The mysterious Mr. Fishman

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

As an 18-year-old in the late 1960s, Eli Fishman drove a Good Humor ice cream truck on the politically charged streets of Chicago. One summer afternoon, Fishman, a Vietnam War objector himself, drove his truck into a park packed with police and protesters.

"I wanted to sell the ice cream to the protesters, but I also wanted to make my commission," Fishman said.

He opted to sell to both. That was one of Fishman's first dilemmas as a self-described "entre-radical."

Put away your Webster's. It's a word Fishman made up to describe his admittedly curious world view, a messy mixture of pure entrepreneurial spirit and a radical save-the-world mentality that defies traditional business acumen.

"That's sort of been the theme of my life," Fishman said. "Odd, huh?"

Maybe. But that philosophy, flawed or not, was the driving force behind the unique experiment that was the Cape Shoe Co., a business Fishman poured his passion and his fortune into for five years until closing its doors in July.

The experiment: Try to reverse, in some small way, the alarming trend of sending U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas while at the same time using only U.S. materials to create a product that could compete with cheaper imported footwear.

After Fishman started the company from the remnants of the old Florsheim Shoe Co. -- which had followed suit and sent its jobs overseas -- the business struggled along for five years, selling 10,000 shoes a year, about half the amount Fishman estimates he needed to survive. Along the way, Fishman spent -- and subsequently lost -- millions of his own dollars.

He admits he lost his shirt.

"But it's only money," he said. "You can't tell people who don't have money that, but it's true. It doesn't mean anything at this point. I've enough human capital to last a lifetime."

Still, he acknowledges the experiment failed, due to lack of sales and his dwindling coffers. But those are only ancillary reasons. He says the main reason was a disingenuous customer base as much as foreign competition.

"Bring on the foreign competition," Fishman said in a Chicago accent, pronouncing "the" as "da."

"I can deal with the competition," he said. "I underestimated the strength of unbridled consumerism. People say they want to buy American-made products, but only if it's at the same price. It's the Wal-Mart mentality."

Fishman compared it to people saying they're not racist, but then cringing at the thought of black children being bused to their child's all-white school.

"But it's a joke, it's strictly a ruse," he said. "It's just people talking. They don't mean it. Same with American-made products. It just seems like the right thing to say."

Fishman, a self-described contrarian, came to Cape Girardeau in 1999 from Chicago in a slightly better disposition.

In Chicago he owned a factory that manufactured shoe racks. One of his customers was Florsheim. A representative told him the company was shipping its jobs to India and closing in Cape Girardeau.

"I said, 'Jeez, how do you throw away all that talent?'" Fishman said. "I knew there were a lot of people out there talking about supporting U.S.-made products, so I got this idea."

He sold his factory and another he owned., slapped down $1.1 million of his own money and bought the Florsheim Shoe Co. factory on Southern Expressway, hiring many of the laid-off employees.

"I thought I wouldn't have to sell a lot of shoes to maintain a profit, just enough to prove my point and keep some people in good paying jobs," he said. "But I overestimated the niche."

One of the first people he met was Jay Knudtson, who was then a Cape Girardeau mayoral candidate and banker at Bank of America at the time. Though Knudtson is now at First Missouri State Bank, he remembers that Bank of America loaned Fishman some working capital.

But most of all he remembers Fishman himself.

"He was one of the most interesting characters to arrive in Cape Girardeau that I can remember," Knudtson said.

The mayor recalls Fishman was wearing all-American made clothes, even down to picking out the right sort of Levis that are made in America. He also drove an inexpensive American-made car.

"It was like he did not want this international movement to occur, and it was like he really believed in his heart that he could penetrate it," Knudtson said. "I really think, with all due respect to Eli, that maybe it was hard for him to differentiate between his passion for patriotism and making good, sound financial decisions."

But Knudtson said he came to admire Fishman's dedication to the American worker and American products. "He thought he could buck the system," he said, "but the system is an international system that nobody could buck."

Knudtson warned Fishman that his goal was too far-reaching. He said he questioned in this age where price drives everything whether there were enough Americans out there who would make a decision with their heart rather than their pocketbook.

"I told him, 'I hope you're right, but I don't know that you are,'" Knudtson said. "From the day he opened, he had an uphill battle. He was going to a gunfight with a switchblade. That's a sad fact. But I still think Eli did a good thing by trying to leverage the American theme."

Not that there weren't high points. In 2001, the Wall Street Journal did a post-9-11 article on Fishman's patriotic "made in America" theme. A U.S. government contract after Sept. 11, 2001, boosted sales by 15 percent, but that dwindled as the ground war abated.

Fishman beat the pavement, placing his work boots and shoes in several area stores, such as Bob's Shoe Service, Brown's Shoe and Qwick Fix Shoe & Boot Repair. He also had them in stores across the Midwest, from Chicago to Detroit.

"He had his loyal customers," said Qwick Fix owner Gene Benthal. "I've had a lot of people who have come by since he closed because they knew they weren't going to be able to get them anymore. Some people are bumming about it."

But not enough. Benthal said Cape Shoe never sold as many as the brand names, like Red Wing and Wolverine.

"He was competing with the big names," he said. "His boot was as expensive as their boot, but he didn't have the name recognition. Cape Shoe was a fine name, but maybe it could have been catchier."

Fishman later unionized his own workers, another puzzling move, some say, though he says he did it to back up his "worker first" mentality. The union also promised to promote his shoes to its members, which resulted in only moderate improvement in sales.

Cape Shoe switched to a smaller, more affordable building on Rusmar. His work force remained stable at a manageable 30 to 40 workers.

Still, he couldn't compete.

"They said they wanted American made, but they really wanted to spend a little less money," Fishman said.

Now, he says, he's ready to move on. He's finishing up his doctorate at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Soon, he will return to his beloved Chicago.

His new dream is to start a not-for-profit tutoring program for elementary school children on the Internet.

"A lot of these groups do it for profit, but not me," he says.

335-6611, extension 137

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