For many Freeport residents, George Denney is a man who needs no introduction. Considered one of the founding fathers of modern-day Freeport, Denney was responsible for the success of Cole Haan, a shoe manufacturer he took from relative obscurity in 1975 to international success in the 1990s. After selling Cole Haan for $95 million to Nike in 1988, Denney remained as chief executive officer of the company until 2002. Denney keeps busy with real estate and still maintains a seven-day-a-week schedule.
In 2001, Denney started the Freeport Community Improvement Association, a volunteer organization of residents, merchants, business and property owners who combine their efforts to beautify the village for all who live and visit the town by maintenance of green spaces and pathways, adding new visual aesthetics and amenities, and preserving the natural character of Freeport as a historic coastal village. The 75-year-old Denney recently sat down with the Tri-Town Weekly to discuss the group’s ongoing efforts, his career in shoes, and what Freeport was like when he opened his first retail store in 1982.
Q: How did the Freeport Community Improvement Association come about?
A: In 2001, I formed a board essentially to clean up the exit signs to Freeport. Everything was in pretty bad shape, especially Memorial Park. It was just people that I knew that I asked to help out. We currently have 10 people who are part of the group.
Q: What projects have you been responsible for in the town?
A: We put a fence in front of the Freeport Historical Society. It made a big difference in the feel and look of the historical society building and I think added something to Freeport’s atmosphere. We also built West Street Park and put in granite benches in front of the Freeport Community Center, along with other benches throughout town. We also put a sign at the entrance of Winslow Park. We have an agenda and are constantly looking for new projects.
Q: Where does the funding come from?
A: We send letters to people we know and also businesses to generate donations, including a sizable one from L.L. Bean. It’s been effective. In the last 12 years we’ve really cleaned things up.
Q: Is the town of Freeport involved in any way?
A: Yes, the town does mow the lawns of the park and they pay for some of the landscaping and gardening work.
Q: How long have you lived in Freeport?
A: I’ve lived here nearly 70 years. I moved here when I was 6 from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Q: How did you get involved with shoes?
A: I started my career in the footwear business as a hand cutter at the (Freeport-based) Taylor Shoe Corp., and worked my way up to the president of the company. It was sold to a conglomerate in 1972. The country was in a recession and the company couldn’t even pay the payroll, I had to personally with $25,000 of my own money pay the workers.
Q: How did you come to own the Cole Haan brand?
A: Taylor couldn’t afford to stay in business but they asked me to stay on. I said sure, but if you re-open, I’d like to have my back pay. But if you don’t re-open, I’d like to have the Cole Haan label. I eventually got the Cole Haan label and hooked up with a leather hide maker in New York. They did have a shoe factory down there but to be honest, the shoes were garbage. So I started making shoes right here in Maine. I developed three different factories and employed over 700 people. Unfortunately, I had to shut them down because I couldn’t compete and I had to go offshore. I had someone from our company go to Mexico and train people on how to make our shoes. There is no duty in Mexico and you can truck everything, as opposed to overseas where you have to send goods by boat or plane, an expensive reality. The product we made there was as good if not better than the product we made here in Freeport.
Q: You stayed with Cole Haan until 2002. Why did you decide to leave?
A: They had brought in a new president who I feel didn’t understand quality, which I had stressed and maintained while overseeing Cole Haan. They were screwing things up. Nike was all about volume and margin and I was all about quality and customer service. They eventually changed factories and started making products in China. The quality isn’t the same.
Q: What is the difference between a shoe made in Mexico and a shoe made in China?
A: One of the big differences is the leather. To make genuine hand-sewn shoes, you need 51⁄2-ounce leather, which is not abundant in Mexico or Brazil because they are warmer climates, the hide doesn’t have to be thick. I would export U.S. hides to Mexico to make sure the quality was there, something that did not happen in China.
Q: Maine has such a rich tradition of shoemaking. Can the industry come back?
A: No. Domestically we are limited to the number of tanners and suppliers for soles and heels. Plus we don’t have the skills. All the people who used to manufacture shoes had to go get other jobs. It really hurt me badly to close down the factories but if I didn’t, I’d go out of business.
Q: What was Freeport like when you opened your first retail store in 1982?
A: Freeport was basically dead. The barbershops had folded up, our groceries stores were folding, and even the hardware store left. I opened the store and that day we did $6,000 in business, roughly $18,000 in today’s dollars. I stood right on Main Street and looked at the cars coming into L.L. Bean and I said, there’s my customer. The town has been good to me and I’ve been good to it.
George Denney, in his Freeport home on a recent morning, is the retired CEO of Cole Haan shoes and the founder of the Freeport Community Improvement Association, a volunteer organization of residents, merchants, business and property owners who share a “common appreciation for the beauty and unique charm of the town of Freeport.”