Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm
Leather goods made by New Berlin-based Paul Conway Shields are used by firefighters across the country. Paul Conway, president and founder of the company, ought to know what firefighters need. In addition to his duties with the company, he also is a captain with the Milwaukee Fire Department. For 20 years, Conway’s company’s bread and butter has been in manufacturing leather shields, a triple-layered leather identification tag that firefighters wear on the front of their helmets.
The company also makes leather cores, which are impregnated with polyurethane and later turned into fire helmets.
The 4,500-square-foot facility that houses Paul Conway Shields’ operations has its sales and administrative offices in the front, while manufacturing is done in the back. A crew of about 12 handle manufacturing operations, bringing in dyed leather hides, marking any blemishes and laying the hides on a water jet cutter, which was purchased about two years ago.
The helmet shields are then hand-sewn together, with letters and numbers cut at the same time. Because each shield has different letters and numbers, each is done as a custom job.
"Each shield has three pieces of chromium-treated leather. That’s a high-temperature leather," Conway said. "We do one at a time. Last year, we made 55,000 shields."
The chromium treatment for the leather gives it high heat tolerance, preventing it from catching fire when exposed to high heat inside burning buildings.
Paul Conway Shields also has its own in-house design department. The department is capable of designing custom goldleaf shields for fire chiefs and other high-ranking officers. Special printers produce gold-plated emblems, which are then sewn onto a traditional leather shield.
The company’s revenues increased 13 percent in 2005, and it has posted a 20 percent increase in January and February this year, so far. That increase will likely continue through the rest of the year, Conway said. Revenues are increasing because of the company’s continued success at selling firefighting gear and because of its increased capabilities to take on other work, he said.
The water jet cutting machine, purchased for about $500,000, has given Paul Conway Shields the ability to make custom leather, plastic and foam pieces.
"That was a big risk for me, but it’s paid for itself," Conway said. "We made a name for ourselves on a quality custom product, but this brought us to the next level."
One full-time employee used to spend almost all of his time cutting leather pieces out of full hides. Now the cutting machine is able to do the equivalent of a week’s worth of work in just a few hours. The employee who used to cut pieces now works in the design department.
Because of the machine’s efficiency, Paul Conway Shields is able to make custom logos and other pieces from leather, foam and plastic for other companies, bringing in more outside revenue. It also has made other components, such as leather letters, numbers and emblems and custom-made plastic washers used in the manufacturing process.
The machine has saved money because it eliminates waste. Each leather hide is scanned and plotted out on a computer, which in turn maps the hide and selects where to make specific cuts. After the pieces are cut, an operator only has to lift the edge of the hide or other material, lifting away the leftover material.
"There’s very little waste," Conway said.
Conway started the company with his friend and fellow firefighter, Craig Steffen. In 1984, they were ordering their front shields from a fire equipment company and were told it would take 16 weeks for the shields to be shipped.
"He said, ‘We should make those,’" Conway recalled. "He had a roommate whose dad was in the leather business. So we made shields for ourselves. Then our co-workers wanted them. Then we thought we should take the show on the road."
The pair, working by themselves in off hours with some help from family and friends, sold about 4,000 shields in their first year. In 1988, Conway bought out Steffen’s share in the company, and by 1990, Paul Conway Shields was able to hire its first full-time employee.
In 1990, the company invested in its first color catalog.
"It took us from a company that was doing one-page sale sheets trying to sell a few shields here and there to a company that was now able to compete with the only other shield maker in the country at the time," Conway said. "It made us somebody. Sales started pouring in."
Although manufacturing and selling shields for firefighter helmets is Paul Conway Shields’ core business, it has diversified its fire-related gear over the years.
"I was sick and tired of watching the fire service be hustled by other guys that were charging too much," he said. "The gouging didn’t work for me. I knew how to work the system because I knew it from both sides."
In 1998, Paul Conway Shields bought a company based in Dayton, Ohio, that made fire helmets. The helmet-making operations were moved to the Milwaukee area. Conway sold that division to Lion Apparel, a Dayton-based clothier that makes specialty clothing for firefighting and emergency personnel, in 2001. Paul Conway Shields now makes leather cores for Lion and acts as a local seller of Lion goods.
After years of steady growth, Paul Conway Shields will soon need to move to larger space.
"We’re doing well – we’re in a growth stage," Conway said. "We’re busting at the seams. We’re in about 4,500 square feet now, and I need about 10,000 square feet. We will be moving when the right place comes along."
Conway will be able to retire from the Milwaukee Fire Department in six years. Firefighters typically work 24-hour shifts, generally with at least one or two days off. That arrangement allows him to have a regular presence in the office.
"This company has grown and done well because of the people employed by me," he said. "Those guys run the company day in and day out – they are the guts. I will have an interest in the fire service as long as I own this company. I believe we’re so successful because of our loyalty to the brother and sisterhood of fire service."
Paul Conway Shields
14100 W. Cleveland Ave., New Berlin
Leather identifying shields for firefighter helmets, leather cores to manufacture helmets, contract leather, foam and plastic cutting.
13 percent increase in 2005; 20 percent increase in January and February 2006.