How Rancourt Built America’s Next Great Heritage Brand
Inside the family business that saved itself from offshoring, weathered a pandemic and continues to make moccasins the old-fashioned Maine way
Whereas many makers today take a shortcut by pre-punching holes into leather hides that are later sewn up to form that familiar, crimped edge, Rancourt does it the older, harder way. To create its ranger mocs or boat shoes, skilled workers wield a sharp, needle-like tool called an awl to slice holes into the hide as it’s being stitched on the last, imparting the flexibility moccasins were originally prized for.
“The benefit is that the hand-sewer becomes a true shoemaker where they have to adjust the upper on the last,” Kyle explains. “If you punch the holes in at the cutting stage, the hand-sewer doesn’t have much freedom. They just have to match the holes up. And that can lead to a shoe that doesn’t fit the last very well.”
Sticking to this more traditional and less cost-effective method of moccasin construction is not the only way in which Rancourt has bucked industry trends. While many of its competitors have offshored their production, Rancourt has stayed in Lewiston, Maine, a town of just over 36,000 that has hosted a Rancourt-owned factory in one form or another since the 1960s.
It began with Kyle’s grandfather David, who emigrated to Lewiston from Quebec in the early 1950s and found work in a moccasin factory. By 1967 he’d progressed from foreman to manager to owner and welcomed his son Michael — Kyle’s father — into the trade. The business prospered, and in 1980 David and Michael moved into a larger facility and began producing leather-soled loafers and boat shoes in addition to moccasins.
David retired in 1991 and sold his share of the business to their largest customer, Cole Haan. Michael sold his stake shortly after, and founded a new company called Maine Shoe, which employed many of the workers from the family’s previous business. Its largest account was Allen Edmonds, which bought the company outright in 1998, but retained Michael as president of the manufacturing division. It was around this time that Kyle, then a high school student, joined the family business by working at the factory each summer vacation.
In 2008, Allen Edmonds decided that it would close the Lewiston factory and reallocate its production to the brand’s other facilities in the Dominican Republic and Wisconsin. This is where the Rancourt story could have ended — like so many New England shoe manufacturers before it — had Michael and Kyle not elected to buy the factory back and launch Rancourt & Co. as its own, independent business in 2009.
While Rancourt’s “second founding” coincided with the so-called #menswear era that saw a thousand tumblr accounts and WordPress blogs bloom, its owners realized that more than a heritage story and a Made-in-U.S.A stamp would be necessary for the new business to survive and thrive. Rancourt & Co. would have a diversified model that embraced direct e-commerce, wholesale and private label manufacturing.
This multi-pronged strategy appeared to have worked, as Rancourt wholesales its product to iconic American retailers including Brooks Brothers and J. Press, and has produced private labels for brands ranging from Polo Ralph Lauren to Stubbs & Wootton. Among its more interesting partnerships is a long-running collaboration with the West Village shoe store Leffot, which orders limited runs of styles in rare and luxurious cordovan leathers.
Kyle credits Rancourt’s dominance of the American-made footwear niche to his father’s many decades of industry experience. “Most people in the industry know that if they want shoes made in the U.S., Mike Rancourt should be your first call,” he says.
It seemed like the only thing capable of knocking Rancourt off its winning streak would be an international calamity — which arrived in March 2020 with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Faced with the prospect of laying off workers, Rancourt launched a crowdfunding campaign that made its core styles available to the public for pre-order at wholesale prices. The campaign was such a success that Rancourt has incorporated it into its regular business, and now runs two “pre-sale” campaigns per year.
“The response was overwhelming,” Kyle says. “The volume of orders that we received in such a short amount of time was nothing like anything we’d experienced and so we realized it had to become part of the business model.
Most importantly, it allowed Rancourt to retain its workforce through the pandemic, and even create new jobs, bringing the present headcount at its factory up to 48 full-time employees.
“I know we would have made it through, but we would have had to lay some people off,” Kyle says, reflecting on the pandemic. “And doing the crowdfunding allowed us to retain all of our employees.”
Over the years, Rancourt has cultivated a dedicated fanbase: Kyle says that over 70% of its business comes from existing customers. But amid a time of rising manufacturing costs, the business is looking for ways to lower that barrier to entry. In addition to the savings that come from its pre-sale campaigns—which factor at 40% off a style’s usual sticker price—the company also offers a lower-priced “Dirigo” collection.
Taking its name from the Maine state motto, which translates from Latin as “I Lead,” Dirigo styles are made in limited runs from excess leathers in more simplified constructions, allowing them to be priced at about 25% less than their equivalents from the main line. About two to three batches of Dirigo styles are released each year.
As Rancourt & Co. approaches its 15th year in business, some changes in management are afoot. Kyle remains a partner in the business, but is also committing time to Pinebury, his new activewear brand that makes merino-blend tees and cycling jerseys in the United States. And though Rancourt has welcomed a new retail director and product development team, Kyle says that his father has no plans to retire. “I’d say we’re years away from that.”
More than 50 years on, the Rancourts remain on speed-dial for American-made.
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