Don Munro: Gentleman and scholar

This story originally was published in the July issue of Celebrate Arkansas magazine:

Arkansas was a far different place in 1959 than it is today.

The state’s image was tied to the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School, Orval Faubus was in the governor’s office and thousands of Arkansas homes were still without electricity.

A young New Hampshire native named Don Munro moved to this rural state in 1959 to establish Lake Catherine Footwear, a division of the New Hampshire-based shoe manufacturer that employed him.

In early 1953, another East Coast native — Winthrop Rockefeller — had moved to Arkansas to escape a failed marriage and the prying New York media.

In 1955, Faubus — who was in the first of six two-year terms — decided to capitalize on Rockefeller’s famous name. He appointed Rockefeller to head the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

Rockefeller took the assignment seriously during his nine years in the job, bringing almost 600 new industrial plants to the state. Industrial employment grew by 47.5 percent and manufacturing wages grew by 88 percent in Arkansas during that era.

“Sears Roebuck & Co. was our biggest customer,” says Don Munro, now 85. “I always suspected that Winthrop Rockefeller was friendly with someone on the Sears board and that’s how the shoe company got to Arkansas from New Hampshire.”

The two partners in the shoe manufacturing company traveled to Arkansas to scout locations with AIDC (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission) representatives. They visited small towns such as Lepanto and DeWitt during the day. They came back to Hot Springs each night.

Gambling was technically illegal but wide open in the Spa City in those days. There were nice hotels, good restaurants and live entertainment. The AIDC representatives undoubtedly felt that Hot Springs would be the best place to impress the visitors from New England at night.

Eventually, those visitors also decided Hot Springs would be the best place for a plant.

“It was either out here on Lake Catherine or over by the airport,” Don says of the two locations that were the finalists for the manufacturing facility. “This location has a lake, and the other location didn’t. So we ended up here. It has been a good spot for us.”

Back home in New Hampshire, Don and his wife Barbara had four children — daughter Lindy, son Bruce, son Neil and daughter Mollie. Another daughter, Christine, later would be born in Arkansas.

It would no doubt be a culture shock for this New England family.

“Most of the people we knew in New England had never even heard of Arkansas,” Don says. “It was a foreign land to them. They were a bit shocked we would move the family here.”

To prepare for his move to the South, Don read W.J. Cash’s exploration of the region, “The Mind of the South.” The book originally was published by Alfred Knopf in 1941 and was widely acclaimed for the way it explored Southern culture.

Cash wrote in the book’s concluding paragraph: “Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective … such was the South at its best.”

Don Munro sometimes is described as the ultimate Southern gentleman who just happens to hail from New England.

Through the decades, he has earned the reputation of being one of the state’s leading businessmen and philanthropists.

Through it all, he has never forgotten his obligations to his family.

“I had some advantages growing up that my children didn’t have,” Don says. “By that I mean that there were a lot of relatives around. We moved to Arkansas and my kids didn’t have all of those relatives. Family time was always important to me.”

He says the move to Arkansas proved easier than expected. He spent $24,000 on a lakefront home but only on the condition that the previous owners throw in their wooden Chris Craft boat. Munro family members brought a love of the water with them from New Hampshire.

“Reading ‘The Mind of the South’ was helpful,” Don says. “It made everything more understandable. But from the first, people here were very accommodating. And the terrain was much like that in New Hampshire. It wasn’t as big of an adjustment as you might think.”

Bruce Munro says of his father: “The first thing you recognize in him is his respect for other people. He looks at everyone the same. He has that innate respect for each individual.”

Indeed, Don Munro became famous for knowing hundreds of employees on a first-name basis along with remembering the names of their spouses and children.

“It wasn’t something that just came naturally,” Bruce says. “He worked hard at it. His respect for people is one thing that makes us different as a company.”

Don replies matter of factly: “People like to be called by their names.”

He says learning his employees’ names was part of “the bigger picture” during those early years in Arkansas.

“I was the only person who had ever made a shoe when we started,” Don says. “I had to be intimately involved in every part of the process. You get to know people when you’re working by them.”

More than a third of Munro & Co. employees have been with the company for at least 20 years.

There have been plenty of honors that have come Don Munro’s way through the years. All of them were well-deserved. In 2005, he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. At a time when his competitors were moving their operations to other countries, he remained determined to make shoes in this country.

He purchased the Southern division of his longtime employer, Connors & Hoffmann Footwear Co., in 1972, establishing Munro & Co. That family company grew into the country’s largest shoe manufacturer and maintains operations at Hot Springs, Mount Ida and Clarksville.

Neil Munro bought the Wynne plant and now has his own company, NMF.

Bruce is the president and chief executive officer of Munro & Co.

Mollie is the company’s executive vice president and marketing mastermind.

At age 85, Don puts on a tie each morning and comes to work.

“He gets here at 6:45 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 5:15 p.m.,” Bruce says.

He then smiles and adds, “Don is starting to slack off a bit, though. He leaves by noon on Saturday. I’ve never known him not to wear a tie, but he was never formal and proper in a stuffy sort of way. He always had a sense of adventure. He was always taking us on trips.”

Don Munro is remarkably fit for his age. He has earned his good health. For years, he would swim at least a mile a day in area lakes. When swimming at night, he would wear a strobe light on his wrist to ensure he wasn’t hit by a boat.

“He has never slowed down,” Bruce says. “He’s our hardest worker.”

His father replies: “I pretend to work, and they pretend to pay me.”

The Munro American brand comes in 75 size and width combinations. The typical shoe producer makes only 17 sizes per style. Many of the shoes made by the company are women’s professional footwear, and Nordstrom is the biggest customer these days.

Mollie has worked to develop a modern website for the company, and both she and Bruce travel extensively so they’ll better understand customer wants and needs.

All the while, Don is there to offer advice and insight.

Despite his exercise habits, Don claims that his wife Barbara is the real “health nut” in the family. At age 83, she often kayaks on area lakes for two to three hours at a time. She also walks three to four miles each day.

“We never had what I would describe as goodies around the house when we were children,” Bruce says. “But here’s a secret: Don has a sweet tooth. He usually would keep some candy stashed away.”

Don had left college at Yale to serve in the Army and was sent to Japan soon after the end of World War II. He was the news editor of the Pacific Stars & Stripes and thought he might become a journalist. He wrote a story that displeased at least one general, and his journalism career came to an early end.

He returned to Yale to finish his degree and then went to work in the shoe manufacturing business.

“I used to think that writing would be my creative outlet,” Don says. “I later discovered you also could be creative in the world of business.”

After opening the Lake Catherine Footwear facility at Hot Springs for his employer in 1960, Don added the Addison Shoe Co. in Wynne and Mount Ida Footwear in 1967. Munro & Co. continued to operate those three plants following its establishment in 1972.

In 1979, DeWitt Footwear and Clarendon Footwear were added to produce children’s shoes.

Clear Lake Footwear was started at England in Lonoke County in 1975 to produce work boots for men. That plant closed in 1995.

In 1960, more than 90 percent of the shoes sold in the United States were made in this country. It’s now less than 1 percent.

As other shoe companies moved production out of the country, the Munro family knew changes would have to be made at Munro & Co.

“American companies were paying their workers $4 to $5 an hour for a 40-hour week, and Chinese workers were paid $10 a month for a 56-hour week,” Theresa Sullivan Barger wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 2009. “Munro & Co. faced pressure to lower it prices or lose business. Munro founder Don Munro did not want to go overseas. He believed in buying American, insisting on purchasing American cars and TVs. He did not want to close factories, lay off workers and move jobs out of the counry.”

Many major retailers were no longer willing to pay what it cost to buy shoes from domestic manufacturers.

Mollie says her father once told her: “There are two reasons to own a business. One is to make money, and one is to be in business. I always chose the latter. My decisions have been predicated on staying in business.”

Don says: “We had hundreds of people working for us and depending on us for their living. I always wanted to be fair to those people and their families. I didn’t want to desert them.”

“Around here, ASAP means ‘After Sears and After Penney’s,’” Bruce says. “As the business changed, Don recognized in the early 1980s that we were going to have to get into the branding business. We have been able to establish an extremely loyal customer base. It’s probably unique in the shoe business. The first things to really go south on people as they age are their feet. We recognize that and thus work to provide superior support, comfort and fit. That’s what we’re known for.”

Rather than making shoes that were later sold under store brands, the company began establishing in-house brands.

The women’s brand now known as Munro American was started in 1984.

Two years later, the Child Life brand was acquired. In 1991, Jumping Jack Shoes was purchased.

The major niche is now women with thin, wide, small or long feet.

The company’s workforce did, however, shrink from more than 2,200 people in the early 1980s to fewer than 1,000 today. In the 1970s, there were more than 1,000 U.S. shoe factories. There now are fewer than 50.

Munro & Co. always had the advantage of not having to answer to shareholders. Don Munro and his family could do it their way. They take pride in being responsive to retailers. If a retailer calls early in the morning to place an order, the order is shipped that day.

“We use what we learned from Don to focus on consumers and get them on the Munro team,” says Bruce, who joined the company at age 25.

Looking at his son, Don says: “He always wanted to introduce more sizes and more widths. That’s what led to Nordstrom being our main customer.”

It’s obvious that Don Munro is proud of his children.

“Each one is unique and each one brings different skills to the table,” he says. “They have all been successful in their own way and seem to be happy. That’s the most you can ask for.”

On a sunny late-spring morning on the shores of Lake Catherine, it’s evident that this isn’t just a business story.

It’s a story about family — Don Munro’s immediate family and his extended family of hundreds of employees.

“Don has set the standard here since the start,” Bruce says. “And he continues to do that every day.”

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4 Responses to “Don Munro: Gentleman and scholar”

  1. St. Timothy says:

    Nice man, nice article

  2. Kelly Ford says:

    Congratulations, Don, on your personal and professional success. Thank you for all you have done – and continue to do- for our state. Thanks, Rex, for a wonderful and deserved profile.

  3. Alan Crancer says:

    Great Story!! I had the honor of working directly for Don right out of college and he taught me many things. He is a true gentleman and great businessman. Don always treated every employee like family and knows most of them by their first name. It is one of the many reasons that most of his employees have been with him over 20+ years.

  4. Paulette Tillman says:

    Munro shoes are the best. Still,I tersthet wonder if workers are also paid well. It is obvious that they are treated well

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