Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly said an army marches on its stomach, but what it wears on its feet certainly plays a hand in a campaign's outcome. That's why the armed forces are as picky about their boots as they are chow, says Victor Karam, president of McRae Footwear, the division of Mount Gilead-based McRae Industries Inc. that will make 350,000 to 400,000 pairs of military boots this year at its two Montgomery County factories. Some have waterproof booties that are inflated and submerged in a tub of water during production. If a single bubble appears, indicating a leak, they are discarded.
Founder Branson McRae didn't have boots--or booties--in mind in the 1950s when he moved inland from Wilmington, where he had worked in the shipyards, to become a homebuilder and entrepreneur.
In 1959, a western North Carolina maker of shoe-manufacturing equipment persuaded him to produce children's footwear using a vulcanizing process that heat-bonded, rather than stitched, soles. "Children's work and play shoes weren't financially rewarding at the time," Karam says. So McRae responded to a government ad seeking boots for the military, which appreciated that his soles didn't separate as easily as sewed ones. McRae got its first Army contract in 1967.
By the time Karam, a Boston native and sales manager for a New England shoe company, joined McRae in 1969, its military business had mushroomed, fueled by the Vietnam War. In the next few decades, sales soared and ebbed based on military buildups and cutbacks. In 1996, a year before Gary McRae became CEO and president following the death of his father, the company branched into cowboy and work boots by buying Clarksville, Tenn.-based American West Trading Co. Between 2002 and 2006, the company bolstered that segment by acquiring the Dingo, Dan Post Boots and Laredo brands, all made in China, India, Vietnam and elsewhere overseas. "We vowed we'd never be offshore," Karam says, "but we'd be out of business if we weren't."
In 2003, the U.S. military started moving toward a new kind of manufacturing in which the outer sole is connected to a polyurethane middle sole for better adhesion and less...