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Europe’s unrest lead to creation of Wellco

When Heinz Rollman left behind the unrest of Europe and struck out for America in 1939, the fate of his family was riding on his shoulders.

The Nazi regime had seized a successful shoe factory from Rollman’s father in Germany a few years earlier. Forced into bankruptcy, Rollman’s father fled to Belgium with two sons and two nephews in tow. They tried to rebuild, but the entire continent was on the brink of war and the climate was increasingly unfavorable for Jewish businessmen.

So the family dispatched Rollman to America armed with their final asset: a patent on a new method for attaching soles to shoes.

Rollman began courting major rubber manufacturers of the day, hoping to set up shop in the shadows of a company that could make the compound they needed. Rollman’s quest led him to A. L. Friedlander, the head of Dayton Tire and Rubber in Ohio. Friedlander, who was also Jewish, was taken by Rollman’s charisma and wit.

Friedlander was in the market to open a new plant in North Carolina and invited Rollman along on a trip to Charlotte to scout locations. From Charlotte, the two were pointed toward Waynesville where they would find plenty of the top criteria for a plant: cooling water.

Friedlander chose the town for his new rubber factory and leased Rollman his very own wing for a shoe enterprise. Rollman’s brother and cousins joined him in the new venture, which they called Wellco.

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The twist of fate that led two sets of Jewish brothers — Heinz and Ernest Rollman and Walter and Curt Kaufman — to start a shoe factory in Waynesville was a fortuitous one indeed. Wellco has provided a living for hundreds of workers spanning three generations, one of the last manufacturing holdouts from the town’s bustling blue-collar days.

The company remained in the family for nearly 70 years. Rolf Kaufman, the son of one of the original founders, joined the company in 1956 and was groomed as a family successor. Rising in the ranks alongside Rolf was Horace Auberry. When it came time to name a new leader, Heinz Rollman called both men into his office.

“He said ‘I want the two of you to be joint officers, but I can’t decide who is going to be number one,’” Rolf recalled. So Rollman flipped a coin.

Kaufman ended up president and Auberry became chairman. The two ran the company in tandem for more than 30 years.

In 2007, new owners came on the scene, however. Wellco had been a publicly traded company since the mid-1960s. Over the years, one buyer had amassed a controlling interest in the company.

“He liked the company and thought it was a good investment and just bought up the stock as it became available,” Rolf said.

The buyer rarely exercised his influence, however. But in 2007, he passed away. His estate sold off the Wellco holdings, which were bought up by a new controlling entity along with all remaining shares as well.

Although Rolf had stepped down as president in 1996, he remained on in a part-time capacity as vice chairman until 2007 when the new owners came along.

It’s hard to say whether Wellco would be ceasing its local operations today if the new controlling entity hadn’t taken over. It’s a fate Rolf had resisted for years, but the economic pressure of imports and growing competition in military boots made it increasingly difficult. Rolf said he wasn’t surprised to hear the news last week.

“It was probably expected by the people who worked there,” Kaufman said.

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