Jim Wellehan is the president of Lamey-Wellehan, a Maine-based, family-owned shoe store chain marking its 100th anniversary this month. Wellehan graduated from College of the Holy Cross and then taught for a year in Lesotho in southern Africa, before serving in the Army and obtaining a master’s in business from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and then returning to the family business. Lamey-Wellehan has six stores and 100 associates – Wellehan does not like the word “employees” – about half of them full-time. The company had approximately $11.5 million in sales in 2013.
Q: Was it hard to go from getting an MBA to selling shoes?
A: No. There’s so much to learn from customers. You live for your customers – they teach you what life is about. I had a lot of respect and admiration for my dad and the business he had built and I enjoyed the process. It’s not bad, it’s fun.
Q: How did Lamey-Wellehan get started?
A: My dad started the business in 1914. He had to leave school in the ninth grade because the family had no money. So he worked for Dingley-Foss (Shoe Co.) making shoes and then the Peck department store. He and Charlie Lamey, who ran the shoe department for Peck’s, decided to start their own business. They started on St. Patrick’s Day and handed out shamrocks.
My dad was called up into the Navy and in 1915, he went to the naval aviation base in Norfolk, Va. He was about to have his picture painted by Norman Rockwell and he got the flu. Seven others who went to the infirmary with him died that morning, but he was lucky and he survived.
He came back to work in the shoe business and the Peck family wanted him to run their shoe department, but then he (and Lamey) opened their store in Rumford, which was a pretty bustling town at that point. Then, in the Depression, no one could afford anything, but they survived, and after World War II, he opened a store in Augusta and then another in Lawrence, Mass. And then he opened a Sebago (shoe factory) in Westbrook and it did really well for a number of years and became a great global brand under my brother, Dan.
And I met my wife when she came into the store 47 years ago.
Q: How challenging is the shoe business these days?
A: It’s fun and it’s a challenge always. The styles change and weather plays games on you – I’m not going to sell a lot of spring sandals this week. But it’s a growing business. The shoe business, it’s been a challenging business, but I’ve enjoyed it and worked with great people who’ve done a great job.
Q: You are proud of how the stores have cut carbon emissions. Shoe stores aren’t considered big polluters, so why the focus on reducing Lamey-Wellehan’s environmental impact?
A: We’ve cut our carbon emissions about 30 percent since 2004 with better insulation and improved lighting systems and skylights and we’ve moved to a very clean diesel delivery truck. We’re all on the same damn planet and we’ve got to make changes and carbon emissions are out of control. You see with this winter that there’s climate change happening and there’s drought in California and heat waves in Australia. We’re seeing a lot of change. You look at what the world will be like and, if we don’t get a hold of it, it’s going to be a disaster. We’ve also saved money every step of the way, so it’s good business, it’s good economics and it’s good environmental stewardship.
I was in a school recently and it was 78 degrees and it wasn’t set that way. There was a window open and there was single-pane glass. It was very wasteful. I think we’re making progress but we’ve got to (make progress). You either make the world a little better or a little worse.
Q: What’s the impact of competition from online shoe stores?
A: We have an online site. But if I want something, I want to see what it feels like and say, “Hey, that feels really good.” And if your feet start to bother you, we’ve got foot scanners and can make it better. That’s been a key to our success.
Q: How about quickly changing fashions, like the Crocs fad of a few years ago?
A: Six years ago, we were Crocs’ largest dealer in New England. Whatever is happening, whatever is trending, you’ve got to be there. You can’t sit and let things happen and not be a part of it. You’ve got to stay up with whatever’s happening. And it’s fun, with all the new colors and styles, it’s fun to be part of the trend.
Q: Are your children poised to take over the business?
A: All three children are free spirits. One, Jim, is a teacher at the University of Florida, and John is in commodities in Chicago and Dan works for Outward Bound. They’re all doing what they want and that’s great. Here, we’re all family and we all get along and over half of our people have been here for more than 10 years. When the time comes, what we will do is turn it over to an ESOP (employee-owned company) and they’ll do a good job.
Q: What do you most like and dislike about the shoe business?
A: Honestly, I haven’t disliked an awful lot of it. It’s a kind industry and there’s a good deal of reasonableness in vendor relationships. With other retailers, we have a friendly relationship. And people here are fun and we’re in great communities. Life’s fun.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: