Susan Shoe Industries Limited

Susan Shoe Industries founder Tony Ronza keeps shoes on his desk for inspiration (1972)Location: 1948-1955, Burlington, Ontario; 1955-1969; Brampton Street; 1969-1995, Barton Street East at Nash Road, Hamilton, Ontario

Susan Shoe Industries Limited (S.S.I.) was established in 1948 in Burlington, Ontario, by brothers-in-law Walter Sedlebauer and Anthony Ronza, to manufacture mid-priced women's shoes. In the mid-1950s, the company began to make men's and children's shoes, as well as winter boots, and in 1955 moved from its Burlington location to a larger plant on Brampton Street in Hamilton, Ontario. In 1969, it expanded again, this time to Barton Street East and Nash Road in Hamilton. The Brampton Street plant was originally shut down, but later revived as a secondary facility.

The famous Cougar logo of Susan Shoe IndustriesSales at S.S.I. had always been admirable, but it wasn't until the company introduced the "Cougar" line of casual and athletic footwear in 1970 that Susan Shoe Industries became an internationally-known manufacturer. In fact, when Coug the Cougar (the line's boot-wearing feline mascot) was let loose upon the world in 1975, sales shot up almost 350%, from $4.8 million in 1976 to $16.6 million in 1977. Although S.S.I. continued to manufacture dressy shoes, the "Susan Shoe" became synonymous with "Cougar". The decision to introduce the line came at the right time; inexpensive imports had already forced the closure of many Canadian shoemakers. To combat the failure of so many shoe manufacturers, the federal government put in place quotas on shoe imports in 1977, which no doubt also contributed to S.S.I.'s success.

In 1978, S.S.I. branched out into the automotive-parts market. The company had, for a few years, been manufacturing its own soles in its Permalite Industries division. The automotive market had been steadily moving from metal to plastic in the production of certain car parts, and S.S.I. began to manufacture car bumper covers.

By 1980, Susan Shoe Industries employed 975 people in its two Hamilton plants (1,100 in its various facilities across Ontario), and posted sales of $40 million. The next year, it opened a boot factory in Oakville, Ontario. Despite the success, S.S.I. was always concerned about the presence of import shoes from Europe, South America, and the Far East. When the federal government decided to replace its quota on leather and vinyl footwear with one on non-leather imports only, representatives of the company and other shoe manufacturers lobbied Ottawa to have the leather quota reinstated. In July, 1982, the federal government reinstated the quota, which was to last until November, 1984.

Some of the auto parts manufactured by Susan Shoe Industries until 1991In July, 1983, the federal government gave S.S.I. a $1.2 million interest-free loan to expand its facilities in Hamilton and Oakville. The company planned to increase its share of the auto-parts market, and 350 new jobs were created for this purpose. The leather-shoe quota would expire the following year, and management wanted to ensure that the company would not fail if the shoe market was flooded with cheap imports. By January, 1984, S.S.I. was supplying about 70% of all bumper guards for North-American-made cars, and announced that it was going to build a new 55,000 square-foot plant in Oakville dedicated to the manufacture of auto parts. The car parts division had sales of $15 million that year. By 1987, the Permalite Automotive Group (a subsidiary of S.S.I.) had outgrown even that facility, so S.S.I. built an even larger one on Arvin Avenue in Stoney Creek, Ontario.

On December 21, 1987, two hundred workers represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 175 were locked out at the Barton Street East plant. On January 16, 1988, they were back at work, having accepted a new contract with new rules regarding piece-work rates and wages.

Coug the mascot was retired in October, 1990. The company decided that it needed to update the image of its boots and athletic footwear, because young people thought of the brand as being "old-fashioned". The new advertising strategy included black shoeboxes with purple tissue, and a simple white rendering of the word "Cougar" on the side.

In July, 1991, S.S.I. got out of the automotive parts business, selling its Permalite Automotive Group division. Car manufacturers had been using third-party agent suppliers for a number of years, which meant that S.S.I. and other parts-manufacturers would have less control over the product if they had to sell it through a middleman.

In December, 1994, Susan Shoe Industries Limited declared bankruptcy, putting 320 employees out of work. The company was unable to pay the $25 million owed to creditors with only $15 million in assets. The next year, the assets were sold in pieces. However, founder Walter Sedlebauer's sons, Ron and Steven, plan to keep the Cougar brand name and use it in the future.




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