For the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Sheboygan-based sock maker Wigwam Mills was treading water. The company had dramatically limited operations but was still shipping out the online orders it received.
In early May, Chris Chesebro, general manager for operations, said his director of human resources suggested the company needed to give some direction to its employees, including those who weren’t working at the time.
“Chris, where do you think we’re going to be in six months from an employment standpoint,” Chesebro recalled her saying.
The Chesebro family has led Wigwam Mills for more than 100 years and just two people outside the family have led the operations.
With the economy in severe decline and many of Wigwam’s retailers still shut down, Chesebro made the decision to dramatically restructure the family company. Wigwam sent a notice to state officials on May 20 to say it would permanently lay off 121 of its 142 total employees in Sheboygan.
Chesebro said it was a decision made to protect the health of the organization going forward.
“I’d rather be cautious and conservative and become a smaller, nimbler organization and re-grow rather than the expectation that the world is going to go back to normal, because the world has changed forever and we need to react to that and provide guidance to our employees who are going to be with us and guidance for the ones who aren’t and give them a path.”
Many of Wigwam’s retail customers were closed for two months or more. That, combined with a lack of clarity on how consumer behavior will return, pushed the company to make the decision.
“People are trying to figure out what assortments look like and what their product mix looks like moving forward,” Chesebro said. “It’s no different than any other product, if the store is not open, they aren’t accepting new orders to be shipped in and they probably aren’t selling anything out their doors, so they’re working down their inventories, much like the rest of the world.”
Chesebro said one thing he does have confidence in is consumers being attracted to products they trust. Wigwam does have a potential advantage on that front, having built a brand over more than 100 years with a reputation for quality and being made in America.
The company does plan to continue some production in Sheboygan, but Chesebro said Wigwam will also look to other production sources.
“For us, made in the USA is something that is very important to us and there are organizations we can work with and produce the same great quality product with elsewhere, still maintaining some production here in Sheboygan,” Chesebro said.
Get more news and insight in the May 25 issue of BizTimes Milwaukee. Subscribe to get updates in your inbox here.