By Bill Carey
The former Genesco headquarters building in Nashville,
which is now slated to be razed (TN History for Kids photo)
The former Genesco headquarters building in Nashville, I saw recently that the old Genesco headquarters building in Nashville will be razed to make way for the umpteenth expansion of the Metro Nashville Airport. I know the tear-down is inevitable because no private company has shown interest in occupying the which is now slated to be razed (TN History for Kids photo) building for a long time. But before it’s gone, I’d like to remind everyone what a big deal it was when it was built. Genesco was, at one time, one of the largest employers in Tennessee. At its peak around 1960, it had shoe factories all over the state, in Nashville, Gallatin, Tullahoma, Waynesboro, Hohenwald, Lewisburg, Pulaski, Cowan, Centerville, McMinnville, Camden, and Smithville. Started in 1924 as the Jarman Shoe Company, the company originally focused on the production and sale of “Friendly Fives”—a $5 dress shoes which “could take a shine.” By the 1930s, these shoes were available nationally and advertised in publications such as the Saturday Evening Post. Jarman changed its name to General Shoe Corporation in 1933. The company- ny grew during the Great Depression, a time when most shoe and clothing manufacturers were shrinking or going out of business. Its executives – the most important of whom was Maxey Jarman – worked tirelessly to produce a good shoe and sell it aggressively. One of the keys to its success was the fact that labor costs were lower in the union-free South than they were in New England, which was where the shoe business had been centered. General Shoe made more than five million pairs of shoes and boots for the U.S. military during World War II – including the pair General Douglas MacArthur wore when he accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945. In the decade after the war, General Shoe acquired at least 18 shoe manufacturing, wholesaling, and retailing businesses. Among them were retail chains such as Berland (102 stores), W. L. Douglas (64 stores), and Nisley (46 stores). It also bought shoe-making firms such as Johnston & Murphy and I. Miller and Sons. By 1955, the General Shoe Company had gotten so large that the U. S. Justice Department filed an anti-trust suit accusing the company of trying to become a monopoly. The case caused the company to shift its focus from shoes to the apparel industry in general. Its new name: Genesco. Its new slogan: “Everything to wear.” Hitting the ground running, the company bought the upscale department store chain Bonwit Teller (a purchase that included the jewelry store Tiffany’s). Genesco acquired a New York specialty shop called Henri Bendel; underwear manufacturer Formfit Rogers; men’s suit maker L. Greif & Brothers; perfume maker Parfum Givenchy; the variety store chain known as Kress; and other companies. It was right about then, in the late 1950s, that Genesco announced it was building a “world headquarters” on Murfreesboro Road in Nashville. The “Genesco campus,” as it was dubbed, was built in phases, with a men’s shoe plant, then a women’s shoe plant, then a distribution center, and finally its corporate headquarters. When the headquarters opened a few years later, local reporters were impressed by the fact that it emphasized corporate efficiency. “Every floor had garbage and mail chutes, to minimize the number of times that janitors and mail clerks had to walk up and down stairs,” I wrote in the 2000 book Fortunes, Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History. “In order to cut down on the length of coffee breaks, there was a snack bar on every floor. In order to eliminate the need for outside window washers, the windows revolved on pivots.” Local and national media were so dazzled by how Genesco did the small things that it never occurred to anyone that the company might be headed off a financial ledge. But it was because its main business was making dress shoes and clothing in the continental United States, something that soon began to migrate overseas. Genesco also did not foresee the “casual revolution” coming in the workplace. It completely missed the athletic shoe revolution, started by Nike. Starting around 1969 and continuing for the rest of the century, the main businesses that Genesco owned went into rapid decline, and the parent company with it. Genesco eventually closed its manufacturing plants all over Tennessee, with devastating consequences. By 1992, the apparel company that once had 65,000 employees had only about one-tenth of that number. Today, Genesco no longer makes shoes; it contracts with manufacturers who make shoes in other countries across the world. Genesco has survived by repositioning itself as a retailer; today it owns nearly 1,500 stores, in- including Journeys, Schuhs, and Johnston & Murphy.