It’s unclear who instituted the rule.
It might have been Robert Chesebro Jr., whose grandfather, Herbert, founded Wigwam as Hand-Knit Hosiery in 1905. Or maybe it was Margaret Newhard and Chris Chesebro, his kids, who came up with the idea.
But one thing is for sure: It didn’t matter how many hours the Chesebro kids spent playing on the factory floor, taking turns pushing one another down the aisles in huge bins made for carrying yarn and socks. They needed to work elsewhere before getting a gig with the family business, period.
It’s things like this, a keen attention to the people-oriented details of running a century-old family enterprise, that have kept this 114-year-old American manufacturer turning out socks by the millions. That, and a clear dedication to employee happiness that has paid dividends over decades: The average employee tenure across industries in the United States is 4.6 years.
At Wigwam, it’s 17.
The family business
As you might expect from anyone who grew up in a family business, siblings Chesebro—Director of Operations—and Newhard—Director of Product—spent their childhoods surrounded by socks. And they do love them. Newhard says she can’t help but stare at other people’s stockinged feet in the security lines at airports, evaluating the socks they’ve chosen. Chesebro gets excited to share new sock designs with his son when they make something he’s previously asked for, like tie-dye.
Still, the family’s rule led both of them to spend years gaining experience at other companies before coming home to work for Wigwam within the last 13 years. Newhard worked in new store marketing for Gander Mountain, then as a marketing analyst for the finance startup Fingerhut. Chesebro worked for Polartec and Bose.
All the experience in the world can’t negate the challenges of compartmentalizing work and family when the two are one and the same. But early on, Newhard figured out a solid way to separate them, which has helped the business run smoothly.
“I used to go into my dad’s office and I would say, ‘I’m here on family business, as your daughter,’” Newhard says. “Or, I would come in and say, ‘I’m here on work business, as an employee.’”
The feeling of family extends beyond blood. Each morning in the office starts with a stand-up meeting. When SNEWS visited Wigwam headquarters in early January, CEO Tom Wheeler kicked off the day with his priorities, company news, where he’s going, and whom he’s meeting with. Dozens of employees then shared brief updates on what they’re working on, occasionally sprinkled with personal news, before a smaller group broke off to do a morning stretch together to greet the day.
Why Wigwam works
If you ask Creative Director Al Luening, who’s been with the company more than 20 years, the story of Wigwam is bigger than the company’s 114-year history.
“It’s about more than longevity,” he says. “It’s a story of Americana, really, if you look at how closely our story mimics America’s history and growth spurts. There’s an honesty here, real Midwest modesty. We’re not great at tooting our own horn.”
Wigwam is also the story of good people who take pride in their work. Take Peggy Klumb, for example, who originally planned to work at the factory for five years and then take off for college. While inspecting socks coming off a knitting machine, she says she liked the people so she stuck around—and now she’s in her 41st year at the company.
Where Wigwam starts to veer away from the standard American factory story is where other brands have failed—or refused—to adapt and innovate. “It’s so tempting to take quality out of a product to save money,” says Wheeler. “But you can’t fool the customer for too long.”
As it has become cheaper to move operations overseas, Wigwam has held fast to its commitment to produce high-quality goods in an increasingly sustainable factory. And as it has become more challenging to find and retain skilled workers interested in long-term factory work, Wigwam has responded by creating its own four-year, state-certified mechanic apprenticeship program. The company invests months in getting each new employee up to speed so they can work and get certified at the same time.
Controlling the plant, the process, and the prototype
When a company owns its own factory, it can control and quickly implement sustainability standards. In early January, a technician was working on setting up a new steam dryer, which Chris Chesebro says will dramatically decrease the amount of water and energy Wigwam uses over more traditional wash-and-dry processes. For 20 years, the factory roof has been covered in solar panels. In the past two years, Wigwam has also become a zero-landfill company: Socks with minor defects, like a tiny hole in the toe you’d only find if you were looking very closely for it, are donated to homeless shelters. Slightly imperfect pairs are packaged and offered up to the Sheboygan public at steep discounts during monthly sales just outside the doors of the factory floor. And the rare socks that are unsalvageable, that mistakenly come off the machines in little more than a heap of threads, become “shoddy,” bales of mixed textiles that are upcycled into things like the cushioning in the seat of your car, or the padded, protective blankets often used in construction and for moving.
“We looked at our process and said, ‘textile waste has become a bigger and bigger issue,’” Chesebro says. “Our focus is to be part of the solution.”
Of course, having the headquarters, factory, and warehouse all under the same roof has other perks, too, let alone the energy saved by foregoing the trans-Pacific shipping. When designers and managers only have to walk a few hundred yards to watch a prototype being made right in front of their eyes, product development comes much more easily.
Case in point: In the 1940s, Robert Chesebro Sr., son of the company’s co-founder, steered the company into synthetics, becoming one of the first sock brands to use nylon in sock production.
Wigwam is also working on something big they think will forever change the standards by which we currently judge a good-fitting pair of socks. The company is not yet ready to disclose further details, but shared some insight on the process: Steve Roe, Wigwam’s technical services coordinator who fulfills a research and development role, tinkered with a knitting machine in the factory until it broke. He broke and fixed the machine again and again in trying to get it to do more than it was ever intended to do, until he finally figured out what Wigwam says has never been done before in sock manufacturing. Wigwam plans to reveal more details about the technology in the coming months.
“I don’t see how you could do this without domestic manufacturing, without a domestic team,” Wheeler says.
That’s a big part of the reason the company is committed to staying put in spite of increasing external pressures.
“We understand the uniqueness of a job like this,” Luening says. “This factory is a big part of the community, and [having it here] is better overall for the quality of the product.”
“I think that’s a lot of what makes us different,” Newhard says. “It’s part of our ethos, it links to our family and what we believe in. How can we be ethical, honest, authentic, so that we develop product that works, that isn’t smoke and mirrors? [We want to make] something we can believe in and can honestly say, ‘we know it works.’”