Canada's Bootmakers Warm to Cold Snap

Quebec shoe manufacturers stay profitable in the cold, despite competition from abroad

ATHERMOMETER reading minus 25 degrees F does not faze the people of Acton Vale, a town halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. They love to hear that it is freezing in Atlanta or that government offices have closed in Washington. In this small town of 5,000, cold weather means jobs.

Boot sales ``started slow, but demand has been strong ever since the first storm hit on Dec. 23 and was followed by this ... cold weather,'' says Francois Gagne, president of Acton Rubber, the larger of the two big winter-boot manufacturers here.

The Acton Rubber factory makes waterproof winter footwear, from toe rubbers that slip over shoes to Arctic boots that cover the calf - guaranteed to keep your toes warm in temperatures up to minus 90 degrees F. ``This is the warmest boot in the world,'' Mr. Gagne says.

Acton Rubber sells versions of the boot to soldiers in Canada, Denmark, and Germany. Military footwear frequently makes up as much as 30 percent of the factory's production.

The firm, with 350 employees, is operating at almost peak production, at a time of year when business is usually slow. Gagne wants to get the spring and summer production, including farm and hunting boots, out of the way since he will be making many cold-weather boots this summer. ``This tough winter will mean people will be ordering more boots for next winter,'' he says.

A successful shoe and boot business in Canada is supposed to be an economic impossibility. When the rules of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) changed in the 1970s, there were predictions that Canada's shoe industry would close down completely as it became swamped by cheap imports. But despite a number of plant closures, 65 shoe manufacturers still operate in Quebec alone.

``What we've done is specialize in winter footwear,'' Gagne says. ``We know about winter and we know how to make winter footwear. They don't know anything about cold-weather boots in Indonesia.''

Canada makes about 20 percent of its own shoes; the rest is imported from countries such as Indonesia, Brazil, and Italy. Yet some types of footwear are made almost exclusively in Canada.

Take the toe rubber, for example. Acton Rubber makes about 90 percent of the toe rubbers sold in Canada. In one corner of the Acton Rubber plant, a machine presses raw rubber into rubber pull-ons. Valere Ouellet, a plant worker, operates four machines at one time. As one ``cooks'' a set of toe rubbers, Mr. Ouellet loads or unloads another.

But not all footwearmakers are as successful as Acton Rubber.

``The laws work against us,'' says Nathan Finkelstein, president of the Shoe Manufacturer's Association of Canada in Montreal. He says he would like stronger laws to keep foreign products out, although with the new GATT rules and the North American Free Trade Agreement, that seems unlikely.

Existing laws are cumbersome to fight, Mr. Finkelstein says. Just one antidumping ruling can take three years, during which time the manufacturer can go out of business.

But even he is upbeat when it comes to the success of winter boots. ``In cold-weather boots, we can't be beat,'' Finkelstein says. ``The survivors are the most efficient internationally.''

Greb, a shoe plant down the road from Acton Rubber, occupies a slightly different niche: waterproof leather work boots.

Many of the tan boots, called Kodiaks, are special models for the construction industry, equipped with steel toes and other armor. Here, too, the plant is operating at near capacity. In addition to the usual work, it is currently filling a special order for 50,000 black military boots for the Canadian contingent in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The boots will be shipped this week.

``We invented the waterproof boot,'' says David McCarthy, Greb's marketing director. In the showroom above the factory floor, Mr. McCarthy shows off an expanding line, ranging from boots for extremely cold temperatures to soft brown leather versions of work boots.

Both Acton Rubber and Greb have plans to expand. While they will stick to their traditional winter boots, they also will explore the world of winter fashion.

``These are the boots ... our mothers made us wear,'' says Acton Rubber's Gagne, holding up a rubber winter boot with a buckle on top. ``Now we make them in all colors so the kids will enjoy wearing them.''

Maybe color helps. But spring would be better.

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