Sorel bankruptcy sends shivers through Alaska

Posted: Monday, August 07, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- If you're thinking about buying a new pair of Sorels you'd better step on it.

Kaufman Footwear Co. of Kitchner, Ontario, which makes the ubiquitous rubber pac boots, has gone bankrupt. A court-appointed receiver who took control of the company last month is racing to find a buyer.

The company's winter boots have been popular in Alaska for generations.

Now the only Sorels available are whatever stock retailers have left on their shelves. Kaufman recently went into receivership.

''We're crushed to hear that they're not manufacturing,'' said Big Lake kennel operator and musher Lynda Plettner. ''The guys that work for me don't know what they'd do without their Sorels.''

Kaufman, which also made the Black Diamond line of work boots for firefighters and miners, was apparently done in by gentle winters.

''For the past four seasons, winters across North America have been really mild,'' said Shawn Sweeney, president of C.B. Finnegan & Co., Kaufman's factory representative for Alaska.

That didn't affect business so much in Alaska, Sweeney said. Some 35,000 to 40,000 pairs of Sorels were shipped yearly to independent retailers like Anchorage's downtown Army Navy Store and Big Ray's of Fairbanks, and sales had been rising each year, he said.

But elsewhere, sales suffered because of weak winters. Inventory piled up even as the family-owned manufacturer continued to produce, he said.

''Eventually they just didn't have any money left to build boots,'' he said.

Kaufman was founded in 1908. It had two plants in Kitchner, both idle since February. According to Canadian press reports, the company owes $10 million to unsecured creditors and $19 million to a bank.

Minnesota-based Red Wing Shoe Co. recently tried to buy Kaufman Footwear but backed out after delays caused concerns about whether it could crank up Kaufman's plants in time to make boots for the critical winter sales season, Sweeney said.

The receiver wants to quickly find a buyer, and Sweeney predicted someone would surely grab the trusted Sorel name if not Kaufman's factories.

''When people think of cold-weather boots, they think of Sorels,'' he said.

Kaufman's line had about 130 styles for men, women and children, with names Northerners loved -- Caribou and Glacier, Bear and Snowlion. For hard-core cold, they weren't as highly regarded as the military surplus ''bunny boot,'' but for warm, dry feet, Sorels did the trick for many people.

''What's better?'' said Tony Thoms of Alaska Snow Plowing in Anchorage.

For many winters, Thoms has slipped on his Sorels -- laced only halfway so he can jump in and out of them quickly -- and headed out to shovel snow.

''I probably go through a pair every three years,'' he said.

Plettner, a veteran Iditarod racer, said one of the first things she did when she arrived in Alaska from California 20 years ago was buy a pair of Sorels with fuzzy liners spilling out the tops.

She wore them. And wore them. And wore them.

''It's like your baby shoes. I just could not part with them. They broke me into Alaska,'' Plettner said.

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