Wigwam Mills Inc.
3402 Crocker Ave., Sheboygan
Industry: Sock manufacturing
To say today’s retail environment is evolving might be an understatement. Longtime brick-and-mortar stores are going out of business, new online retailers are entering the scene and consumer tastes are changing constantly.
Manufacturers supplying those retailers are feeling the effects of those changes right alongside their retail customers, producing in smaller quantities with more flexibility and responsiveness.
“It’s having the foresight and being enough of a risk-taker to try to predict where it’s going, versus where it’s been,” said Tom Wheeler, president and chief executive officer of Sheboygan-based sock maker Wigwam Mills Inc.
As a 112-year-old company, Wigwam has had its share of hits and misses, but Wheeler said the ability to adjust and adapt has kept the company around.
“It is an incredible story of tenacity and commitment and incredible stewardship by the Chesebro family,” said Wheeler, who is just the second person outside the founding family to lead the company.
He’s found customers have fond memories of the Wigwam brand and “a warm, kind of romantic relationship with this company.”
Even without the company history, a manufacturer making socks in Sheboygan and not overseas makes for an intriguing story – although Chris Chesebro, Wigwam director of operations, pointed out the process for knitting socks lends itself to more automated, domestic production than other garments would.
Wigwam has 330 knitting machines in its 200,000-square-foot facility just off I-43. The company has established its own four-year, state-certified apprenticeship program to develop the mechanics needed to keep the machines running.
Each machine can produce a sock every two to four minutes, depending on complexity. Some of the company’s newer machines handle upward of 20 different yarns for a single sock, allowing for unique designs and different technical properties.
But having the capability isn’t enough. Wigwam has to figure out the right designs and styles to produce, generally working a season or more ahead.
“We need to be customer-centric and we need to be marketing driven,” Wheeler said.
Wigwam now finds itself pushing into new environments, facing a major test in college bookstores this fall and marketing through new social media channels rather than in print to attract a new generation. At other times, Wigwam can rely on its American-made heritage to help sell the product.
“We have a lot of hunters and fisherman and sportsmen that really respect the fact that we still make our products in the U.S.,” Wheeler said. “It’s a big driving point for them.”