna need to have for dealers like it’s been doing. Obviously Julian and Sons has a very limited degree of experience with selling products through other people, having dealers sell that, and for good reason. With their product, it’s one of those things where you need to have communication with them in order to get it, because they’re designing it for you. So Joe Julian has that custom experience of making something selective for a customer, which is what Russell has been doing for a long time. And I think what I bring is the product pricing models that day-to-day are going to be what helps us make sure Russell continues to operate.
Stitchdown: Gotcha. Luke, tell me a little bit more about these shoes you made. I know there’s a little bit of overlap, obviously, between making leather accessories and shoes, but it’s a bit of a different art, right? What was your experience with that?
Luke Kolbie: I guess the place to start on that is my great-grandfather and his father, kind of those two or three generations, they were all shoemakers. They were trained in Louisiana, and they had shoe shops and repair shops in Alabama and Georgia. My great-grandfather died just before I was born, so I never met him, but I ended up inheriting some of his tools. I really didn’t know anything about what he did until I picked up leatherwork.
My great-grandmother said, “Hey, you know, this trade, this business you started, did you know that this is the same thing that your great-grandfather did?” And I didn’t. So, as a kind of homage to him, I wanted to learn how to make shoes. Probably my favorite style of shoe aside from a Russell Moccasin is the South African veldskoen, which is what all the hunters, farm hands, everybody wears down there. You’re probably very familiar with like, a Clark’s Desert boot.
Luke Kolbie: So before the Clark’s Desert Boot, the veldskoen is what the Dutch settlers in South Africa and Namibia created using the local materials they had, but with their kind of Dutch craftmanship. Some of my very close friends growing up, and one of the guys that got me into leatherwork, were from South Africa. When they would come back to the US from South Africa, they would bring me a couple pair of veldskoen. They’re generally made out of kudu, and the staple features were a stitchdown top, a rubber midsole, and then a heavy rubber sole. The upper was unstructured. I mean, you could pack those things down, and it was essentially just the soles that really took up space.
When I outgrew those, that’s when I decided I wanted to make a pair of my own. I used that pair all over the world. I’ve gone to Sweden to work in one of the very old forges. I just took them all over and beat the heck out of them, and then made some adjustments to that design and made another pair, which I still have. I just actually did a resole on those. And then for one of my grandfather’s birthdays, my grandmother came to me and said, “Now that you’ve made a couple pairs of shoes, I’d like you to make a pair for your grandfather. I think it’d be kind of cool since it was his father that was also a shoemaker.” So I made a pair for him that really turned out well. They were made out of American bison tanned at Law Tanning, with steel shanks, Goodyear top lifts, and a dress leather sole.
Stitchdown: Very cool. Well, it’s been about a couple months now since you guys officially took over at Russell Moccasin. What’s been at the top of your to-do list so far?
Luke Kolbie: One of the biggest things that we’ve done so far is shut down custom ordering. We currently have about 25 employees total. Russell over the last two years or so has had supply chain issues, and also lost several employees just to families moving and things like that. So many of Russell’s employees have been there for 30, 40, even 50 years. It’s an incredibly artisanal craft, and it’s not something where we can replace those people overnight. And so, in 2021 and 2022, the custom orders just kind of got the better of everybody. It became very difficult to anticipate how long it was going to take to make a pair, because there was always more of a backlog coming through. It was really a problem we needed to fix early on, to make sure that we could make the changes that we needed to the business structure.
It’s taking us almost six times the amount of time to make a custom boot as it does the exact same boot with the exact same leather as a standard size, because we’re literally adjusting every single different piece. We’re adjusting the quarters, the sole, the vamp, the toe pieces. Every piece is getting measured and adjusted to the last, and the last also has to be built up to match the person’s foot. And so, we shut down the custom orders process so that we can focus on those custom orders already in the pipeline.
That’s not something that’s a whole lot of fun to do, but it’s something that we felt we needed to do, so we can get the turnaround down to a much more reasonable time. We are currently running about a year, and our target is to get that down to about three months. We’re devoting all of our production resources towards pulling that down. Then in the meantime, we’re working on our future model.
Joe Julian: Phase one is we need to find out how many boots we can make, and what our costs are. But first and foremost are the people who made those custom orders. They trusted Russell to deliver those orders. We owed it to those people. That’s one of the main factors of why we shut custom orders down, to focus on getting these people their boots. Then the other thing is we want to win back people who’ve been Russell wearers for many years. We want to reassure them that it’s not going to take so long to get new boots or new soles. We want to be able to service our customers better. It’s kind of addition by subtraction. The more we take away, the clearer the focus can be.
Luke Kolbie: Then as far as phase two goes, we’re anticipating reopening a lot of our ordering. We are going to have stock pairs available so that people can order those, versus a custom pair. In the new year, the plan is to start scaling down the varieties of things that we’re doing.
To kind of give you an idea of the scope, Russell, when we took over, had about 120 different models. In those models you had about 50 different leathers to choose from, not including colors of those individual leathers. Then you had about 25 soles. Let’s say you wanted a chukka boot, but you wanted it with a double vamp, a steel shank, a cushion collar, and you wanted to make it 10 inches tall. They would do that. They were literally taking one model and adding to it. It was just kind of a free-for-all. You’d have hundreds of thousands of possible variations. Sometimes they would have up to five different leathers on the same sheet.
Stitchdown: A 10-inch-tall chukka! That’s quite a tall order. Literally. It sounds like a lot of chaos.
Luke Kolbie: Yeah. What we’re working on is narrowing that down to, you know, what is Russell best at? What do we excel at?
Joe Julian: And, what were our roots?
Luke Kolbie: Yeah.
Joe Julian: We’re really studying the history of Russell, and its wares, and its owners. We think it’s important for us to not only know that, but to be able to tell the story. That’s gonna be part of what Luke and I are doing, is telling the full Russell story that has never been told yet.
Luke Kolbie: I mean, our own customers didn’t know that we had three different US presidents who had worn our boots. That the first traversal of the Appalachian Trail in 1956 was done in a single pair of Russell Birdshooter boots. You know, they talk about Wolverine 1000 Miles. Nobody talks about the fact that a single pair of Russells went through over 2,500 miles of country and then were stuck in the Smithsonian because of it.
Russell kind of got into the rut of “we’re a big-game hunting boot,” but that’s not what Russell is at its core. So that’s what we’re working on, taking what Russell is, distilling that into a few models.
Customer education is a huge part of what we need to be doing, and there’s no way that you can educate people when there are hundreds of thousands of individual variations you can get in a Russell boot. I think customers are going to be more satisfied when we’re able to tell them why you would want a certain sole over another sole, or why you would want a different leather. I think scaling down the variations, and truly being able to hone in on what is the best of the best, that’s what we’re gonna be offering our customers going forward.
Stitchdown: How else are you preparing Russell Moccasin for the future? Will we see some of the same things that other legacy shoe companies have been doing, like more casual styles, or wallet-friendly models?
Luke Kolbie: You know, the wallet-friendly models, a lot of the ones that I’ve seen, they do that by sacrificing something. With Kingfisher, Julian and Sons, and now Russell Moccasin, what we’ve always said is if we can’t make the best product possible and sell it for what it’s worth, then it’s not worth doing. If you sell somebody something and you’ve made it lesser, it’s not worth the time of our artisans. It’s not worth the name of Russell Moccasin.
The difference that you’re gonna get with a Russell is, the way that we produce our products, they can last generations. A lot of companies will sell you on having a resoleable product. But, with stitchdown boots, welted boots, there’s a limit on how many times you can do that. Unique to the hand-lasted moccasin construction is the fact that we can replace that midsole as many times as we need to, which effectively makes the product last indefinitely.
But, there are a lot of models that haven’t been utilized much, where we can still create an excellent shoe that doesn’t sacrifice things. For example, I didn’t know until I was involved that we made loafers. Our loafers are excellent and they can be at a price point that is very competitive with other nice loafers. So there’s not anything that we can really do to cheapen the product, but we can make some more of our products that are not as labor-intensive like our loafers, or our high-lace chukka. It’s an excellent style that I think is gonna fit in well with a lot of boot-heads.
When we’re making something that’s double vamp or triple vamp, the cost goes up exponentially, because we’re essentially having to do the same process up to three times, molding that sole, and hand-lasting it, and hand-sewing it. The chukkas and loafers we make are all single vamp. They always have been, you wouldn’t want those as double or triple vamps. So with those models, there’s no sacrifice in quality, and we’re able to provide a product that is much more attainable.
Joe Julian: We would not be in this endeavor if we had any intent to do anything but be the steward to this brand. It’s staying in Berlin, Wisconsin. We can provide jobs to people there and give them an opportunity to have a career in making something with their hands and contributing to a more sustainable lifestyle. I think that everybody can get on board with that.
We need to serve our bootmakers the best we can. How can we give them better work stations? How can we make it more efficient for the product to go through? That’s what we want, try to provide for them, because we know that at the heart of everything is the bootmaker.
Luke Kolbie: The things that happen in that little workshop in Berlin, Wisconsin don’t exist anywhere else in the world. We are working on training programs, and cross-training programs. One of the biggest things for us is we’ve got to have a new generation to come behind these guys that have been there forever. I’m a pretty young guy, and I feel like my generation are people that, if they have the right opportunity, can get on board with working on and creating something that is physical, seeing other people enjoying it, and taking pride in that. I think the next couple years are going to be a renaissance in that sort of trade, because it’s more than just something that everybody else does. It’s a skilled artisanry.
If we can make the working environment and the lifestyle that goes along with that attainable and attractive, then I think we’re going to do really well. We’ve gotta train our own people. Nobody else is gonna train them for us.
Joe Julian: It’s really about the tradespeople taking back their rightful position in society. 150 years ago, you had the town leaders: you had businessmen, bankers, lawyers, doctors…and you had the tradespeople. They were a part of that group, and for some reason we’ve lost that in America. But there is a resurgence.
Stitchdown: For sure. I want to thank you guys for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Luke Kolbie: Absolutely.