When Heinz Rollman left behind the unrest of Europe and struck out for America in 1939, the fate of his family was riding on his shoulders.
The Nazi regime had seized a successful shoe factory from Rollman’s father in Germany a few years earlier. Forced into bankruptcy, Rollman’s father fled to Belgium with two sons and two nephews in tow. They tried to rebuild, but the entire continent was on the brink of war and the climate was increasingly unfavorable for Jewish businessmen.
So the family dispatched Rollman to America armed with their final asset: a patent on a new method for attaching soles to shoes.
Rollman began courting major rubber manufacturers of the day, hoping to set up shop in the shadows of a company that could make the compound they needed. Rollman’s quest led him to A. L. Friedlander, the head of Dayton Tire and Rubber in Ohio. Friedlander, who was also Jewish, was taken by Rollman’s charisma and wit.
Friedlander was in the market to open a new plant in North Carolina and invited Rollman along on a trip to Charlotte to scout locations. From Charlotte, the two were pointed toward Waynesville where they would find plenty of the top criteria for a plant: cooling water.
Friedlander chose the town for his new rubber factory and leased Rollman his very own wing for a shoe enterprise. Rollman’s brother and cousins joined him in the new venture, which they called Wellco.
The twist of fate that led two sets of Jewish brothers — Heinz and Ernest Rollman and Walter and Curt Kaufman — to start a shoe factory in Waynesville was a fortuitous one indeed. Wellco has provided a living for hundreds of workers spanning three generations, one of the last manufacturing holdouts from the town’s bustling blue-collar days.
The company remained in the family for nearly 70 years. Rolf Kaufman, the son of one of the original founders, joined the company in 1956 and was groomed as a family successor. Rising in the ranks alongside Rolf was Horace Auberry. When it came time to name a new leader, Heinz Rollman called both men into his office.
“He said ‘I want the two of you to be joint officers, but I can’t decide who is going to be number one,’” Rolf recalled. So Rollman flipped a coin.
Kaufman ended up president and Auberry became chairman. The two ran the company in tandem for more than 30 years.
In 2007, new owners came on the scene, however. Wellco had been a publicly traded company since the mid-1960s. Over the years, one buyer had amassed a controlling interest in the company.
“He liked the company and thought it was a good investment and just bought up the stock as it became available,” Rolf said.
The buyer rarely exercised his influence, however. But in 2007, he passed away. His estate sold off the Wellco holdings, which were bought up by a new controlling entity along with all remaining shares as well.
Although Rolf had stepped down as president in 1996, he remained on in a part-time capacity as vice chairman until 2007 when the new owners came along.
It’s hard to say whether Wellco would be ceasing its local operations today if the new controlling entity hadn’t taken over. It’s a fate Rolf had resisted for years, but the economic pressure of imports and growing competition in military boots made it increasingly difficult. Rolf said he wasn’t surprised to hear the news last week.
“It was probably expected by the people who worked there,” Kaufman said.
When Mary Ann Enloe was growing up in the blue-collar hub of Hazelwood, she didn’t know anyone with an alarm clock. The town woke to the sound of the factory whistle and followed its cues all day long.
“Everybody here had jobs,” said Enloe. “Industry is what made Hazelwood what it was.”
The town’s stationary and the badges of police officers even bore the town’s motto: “A Center of Diversified Industry.”
Tight-knit neighborhoods proliferated around several factories, especially after WWII. A quintessential mill town, everyone walked to work carrying their lunch pails. Credit flowed from merchants, be it the local grocer, the drug store or dress shop.
“I could go down there and get what I wanted and it would be written up on mother’s bill,” recalled Enloe, who was the last mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville. Enloe’s father was also mayor of the former town.
But one by one, the factories have closed shop: a leather tannery, a textile mill, a furniture plant, a rubber factory. There was just one holdout from a bygone era— until now. Wellco shoe plant announced last week that it will cease operations in Waynesville in September, taking with it 80 jobs and yet another piece of Hazelwood’s former heart and soul.
Wellco shoe plant opened in Waynesville in 1941. Enloe remembers Wellco’s early days, when you could walk through town and see women on their porches stitching boots under contract for Wellco.
“They have been extremely important to Hazelwood,” Enloe said of Wellco. “This is a sad day for Hazelwood.”
Wellco was taken over by new owners in 2007. The owners issued a press release announcing the closure last week, but declined to elaborate beyond calling the plant “no longer economically feasible.”
Wellco had long been battling the pressures of cheaper imports, said Rolf Kaufman, president of the company for 30 years and vice chairman up until 2007.
In Wellco’s early days, it made shoes of all sorts and even slippers, but the market “became so dominated by imports from China we could not longer compete,” Kaufman said.
Over the years, Wellco had shifted more and more of its production to Puerto Rico where wages and overhead were cheaper. By the mid-1990s, nearly all production was done in Puerto Rico to remain viable, but it was an uphill battle to compete against plants in Mexico, China and India.
Wellco ultimately survived as long as it did by catering to a single but powerful customer: the U.S. military.
“The military must purchase garments, including footwear, from U.S. sources whenever available,” Kaufman said. “That protection did save us.”
Wellco began courting military orders in the 1960s, when the company’s innovative technology for attaching soles to boots proved invaluable.
“They had so much trouble in Vietnam in the jungle with soles not staying attached,” Kaufman said.
Military contracts became a larger and larger portion of Wellco’s production line, eventually dominating it operations.
Although Wellco shoe plant in Waynesville is closing, the community will be spared the blight of another vacant industrial site.
Haywood Vocational Opportunities, which manufactures and assembles medical supplies, is buying the site to expand its own operations. HVO, which currently has 320 full-time employees, hopes to add 75 more within two years at the Wellco site.
“This certainly softens the blow,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s Economic Development Director. “Obviously you hate to lose any jobs anytime, but fortunately in this situation, HVO has been a great success story for Haywood County.”
An expansion was already in the works for HVO. HVO was planning to buy a site in the Beaverdam Industrial Park near Canton, but will now utilize the Wellco site instead.
“It is very conducive to upfitting, upgrading and renovating to meet our needs,” said George Marshall, CEO of HVO.
The Wellco site is less than half a mile from HVO’s current operation. That proximity was the main factor in the decision, Marshall said.
HVO’s main product is medical drapes used during surgery. The company also assembles surgical kits — up to 800 a day — customized with the suite of instruments a particular doctor might need. The new space will be used to expand HVO’s production capacity and grow new product lines, Marshall said.
Clasby is grateful HVO stepped in to buy the Wellco site, even if it meant backing out of the deal in the industrial park. When it comes to courting new industry to set up shop, Clasby feels the 10-acre graded site in an industrial park on the side of Interstate 40 will eventually find a new taker. As for the old Wellco site, Clasby fears it would have been impossible to recruit a new tenant.
“Manufacturing companies are not interested in old buildings with lower ceilings,” Clasby said.
“The Wellco property probably would not have a lot of interest from manufacturing industry,” Marshall agreed.