by Dylan Martin
MaineBiz news story
Ask Jim Wellehan what it means to be a business leader, and for his initial response, you likely won’t hear him mention Lamey-Wellehan, his 100-year-old, Auburn-based family retail shoe business. Instead, he’ll bring up a word that means a great deal to him: community.
“I love my community. I love being proud of my community,” Wellehan says, noting the company’s various community initiatives, like collecting shoes for the homeless. “It means to be there to be helpful, to try to be part of [the community], make it better.”
After all, he says, “If the community’s better, won’t the businesses benefit?”
For the 76-year-old company president, community involvement is one of the key ways Lamey-Wellehan has distinguished itself as a retail shoe business. Lamey-Wellehan has grown every year since the recession, in the face of online and big-box competitors, reaching nearly $12 million in sales last year and succeeding where similar businesses have failed.
Lamey-Wellehan most recently opened a store in Topsham, replacing a smaller store in Brunswick, Wellehan says, and the company is now assessing a few sites for possible expansion.
Down the road, Wellehan is looking at an even bigger step in his career: retiring and selling the company, which he owns with his wife, Kathy, to the employees. Though Lamey-Wellehan wouldn’t be what it is today without him, he says he’s confident his team is ready for the task.
“Growth is a difficult thing because you want to grow, but you don’t want to sprout an arm out of your back,” Wellehan says. “So being able to grow and keep the same culture and values [while being] consistent with your advertising, merchandising and promotion is very key.”
Lamey-Wellehan’s success has resulted in a number of awards over the years, including a Family Business Award in 2014 from the Institute for Family-Owned Business, which praised the company for “treating employees like family” and having a “customer-first mentality.” The institute also highlighted the company’s dedication to the environment, a distinction that was also recognized when the Natural Resources Council of Maine gave Jim and Kathy Wellehan the lifetime achievement award.
“Jim has just been a great voice for the environment in the business community for years now,” says Natural Resources Council of Maine Executive Director Lisa Pohlmann. “They have done amazing things in their business,” including an effort led by Kathy in 1994 to reduce 95% of the company’s solid waste.
In July 2014, Wellehan was the focus of a short video that called for an increase in the minimum wage. The film was produced by the nonprofit Organizing for Action, which was organized to lend momentum to President Obama’s 2012 campaign ideas.
It may seem like a risk for a business owner to wear his politics on his sleeve so openly like Wellehan, who refers to himself as a “left wing, socialistic, environmentalist, peacenik radical,” a variation of a title Wellehan has given to himself in a few interviews with the media. He admits he may have lost some business as a result of his politics over time. But for others, his strong conviction has been seen as a strength. It certainly hasn’t gotten in the way of what has been a successful business.
Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce President Chip Morrison agrees.
“I don’t think it gets in the way,” he says, referring to Wellehan’s open political beliefs. “Look at how they’ve grown. I know some people would say, ‘That’s just Jim,’ but they buy shoes from him.”
A focus on customers, associates
Customer service is another area in which Lamey-Wellehan stands out among the competition.
“We always worked very hard to provide great customer service,” Wellehan says. “My dad [the late Dan Wellehan Sr.], when he started the business, he said: ‘Lamey-Wellehan, where you’re always a guest before you’re a customer,’ and we’ve tried to maintain that tradition.”
To continue supporting that sentiment, Wellehan says the company has put an increased emphasis on having employees greet customers when they enter the store. Once customers are comfortable, employees are then encouraged to help measure their feet and find the best-fitting pair of shoes.
“You know what’s interesting? Some people leave here and they say to someone, ‘Oh, thank you, my feet haven’t felt this good in years,’ and you’re the person who did that. You feel good,” Wellehan says. “That’s one more reason people stay here: If you can make people happy, you like it.”
Helping employees feel good and find meaning at work is another key area that Wellehan says allows the company to provide quality customer service. Part of that means not calling them employees and instead referring to them as “associates,” which Wellehan says is a more equitable word.
“Treat them the way you’d like to be treated,” Wellehan says, which is accomplished in a few ways.
For one, all associates are paid above the minimum wage, with the lowest earners making $11.90 to $19 an hour, commission included, and managers earning between the low- and mid-40s annually. Wellehan says he hasn’t taken a raise in 23 years because he wants the company to have a more equitable ratio of the highest-to-lowest-paid worker, which he says is now 3.5-to-1.
On top of commission, Wellehan says associates have other incentives, like bonuses for making the monthly top sales list, various contests held throughout the year and pay raises for completing training programs. That last one has been a particular focus, with the company starting a new, self-designed, intensive program that trains associates to become retail pedorthic specialists.
Lamey-Wellehan also uses IT systems to track what kind of products each associate sells, Wellehan says. That way, each store manager gets a good idea of each associate’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing the managers to provide more specific feedback.
If 12% of store sales are running shoes and there’s an associate whose sales of running shoes make up just 3% of his or her total sales, Wellehan says managers can address that weakness. “That’s how you find these things out,” he says.
An advocate for the environment
Wellehan has demonstrated his commitment to the environment in many ways that have directly impacted business at Lamey-Wellehan. Some of the initiatives have had an obvious payback. One previously touted achievement has been the company’s ability to reduce energy costs over the years, going from $91,000 in energy costs in 2003 to $79,000 in 2013. This year, Wellehan says the company will focus on installing energy efficient LED light fixtures at the Auburn and Scarborough stores.
“We’re committed to a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2020,” Wellehan says, referring to a pledge the retailer made over a decade ago.
Most recently, Lamey-Wellehan eliminated the use of plastic bags, instituting a “no bags policy.” It’s an initiative Wellehan finds so important, he has a three-page editorial handout available at the front of all stores explaining his decision and the next steps the community should take to fight pollution.
With the savings from not buying plastic bags, Lamey-Wellehan applied that money to its high school scholarship program.
“I learned a lot from being on the [Finance Authority of Maine] board, and one was the tremendous need Maine kids had then for scholarships,” he says. “And it’s gotten so much more severe.”
By paying associates above minimum wage and being proactive with various environmental measures, it could be argued that Lamey-Wellehan is showing how government regulation is unnecessary and that the private sector can take care of itself. But Wellehan says he rejects that argument.
“I think we need regulation if we’re going to have a world that works for everybody.”