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Somerset boot maker gets new life, new owner

Tuesday, November 05, 2002

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A small Somerset County shoe factory that closed in January when its North Carolina-based corporate parent was in financial trouble has reopened as a new company under a new name.

The new Abilene Boot Co. Inc. is churning out about 180 pairs of Western boots a day with 36 of the 135 employees who used to work for the former Bender Shoe Co.

"I don't know if it will ever get back to 135, but 36 jobs in our county is big," said Nicholas Felice, executive director of the Somerset County Economic Development Council. "It's nice to have a turnaround."

Bender, owned by the B.B. Walker Co. of Asheboro, N.C., shut down in January about two weeks before Walker filed for bankruptcy court protection, listing $7.8 million in debts and $8.3 million in assets.

A maker of work shoes and cowboy boots, Bender began operations in Somerset County in 1948. It was sold to Walker in 1965 and in 1994 moved to the building now occupied by Abilene.

The shutdown of Bender was abrupt for a plant that had produced about 2,000 pairs of boots daily. The production employees, many of whom had long tenure, were dismissed by Bender without prior notice or severance pay. Employees at the time blamed lower-cost imported shoes for their troubles.

Plant manager Ross Auman, in a partnership with French Humphries, a former B.B. Walker executive, and New Jersey investor Anil Gupta leased the Somerset facility and bought equipment, raw materials and intellectual property from the bankruptcy court.

"We're back," Auman said yesterday.

Felice said the investors purchased the assets with their own funds and may, at some point, purchase the building, a former clothing factory that they now lease through the bankruptcy court.

Abilene, named after one of the boot brands made by Bender, began in August to move several truckloads of purchased equipment and materials from a former sister plant in Asheboro to Somerset. Production resumed shortly afterward.

Although the plant has rehired only 36, Auman said employment should increase gradually as business returns with the goal of hiring all former Bender employees who want jobs within a year or two.

Two salesmen are working to get the company's boots, sold under the brand names Abilene and Sage, back onto store shelves.

"We want to follow our business plan and get ourselves built up a little bit each month. As we do increase production, we'll increase people," said Auman, who described his crew as happy to return to work. "These people are very skilled in what they do. They're doing an excellent job."

Jim McKay can be reached at jmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1322.

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