The History of Kinney Shoes
In 1894, an ambitious young man named George Romanta Kinney revolutionized footwear retailing by offering popularly priced shoes to working Americans. One hundred years later, the Kinney Shoe Corporation was the nation's largest and most powerful footwear retailer.
George Kinney's father ran a general store in Candor, a country town in upstate New York. Having provided merchandise on credit to local farmers and townspeople once too often, Jeremiah Kinney fell into debt. Upon his untimely death, his son, George, then nine years old, vowed that he would pay off his father's bankruptcy debts as soon as he finished school. (p 10)
At the age of 17 in 1883, George left his widowed mother and his sister behind in Candor and went to work in Binghamton, New York, for Stone, Goff and Company, a large manufacturer and wholesaler of boots and shoes. Business was "dull," he wrote his family in 1885, and in that year he moved to the Lestershire Boot and Shoe Manufacturing Company, then the largest footwear manufacturer in upstate New York. During his ten years as a clerk at the "Lester Shoe Company," as it was commonly know, Kinney acquired a thorough knowledge of the shoe business, helped support his family back in Candor, and paid off his father's debts.
G.R. Kinney Co., Inc.
Lester's troubles provided George Kinney, then 28 and a widower with a young son, with a unique opportunity. In 1894, he invested the money he had saved and bought enough merchandise to take over the Lester retail outlet in Waverly, New York. (p 11)
This ambitious young man, George Romanta Kinney revolutionized footwear retailing by offering popularly priced shoes to working Americans. His developmental concept of superb service to customers, a commitment to local communities, the best footwear for the price, ample opportunities and rewards for all employees, and a fierce dedication to entrepreneurship remained a steady corporate-wide goal through the years.
From the humble beginnings of high-volume, low-priced shoe retailing in the 1890s, George Romanta Kinney expanded his business so that it became the largest footwear chain in America. In the 1920s, the Kinney Company launched its own manufacturing operations. In the 1950s, freestanding stores along highways and "strip" stores in small shopping centers close to new suburban housing developments.
Growth In The 1950s
Kinney's success in the 1950s was based equally on its historical strengths and it leadership's ability to identify and capitalize on new trends and market niches. By the late 1950s, Kinney became a national chain. (p 58)
In 1956, Kinney's growth strategy lacked the financial resources to continue expansion. Kinney, then the eighth largest retailer, sought to end its capital shortage by agreeing to merge with Brown Shoe of St Louis, then the nation's third largest retailer. This merger ended up in the Supreme Court in a doomed battle against the Justice Department's allegations of monopoly. In 1962, in midst of changes in the retail marketplace, the Supreme Court issued a decision upholding the lower federal court's ruling that the Brown-Kinney merger had produced a monopoly in the shoe industry. For many years, the Brown Shoe decision stood as an important anti-merger precedent. (p 66)
Kinney Shoe Corporation
In 1963, the F.W. Woolworth Co., the world's largest variety chain, acquired Kinney from Brown in a friendly acquisition. At that time, Woolworth operated more than 3,600 units in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Spain, West German, and Britain. The purchase of Kinney $39 million in cash, plus other considerations, marked Woolworth's first significant acquisition since its incorporation in 1912. The agreement provided that the G.R. Kinney Co., Inc. be renamed the Kinney Shoe Corporation and operated as a wholly owned subsidiary of Woolworth. Reflecting the intended autonomy of its operations, Kinney retained its own eleven-member board of directors and its existing panel of corporate officers. (p 74)
Through the 1960s and 70s, Kinney Shoe Corporation continued growth as it expanded its operations with the following divisions:
- Stylco in 1967
- Susie Casuals in 1968
- Foot Locker in 1974
The Centennial - 1994
In 1994, Kinney Shoe Corporation celebrated its 100th year in operation. Kinney scarcely resembled the one its founder first built. It was operating as a diversified company within Woolworth, a global retailing conglomerate. Contributing $3.5 billion in sales and 60 percent of the profits of the entire Woolworth organization, Kinney was the largest of its parent company's divisions. It operated more than 4,500 stores with its Foot Locker business moving aggressively into Europe, Mexico and Australia. (p 105)
Black September - 1998
On September 16, 1998, Venator Group (Woolworth renamed) announced: "Kinney and Footquarters To Close Its Operations: The Company announced today that it is exiting its Specialty Footwear operations including 467 Kinney Shoe stores and 103 Footquarters stores." Kinney Shoe Corporation would no longer serve as the Great American Shoe Store.
What was it about Kinney that made it so special? Harold C. Rowen, President and chief executive officer of the Kinney Shoe Corporation, 1994 stated in the book, Retail Revolutionary: Kinney Shoe Corporation's First Century in Footwear, "The history of our company... is truly one of "ordinary people doing extraordinary things." What made Kinney Shoes so special was the people... and Kinney lives on in the hearts of those individuals.
One former Kinney Shoes manager wrote, "I spent 26 years with Kinney Shoe and a little bit of me died when my store closed." Another former Kinney employee wrote, "I know that Kinney was a place of business, but I found healing, hope and friendship in Kinney. There has never been a place to compare. I loved Kinney, the work I did and the people that I met there."
Foot Locker, Inc.
Kinney also lives on in Foot Locker, Inc. G.R. Kinney's concepts of superb service to customers, a commitment to local communities, the best footwear for the price, ample opportunities and rewards for all employees, and a fierce dedication to entrepreneurship remain the heartbeat of the world's finest athletic shoe retailer.
Excerpts have been taken from the book, Retail Revolutionary: Kinney Shoe Corporation's First Century in Footwear by Kathleen McDermott. © 1994 Kinney Shoe Corporation (Out of print)
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