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$325 loafers could bring shoe manufacturing back to Maine

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DEXTER — Sixteen years after Dexter Shoe Co. closed, shoe manufacturing might be coming back to Maine — in the form of $325 hand-sewn penny loafers.

MaineSole — co-founded by Dick Hall, former vice president for manufacturing for Dexter Shoe — is up and running in Dexter, with the hopes of putting the town back on the map after it has fallen into disarray following the loss of its main job provider, Bloomberg reports.

The company only has 10 people on its payroll currently, four of them part-time. The company works out of a former wool mill in the center of town, and most of the equipment is hand-me-downs from other plants.

But where Dexter turned out shoes by the millions, MaineSole is hand-stitching around 100 pairs of shoes a week. They produce high-end shoes for customers willing to pay top dollar for a quality product — though they preferred not to name their private-label customers for privacy reasons.

“People aren’t getting into their Dodge Caravan after buying a pair of these,” Kevin Cain, MaineSole’s chief executive officer, told Bloomberg.

The journey began more than three years ago, when MaineSole hosted a job fair in Dexter that attracted more than 130 people, nearly all of whom had previously worked for the now-defunct Dexter Shoe Co.

Hall and six other MaineSole founders held the fair to find out how many trained shoe workers still lived in the area and how many of those people were interested in returning to full- or part-time work.

“The whole idea is to put people back to work in Dexter,” Hall said at the fair. “[Dexter Shoe] had plenty of work for just about anyone who wanted to work in the area. Now that Dexter’s gone, the town’s pretty much gone downhill. The idea is to take advantage of the skills that were developed over the years and to try to get people back to work.”

Dexter was founded in 1956 by Harold Alfond, and at its height employed more than 800 people. It was purchased by Warren Buffett in 1993 for $433 million in stock and closed in 2001; Buffett has since called the investment “the worst deal” of his career.

Dexter wasn’t only the shoe manufacturing loss to hit Maine around that time. As Bloomberg notes, in the 1960s footwear factories employed 20,000 people, according to data compiled by the Department of Labor. Now, that number is fewer than 2,000. Even L.L. Bean has outsourced much of its shoe manufacturing, save for its signature Maine Hunting Shoe.

Despite MaineSole’s small size and output, getting to this point hasn’t been easy. Cain, MaineSole’s CEO, spent much of his career in sales for brands including Florsheim, G.H. Bass and Harbor Footwear Group. Finding investors to put up capital proved difficult, so he funded the startup costs himself. He then secured a $150,000 loan from Eastern Maine Development Corp., using his own home as collateral. With help from Gov. Paul LePage, he obtained a $50,000 community development block grant for an upgrade to the wool mill’s electrical system, Bloomberg reports.

Even still, cash flow is tough. The recycled machines often need repairs, and any minor defects in a shoe can waste up to $50 in leather. Then there’s the time gap between buying supplies to complete an order and getting paid for the finished product.

Cain is hoping for additional investors so that MaineSole can hire more former Dexter employees, who can then train the next generation on the art of shoemaking.

“If I lose them,” Cain tells Bloomberg, “it’s like something going extinct.”

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