Couldn't Keep Him Down
Brown was born in upstate New York in 1853, worked on the family farm and went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. But he wasn't a fan of farming. Business interested him more. As a youth he made money by selling fruit and muskrats he'd trapped. Then he went to business school, graduating at the age of 19 from Bryant, Stratton & Cornell's Business College in Troy, N.Y. The next year, 1873, he took a train to St. Louis to work for his older brother, the partner at a shoe store, Hamilton-Brown Shoe Co. Brown started as a shipping clerk and quickly became a top salesman, traveling throughout the West selling shoes made on the East Coast. "He tried unsuccessfully to convince the firm to expand into shoe manufacturing," said Ellen Rostand, spokeswoman for the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. "When that didn't work, he launched his own shoe company, which became Brown Shoe Co." Brown had brushed up first, becoming president of the St. Louis Shoe Manufacturers & Jobbers Association. He'd saved up $7,000 to get started and paired that with $5,000 from other sources. "He felt St. Louis offered a great opportunity because of the central location and the rail system," said Dorothy Bell, public relations manager at the present-day Brown Shoe Co. "No one would take a chance on him, so he took chance on himself . . . raising his own money." That first company was Bryan, Brown & Co., a partnership of three men — Brown, Alvin Bryan and Jerome Desnoyers, who hired a few New England shoemakers to get started. The initial year, 1878, the company made $110,000 producing 150 pairs of shoes daily, according to Brown Group archives cited by the Entrepreneur Magazine Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurs. As business associates changed, so did the name of the company, which by 1885 saw $500,000 in sales. As partners retired, it became Brown Shoe Co. Though his business was thriving, Brown knew he could do more, especially with his line of kids' shoes. Brown found a ready marketing gimmick in a popular comic strip. Its main characters were a boy handily named Buster, his pup Tige and sister Mary Jane. Brown's company bought the rights and started Buster Brown Shoes. He didn't stop there. He put on a traveling show with a costumed Buster Brown character and a real dog, which Bell says was trained to untie kids' shoes if they weren't wearing Buster Browns. From 1904 to 1930 the duo played in theaters Brown rented, plus department and shoe stores. Meanwhile, Brown branded a line of men's shoes Brownbilt. "Another creative (effort) he initiated was marketing to women," Bell said, adding that then, women's shoes were like men's. "Women wanted shoes that were stylish." By the early 1900s, Brown's sales were in the millions of dollars. He had five St. Louis factories, plus a headquarters he called the White House. Brown then expanded into the countryside. His business grew. World War I spurred demand for troop shoes and boots. Brown's company — with efficient manufacturing and a background making boots for farmers and cowboys — won contracts for some production. Brown served on the budget committee of the Young Men's Christian Association during a campaign to raise $35 million to provide housing for U.S. troops. IBD data show Brown Shoe Co.'s sales topped $30 million annually by the mid-1920s and its stock more than tripled in just over a year. From 1922 to 1925 the firm's average earnings growth rate was 29% and the sales growth rate 75%. Some have criticized Midwestern footwear producers for controlling communities where they built factories, Weil says, though it's apparent Brown took a civic interest. "I think his strong upbringing and moral values motivated him to succeed," Bell said. "He believed in doing the right thing for his business, his customers, his employees and the community. He was a very ethical person and instilled (that ideal) in his employees." Brown married Betty Bofinger, who'd grown up in an orphanage, and ultimately much of his legacy went to aid the underprivileged. At one point, Brown became director of the St. Louis Provident Association, which helped the poor. He was religious and committed to serving his fellow man. "He was aware through that work of the growing demand for training individuals to work on issues of poverty, public health and child welfare in the city," Rostand said.
Brown left half his estate to his wife and some to an adopted son, according to Archibald. "He also used part of his estate to set up pension funds for employees of Brown Shoe Co.," Rostand said. "The rest of it was distributed to various not-for-profit charitable entities throughout St. Louis and beyond." Brown had indeed built an empire, becoming one of the great titans in his area of manufacturing, Archibald says. "He's a good model for risk taking, entrepreneurship and a willingness to be a visionary," he said. "My sense is that he created a good place to work. He made a powerful statement through the architecture of his headquarters building, which still stands. It's an absolute statement about power, wealth and aesthetics. I think this guy had a real idea about quality."