Restoring a shoemaker’s soul - The Buffalo News

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Restoring a shoemaker’s soul

BATAVIA – P.W. Minor & Sons, Genesee County’s oldest business with roots that date from just after the Civil War, had been operating on a shoestring budget for years. Its per-day output of 1,200 orders of leather and orthopedic shoes, distributed internationally, had shrunk to 80 pairs. The staff shrank, too, from 260 not so long ago to 72.

When the announcement came June 13 that Batavia’s 147-year-old shoemaker would close its doors for good, most of its six dozen employees weren’t shocked. Consistent waves of layoffs had already claimed many of their friends and neighbors.

The employees broke for a two-week vacation at the beginning of July and started looking for other work, unsure whether their jobs would be there when they got back.

That’s about the time Andrew Young and Peter H. Zeliff, a pair of local businessmen born and raised in the area, began considering a partnership to buy the business and try to return it to its once-proud condition.

Thursday, after four weeks of work, their ambitious restoration plan was set in motion inside the factory on Treadeasy Drive in Batavia’s Industrial Park. Under white banners that read, “The new P.W. Minor,” dozens of community members and local officials gathered for the announcement of the ownership change that will keep the company open for the foreseeable future.

“They came in and rescued us,” Pembroke resident Debi Vincent, 51, an employee of 28 years, said of her new owners as she polished a pair of shoes. “That’s what it feels like, to have somebody come in and do what they did as fast as they did it. They saved everyone here.”

“We all went on vacation thinking we wouldn’t have jobs when we got back,” said Julie Hall, 47, of nearby Bethany, who has worked beside Vincent for 20 years. “Vacation was not so nice. When we heard they were signing the papers, we were like, ‘Yeah!’ We’re so happy. We’re all so excited to be working.”

Young, a real estate entrepreneur who has lived in Batavia his entire life, and Zeliff, a recently retired developer from nearby Oakfield, have purchased the assets of P.W. Minor & Sons for $2.8 million.

They did so with the promise of up to $450,000 in performance-based tax credits from Empire State Development’s Excelsior Jobs Program, contingent upon the new owners’ job-creation commitments.

Vincent and Hall are two of 53 who have returned to their jobs this month.

“There will be more than that working here in the near future, because we’ve got holes to fill,” Young said, adding that the plan is to at least rehire the 15 employees who were first laid off in June.

“We’re not really saviors,” Zeliff said. “We’re just here because we see the value in the employees, really. These people are dedicated to the work they do, dedicated to their jobs and are dedicated to this company. All they want to do is come here every day and build great shoes. We’re just allowing them to continue to do that.”

Founded in 1867 by two brothers shortly after they returned home from fighting in the Civil War, P.W. Minor established itself as one of the top American manufacturers of handmade leather and orthopedic footwear.

With products ranging in price from $100 to $400, clientele for the custom-made shoes over the years has included celebrities such as Tim Allen, of “Home Improvement” fame. More recently, P.W. Minor has fulfilled shoe orders used in HBO’s hit series “Boardwalk Empire” and for a production at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.

During its heyday, the majority of P.W. Minor’s sales came from its leading medical and orthopedic products.

Young said the previous owners “took their eye off what made this place hum.” The company will now operate as P.W. Minor LLC. “The plan is to right the ship with the mainstay products that grew this company to what it was at one time,” Young said.

At one time, P.W. Minor was one of Genesee County’s top employers, and its contribution to the well-being of the Batavia community is long-established.

John Canale, 57, a lifetime resident of Batavia and a local business owner, remembers taking field trips to the P.W. Minor factory in elementary school. “They’re an icon in Batavia,” Canale said. “They are a Batavia institution. And when I found out that institution would no longer be in Batavia, I felt sad. I felt like I had just read the obituary of someone who I knew and loved in this community.”

“Today is a happy day,” he added.

The new ownership has allowed warehouse supervisor Aaron Chamberlain, 36, to keep his job and stay close to his family in Oakfield. With a wife and three children, he said, it would have been difficult to find another job close by.

“It’s absolutely answering a prayer,” Chamberlain said. “It’s very emotional when something like this happens, when you realize you can keep your job and continue to do what you love to do.”


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