By Kitty Chism | Photography by David Yerby
Let’s face it: Top quality, American-made, all-leather anything is hard to find these days — especially well-crafted, understated shoes that not only fit the full range of human-foot oddities but can also endure the abuses of long hours standing on angry surfaces or hiking on backcountry trails.
Most shoes and boots today are not made to brave such affronts and still feel agreeable at the end of the day. Indeed, some 90 percent of those sold in department stores and mall boutiques are mass-produced overseas where labor costs are lower, raw materials are cheaper and fine craftsmanship is secondary.
There are exceptions, of course.
One tenaciously high-end shoe brand with a price point to match has been produced right here in Arkansas for some 60 years, thanks to a brave New Englander named Don Munro, who came here in 1959 to help a thriving shoe company in New England open a Southern branch.
And never left.
He had already completed his military service — writing for the Stars & Stripes newspaper for much of it — and he was married with children by the time he quite accidentally fell in love with this state while he was helping the company choose a site.
Then he opted to settle here and invest his full being in the factory he’d started. That often meant teaching workers on the line how to do their particular task, but that, in turn, meant getting to know those people well. And that made him love the job even more.
Munro saw Hot Springs as a good place for him and his wife, Barbara, to raise their family, live in a house on Lake Hamilton, build a business big enough to eventually bequeath it to their five kids, and maybe, if he could navigate the industry’s inevitable ups and downs, give back to this state and some of the institutions that make life even better here.
All of which, in time, he did.
The real acceleration of growth for Munro’s business began in 1972, almost 13 years after he got to Arkansas when he bought the New Hampshire-based Connors & Hoffman Footwear, the company that had sent him here. Its aging owners were ready to bow out, he says. But he was only in his early 40s, so he looked for financial help from, among others, his dad, who had a successful Boston shipyard, and his dad’s holding company partner, Charles W. Englehard, Jr.
Very quickly the company blossomed from four plants to eight, producing thousands of women’s, men’s and children’s shoes a day and laying the foundation for the signature entrepreneurial success story of Munro & Co., Inc.
He did all of this even though inflation would make what had cost $20 when he started cost nearly $90 five decades later. And he did it by taking care of his employees, making sure he knew their names and what they did for him, helping them expand their education, their career horizons and even their fitness goals with on-site gyms and tennis courts at his factories and even a small golf course at one.
The idea was to help them stay healthy. For many years, he even published a company newspaper to shore up morale and team spirit by telling great Munro & Co. stories.
“And all of that was very forward thinking for the 1970s,” notes Millie Ward, co-founder of Stone Ward advertising agency in Little Rock, whose father worked for Munro for nearly 30 years, rising through the ranks to production superintendent of the plant in Wynne. Once, Munro even hired her agency to develop some company marketing campaigns.
“Don is very humble, never wants any credit by name, but he is such a generous man and cared so much for all his people, which made a big impression on me even as a little six-year-old girl,” she adds.
He was also willing to try new ideas, his sons and daughters say, especially that big idea his oldest son, Bruce, came up with when, yes, the bottom started falling out of the American shoe industry in the mid-1980s because much cheaper shoes could be made in places like Brazil, Portugal, Taiwan and China. And the market just got tougher and tougher.
Don was just not willing to go overseas.
That meant that the company had to get out of the modest price arena, unable anymore to accommodate customers for whom price was a major deciding factor, explains Bruce Munro, who has now succeeded his dad as the company CEO, managing day-to-day operations as well as the board of directors made up of him and his four siblings — including the oldest, Rosalind, 64, a career geologist in California and middle son, Neil, 61, who owns a designer men’s shoe firm in Wynne.
“We had to get into the ‘brand’ business,” Bruce says. The company’s longtime commitment to comfort, in fact, actually inspired a definition of what that brand might be: A fashionable but sensible shoe in many more sizes and widths than standard to accommodate women, especially in fields like teaching, who are on their feet all day and whose foot size and shape fall outside the norm.
“People wanted more options,” he says. “They wanted quality and comfort.”
His idea was to define the brand as top quality available in five widths from super narrow to extra wide, which would add up to 75 size-and-width combinations and a promise of a “perfect fit” even for the hard-to-fit. And, it turns out, the hard-to-fit would try a Munro pump or boot or sandal or upscale sneaker and happily pay $150 to $300 a pair.
Thus, the brand was born.
At age 91, Don Munro is still at the Clarksville plant at least once a week inspecting the line for quality and visiting with the workers. Daughter Molly Munro Swiecichowski, 59, now the CFO with a background in marketing, finance and human resources in charge of both profitability and delivery time, says she sees how her father’s visits “build and inspire more loyalty.” Many on the factory floor have been with him for 20-plus years.
Today, however, this Yale graduate turned progressive entrepreneur may be better known for his quiet, philanthropic public-spiritedness than for the sturdy shoes that flaunt his name on their insole.
His philanthropy started in the early 1980s when doctors told his sister that she had multiple sclerosis. Don adored her, and his response was to plow some profits from his business into a foundation that could support her. It was a misdiagnosis, Don says, but the Munro Foundation was by then an entity that could be used to support good initiatives, from the arts to medical facilities to colleges and community nonprofits and churches and children’s advocacy groups.
Which is exactly what he did.
It was when Munro crossed paths with Dorothy Morris in the late 1980s that his charitable giving shifted into a second gear.
Morris, a native of Hot Springs County, had spent the years since her high school graduation living in Dallasw. She moved to Hot Springs in 1985, remarried and charted her own philanthropic course.
“I met my husband, Walter, in the late 1980s, and he had a foundation,” says Morris. “I started working with him in growing in philanthropy. I had always been involved in raising money for scholarships and things of that nature when I lived in Dallas. I was very involved there, and went to work with him when I moved to back to Arkansas.”
As her involvement in the local giving community increased, Morris began to attend the meetings of a group of about 30 area residents who called themselves the “Philanthropists Roundtable.” The group of givers set about to select projects all over the state to support with grants. And that’s where she met Munro, igniting a partnership of giving that has been reignited over and over again over the years, helping one effort or another across the state.
They’re still at it. In 2007, they started “The Giving Circle,” which, like the Roundtable, also listens to proposals for good works, and, has channeled funds through the Arkansas Community Foundation.
“I’m very proud of the Hot Springs Giving Circle,” Morris says. “Our group of 12 people started by pooling our money – $6,000 the first year and $5,000 each year afterwards. We would meet regularly and decide where it would go. We would go out into the community and visit the sites. People would contact us with proposals.”
The group has given donations of more than $700,000 for many “think-outside-the-box” projects, Morris calls them, all across Arkansas. “They’re the most wonderful people,” she adds.
“We gave computers to the National Park Community College’s nursing program,” Morris says. “We have helped the Project Hope food bank. We’ve helped the Ouachita Children’s Center. We’ve done a lot of things, and we’re proud of all of them.”
Both live in Hot Springs, and Morris traces a great deal of their cooperation to their mutual realization of the untapped potential for the city to be a center for all the arts, establishing the Hot Springs Cultural Alliance, which throws energy behind the Hot Springs Arts Festival and Documentary Film Festival, among others.
“It was all Don’s idea,” Morris says. “We helped get a liaison between the Hot Springs convention center and all the wonderful artists in Hot Springs. That was Don’s idea, and I just helped him get it going. And it’s thriving.”
Morris thinks highly of her philanthropic friend, quick to compliment his ability to make a project come together.
“Don is modest, but he is wonderful. He is a visionary,” she says. “He takes in a lot of information and quickly sees the big picture.”