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Brown Shoe to Close Plants, Lay Off 1,400 Missouri

August 23, 1991 GMT

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Brown Shoe Co., the nation’s leading maker of women’s shoes, said Friday it would close four facilities in Missouri and lay off 1,400 factory workers within three months.

The St. Louis-based company blamed the actions on the recession and the continued shift in the industry to imported shoes.

Brown, founded in 1878 and the maker of the well-known Buster Brown line of shoes for children, said it has watched imported shoes gradually take over the women’s shoe industry in the United States.

″The impact of free-market politics on small factory towns in Missouri has been devastating, as imported women’s shoes now claim well over 90 percent of the market,″ said B.A. Bridgewater, chairman, president and chief executive officer.

The company has importing offices in Italy, France, Brazil, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Taiwan.

Brown said it has closed 23 plants since 1970, when it had 42 plants, but has shut down none in the past five years. It now has 22 factories - 13 in Missouri, five in Tennessee, one in Arkansas and three in Canada - and employs 9,000 factory workers.

Plants in Fredericktown, Bernie and Charleston will be shut down by November, said Brown spokeswoman Mary Siverts. A Brown-owned raw materials warehouse in Caruthersville will also be closed.

″We have no plans to reopen the plants,″ she said. ″Style trends in women’s shoes are shifting to more casual shoes and those are best obtained overseas.″

The news came as a shock to the small towns in eastern Missouri.

″This is going to kill our town,″ said Emily Firebaugh, editor of the weekly newspaper, the Democrat News, in Fredericktown. ″Our whole town is Brown Shoe.″

About 515 of the layoffs announced Friday will be made in Fredericktown, about 75 miles south of St. Louis.

″It’s disastrous news. It’s hard to comprehend the impact it’s going to have on our city,″ said Fredericktown Mayor Willard LaPlant. ″Some of the employees have four or five family members working there.″

Some politicians expressed disappointment.

″I am very distressed to get this news from Brown Shoe,″ said Rep. Bill Emerson, R-Mo. ″I am particularly distressed because in the past 11 years I have been fighting hard to stem the tide of foreign imports.″

Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft has asked a special team of state employees to provide technical assistance to displaced workers.

Brown Shoe is a division of the Brown Group Inc., which has annual sales of about $1.8 billion.