Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dexter Shoe Founder Dies

When I was in high school, we took summer vacations in Maine, and usually did some school shopping while we were there. Thus I was introduced to Dexter Shoes. They had outlets all over the state of Maine, and they were manufactured in Maine. And they were cheap!

Harold Alfond, who died yesterday, was the owner, and he sold out to Warren Buffet in 1993; less than 10 years later, those Maine factories were closed and the production offshored.

While all the obituaries pay tribute to his generosity, apparently he wasn't so generous towards the workers who made him rich:


Alfond donations such as the one to MaineGeneral always bring favorable publicity — and rightfully so.

But whenever there's an announcement of his generosity, or another glowing television report, there is also grumbling from people who say they knew a different Harold Alfond.

There are many who knew him as a hard-driving boss. People who worked in his factories.

So if Alfond is now considered Maine's very own Santa Claus, there are a raft of former employees who still — years after they left shoe shops behind — consider him a real-life Scrooge.

"Sweat shops," said Royce Libby of Skowhegan, referring to the Alfond-led factories where he worked for 20 years. "That's the only way I can describe it."

Libby and others remember grueling days of hard labor that paid poorly and offered few benefits. They remember longtime workers fired for arriving a few minutes late. They remember unsympathetic foremen who pushed workers beyond their limits.

Workers remember Alfond as a boss who would visit the factories sporadically. Once there, he'd sometimes gather employees around, exhorting them to work harder in the face of foreign competition.

It's unclear if Alfond's factories were harder places to work than others during a time of heavy industry. It's equally unclear if it was Alfond's desire to compete and win that led him to push his workers.

But it is clear that hard feelings toward Alfond linger in some parts of central Maine.

Alice White, 63, of Clinton once worked in a Norrwock Shoe factory.

She was 17 and recently married when she went to work there.

"Was it a good place to work?" she said. "No. We worked like hell."

White jokes that everyone should have a chance to work in an Alfond-run factory, because the experience creates an appreciation for every other workplace.

But White was serious when she said many of Alfond's workers led tough lives. They worked hard to support their families. They did the best they could. And, White said, they could have used even a miniscule bit of the generosity Alfond now is so famous for.

I recall a pair of boat-like shoes with huge white soles (I think I'm wearing them in a couple of high school yearbook shots) fondly and with a little embarrassment -- they were really awful.

Anyway, that's why this obituary jumped out at me today.

Bangor Daily News: Maine philanthropist dies at 93; his generosity to live on

Boston Globe: Harold Alfond, gave generously for healthcare and sports

Kennebec Journal (2005): Historical Profile: Alfond’s pockets deep, more than likely open

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