Buford, Ga. — This small rural town has never seen anything like it. Neither has the nation's shoe industry. At a time when much of the news about the shoe industry is gloomy, with employment falling and plants closing, a somewhat tight-lipped group of international investors has opened several new shoe factories here.
Using shiny new machines that automatically make shoe soles, and eliminating the costly stitching process by importing the stitched upper parts from overseas , they are on the cutting edge of efforts in the United States to cope with overseas competition.
For local people, this means some new jobs in an area where a couple of shoe factories have closed in recent years.
But, says Buford City Clerk Judy Martin, ''they've been real secretive.'' No one in town seems to know who is behind the project. Even officials for the company, Granite Industrial Development & Services Corporation, were reluctant to reveal the name of their chairman, although corporations are required to file a list of their officers with the secretary of state's office.
But a spokesman for the Footware Industries of America (FIA) confirmed that the chairman is Iranian Rahim Irvani, who once ran a shoe factory in Iran using Japanese technology. Investors in the corporation include the British firm of Moorgate Merchants Ltd., Italian shoemaker Eugenio Pagani, and the Japanese firm Okabashi, according to corporation officials. One of the directors of the holding company is Roy Carlson, president and chairman of the National Bank of Georgia.
For the footware industry, this is a test case - one being watched very closely.
''If it is financially viable to open a plant of that size in this country, it is encouraging,'' says Harold Gessner of the Footwear Council in New York.
''A lot of people are looking at it to see what happens; it's so unusual,'' says Fawn Evenson, the FIA's vice-president for national affairs. ''They're bucking the trend.''
The trend, she says, has been a downward one in many aspects for the industry.
Imports are a key issue. Six out of 10 shoes sold in the US are imported. The FIA argues that this costs American jobs.
But Peter Mangione, president of the Volume Footwear Retailers of America, says imports mean lower prices to consumers. The shoe industry, he adds, is actually showing ''considerable health,'' with some smaller firms closing but larger ones adjusting strategies and updating equipment.
Employment in the US shoe industry has dropped from 233,400 in 1968 to 129, 000 last year, according to the FIA. In June 1981, quotas limiting shoe imports to the US from Taiwan and Korea, the leading sources of imported shoes in the US , were allowed to lapse. President Reagan has refused to reinstate them, saying free trade was more important.
Total imports to the US jumped from 375 million pairs in 1981 to 480 million pairs last year, with Korea and Taiwan accounting for almost all of the increase and even forcing out some imports from other nations. Meanwhile, Taiwan, Korea, and some other exporters to this nation retain high tariff barriers to shoe imports, FIA officials complain.
But while some shoe factories have closed, others, like Genesco, of Nashville , Tenn., have gradually switched from just making shoes to importing and retailing them as well. The trend toward importing the upper part of shoes from cheap-labor countries is growing.
Granite Industrial Development & Services Corporation imports upper parts from Korea and other countries, including Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Taiwan, says a company official. State-of-the-art machinery from Italy is then used to cast soles with a polyurethane mix and attach them to the uppers.
''Years ago it took 40 people to do it; now we've got five,'' says George Hollington, manager at one of the corporation's plants here, as he watches a carousel-like machine go around, automatically making shoes. The six machines in just one of the plants here can make 720 pairs of shoes an hour, he says.
Another plant here in the same corporation injects a polyurethane mix into molds to make one-piece sandals, using the latest Japanese technology and styles.