Paul Herwaldt, owner of Shoe Repair Plus in Green Bay, is all for reusing and recycling. In fact, he would say he was one of the first to embrace it.
"People today all talk about recycling, but we weren’t talking about that when we started the business," Herwaldt said. "It was a normal thing for us to do. We washed diapers, reused bottles and recycled newspapers. No one told us to do that; we just did."
He says shoes have become something people toss out rather than repair. Most come from countries like China that use cheaper materials because most consumers aren’t willing to pay for quality.
That change has forced Herwaldt’s business to add services. He is well-versed in shoe repair having started working at his dad’s shoe repair shop when he was just 12 years old. As one of seven children, he and a brother took over his dad’s store in Illinois when he died.
"We worked well together when my father was alive, but it got a little complicated after," he said.
He and his wife, along with two younger brothers he was raising after his parents’ deaths, were vacationing in Door County in 1979 when they picked up a newspaper and discovered that a shoe repair store in Green Bay was for sale. They purchased the store in 1980 at a time when there were about a dozen others to compete with. But as shoes became cheaper, stores died off. It is rare to find one in a smaller community and Green Bay has just two — one on both sides of the river. Herwaldt had gone to college for business and was up to the challenge of running a store. By age 18, he said he knew everything there was to know about shoe repair, and with business courses under his belt, was set to run a successful store.
"This is a service business, and I learned that all we have is our time," he said. "So, I had to figure out what the time was worth and how much money I needed to generate to make it. I put a big clock on the wall as a reminder of how important each minute is."
Another change was to collect payment in advance so customers would return to pick up repairs. He no longer had items sitting around the store that people had decided to discard. He also began to repair more types of items.
"When my grandfather started in the shoe repair business in the 1930s, they fixed shoes. When my dad got in, he fixed shoes and luggage. Now we fix anything that other people bring in — luggage, backpacks, zippers, ice skates, equipment repair for the Green Bay Packers. Whatever people bring in, we’ll fix," he said.
Now in his 60s, Herwaldt has had to stay on top of technology in order to market the business. He has a website and Facebook page, but insists that most of his business comes from word-of-mouth.
"I would say 7 or 8 people in 10 come in because someone told them about it," he added.
But the things being repaired are more likely to be miscellaneous items. He looks back fondly on the day when his brother bought him a fine pair of leather shoes that cost $20 and would probably cost about $200 today. They were shoes that would be re-soled and made to last for years.
Despite the fact that consumers are buying new and tossing old, he says there is a need for shops like his; especially as consumers are challenged to be earth-friendly. His website proclaims, "Become ecofriendly by bringing in your shoes and boots to be resoled, re-heeled and recycled."
If that doesn’t get the attention of customers, he hopes he can woo them with exceptional customer service. He says that his credo is to treat others the way he would want to be treated. This applies not only to a cadre of loyal customers, but also to his employees who have been with him for over a dozen years.
Although he no longer uses a business plan and runs the business on instinct, he sets annual goals and devotes long hours to the store.
"I haven’t had a whole week off since 1995," he said. "But I knew that going in. I’ve been married 45 years, and it’s been a wonderful life."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.