The Inventor of the Modern Boot Explains How to Succeed in Rural America

For anyone who has enjoyed the comfort of wiggling their toes while wearing a pair of hiking boots, you have Mike Brooks to thank.

In the world of boots, Brooks is something of a legend. He looks perfectly unassuming — just a guy in a casual plaid shirt, jeans and walking boots. On the walls of his office hang a hunting rifle and the mounted heads of two impressive-looking stags. And, of course, there are pictures of grandchildren.

Modest surroundings for a man who began his business with $500 and expanded to a worldwide operation with about $290 million in revenue last year.

“I actually had a suit at one point,” Brooks told Opportunity Lives. “I think I wore it once to some kind of dinner event, and then never wore it again. I just gave it to someone after a few years, once it was clear I wasn’t getting any use out of it.”

During the more than three decades he worked as chairman and CEO of Rocky Shoes and Boots (now known simply as Rocky Brands), Brooks retained his working-class style and managed to withstand the seismic shifts in the American shoe industry. Brooks kept his hometown company thriving by embracing innovation when nearly all of his competitors went belly up under pressure from overseas production.

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Rocky Brands, based in Nelsonville, Ohio, grew out of nothing into a business that took in nearly $290 million in revenue last year. | Photo: Evan Smith

He basically came up with the design of nearly every boot now sold across the world. That slightly square-shaped front of the boot that gives your toes room to breathe? Brooks invented that. The use of waterproof materials to keep your feet dry while wading through a creek? Brooks again.

Like all great innovations, the changes Brooks introduced to the shoe industry are so commonplace now that it can seem as if they were always there.

But for Brooks, these innovations were simply a matter of survival.

Based in Nelsonville, a struggling town in rural southeastern Ohio, Rocky Boots began as a small, family business called The William Brooks Shoe Company. Founded at the height of the Great Depression by Brooks’ grandfather and great-uncle, it was never a lucrative business, just a way of putting food on the table.

As the decades passed, sales were slow and steady. The company made combat boots for U.S troops during World War II, but even then it was clear that the future of the American shoe industry was bleak.

“At the end of the 1950s, when my great-uncle sold the business, he told the family he was doing them a favor,” Brooks said. “Some of us tried to come up with the cash to buy it ourselves, but my great-uncle said the shoe industry in America had no future. He said imports were taking over, and that we’d all be dragged down if we tried to keep it running.”

This was the environment in which a young Mike Brooks began his career. With a future in the family business seemingly out of reach, he began traveling the country, selling leather door-to-door. Meanwhile, his great-uncle’s stark prediction appeared to come true. All across the country, Brooks watched as the American shoe manufacturing business shut down.

Then, in 1975, he got a call from his father.

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Mike Brooks pauses to look at a picture of himself and his late father. Both men grew up in the world of shoe-production. | Photo: Evan Smith

“Out of the blue, my dad just called me up and said he had bought the family business back,” Brooks said. “So I quit my job on the spot and moved my family back to Nelsonville.”

In realty, however, his father had put a $500 down payment on the company.

Now all they needed was another $640,000 to close the deal.

“Lucky for us, this happened at the tail end of the good old days of doing business, back when people could trust you on your word,” Brooks said. “As it happened, the man who ran a bank in Zanesville knew my family for decades, and he just wrote us a check and said that if we gave our word, then that was good enough for him.”

With that stroke of good fortune, Brooks and his family had enough money to buy the business back. But the work of actually running the business was a different matter. Shoe companies were still dying. And the Brooks family was now hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Enter: The invention of the modern boot.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal back then,” Brooks said. “We needed something to set us apart, and I just knew that the way boots were being made, they didn’t contour with your feet well. Hell, they used nails to keep the thing together. It was like wearing a cast.”

So Brooks came to his father with a new design and a proposition. They would change the name of their company to Rocky Shoes & Boots, a name Brooks thought would better signify the rugged rural quality of their Ohio-made product. And they would kick off this re-branding with the Rocky Boot, a new style of boot featuring the “oblique” design that would set the standard for the way boots are made across the world.

In his office today, Brooks displays a golden cast of the original Rocky Boot design — a kind of lifetime achievement award. It’s something that draws a visitor’s eye, but Brooks’ attention tends to be drawn toward the window, where he can see the town where he was raised spread out before him — the streets of Nelsonville lined with old brick buildings and lampposts.

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A golden cast of the original Rocky Boot design sits in Mike Brooks’ office. The design set the standard for the way boots are now constructed across the world. | Photo: Evan Smith

More than 200 jobs in the old factory behind the office are now gone. Brooks had little choice — cheap labor overseas forced his hand in what was the most difficult decision of his career. But those jobs have been replaced with about 300 new jobs in town — marketing professionals, designers and computer specialists who run the company’s global operations.

It could signal what the entire town will look like one day.

Nelsonville remains a struggling area, but Brooks is proud that his company has become a cornerstone of the local economy. It’s a far cry from the early years, when his grandfather and great-uncle were just two young men who began making shoes to stave off starvation during the Great Depression.

“You know, I think if they could see where we are today, they would be proud,” Brooks said. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of: all the hard working men who helped us get here. People think you always have to go to some big metro area to make it in business. But if you have dedication, good smarts and a little luck, you can make something great anywhere.”

Evan Smith is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. 

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