Shoe fitting device made since 1927 still a perfect fit
On a quiet street in Syracuse, N.Y., a small factory makes an American classic: a flat metallic object that millions of people recognize by sight, but few know by name.
It’s the Brannock Device, better known as “the thing that measures your foot when you go to the shoe store.” And it’s the only product the company has made since 1927.
“When I tell people I make Brannock Devices, they don’t know what I’m talking about,” said Sal Leonardi, 65, president of Brannock Device Co. “But then they say, ‘Oh, wow, this is neat.’”
In an era where small businesses must fight to stay alive, Brannock is an anomaly; it has thrived while others have fallen to large corporations and overseas outsourcing.
Born in the 1920s, the company gained recognition in the '40s by making special devices to help the U.S. military quickly and accurately measure soldiers' feet. The company eventually sold its one millionth device, all without leaving the confines of Syracuse.
But in recent decades the company’s anonymity has become a handicap. With only a small label identifying the device and a patent that expired long ago, competitors like Justin Blair in China produce knockoff devices that cost $24. A Brannock device costs $62.50.
“You can’t compete with China,” said Gene Fairbrother, a small business consultant for the National Association for the Self-Employed, a small business advocacy group. To stay alive, he said, a “company has to make its brand stand out. It has to show it’s the Cadillac or Mercedes Benz” of foot measuring devices.
Manufacturing’s share of the U.S. economy declined from more than 25 percent in the 1950s to 12 percent in 2005, according to the Manufacturing Institute of America. Employment in manufacturing fell from nearly 20 million workers in 1981 to 14.2 million in 2006.
Yet, during those same times, Charles Brannock made his invention the standard in the industry. A lifelong bachelor who shunned publicity, Brannock would travel across the country from trade show to trade show, telling people about his product.
After a trip to the Miller Shoe Salon store in Chicago in October 1959, Brannock wrote, “As I entered the store there was a salesman, evidently the one who was 'up' and greeted me, so I stopped, removed my hat and said, ‘I will introduce myself, if I may,’ and gave him my name, extended my hand and remarked that I was the inventor and manufacturer of the Brannock Foot-Measuring-Device. He seemed genuinely pleased to meet me.”
Brannock was born into the shoe business. His father owned the Park-Brannock Shoe Co. in Syracuse, which Brannock took over and ran until 1981. As a student at Syracuse University, he wanted to make a device that would measure feet more accurately and efficiently than the tools that were being used at the time. He experimented with different prototypes and built his first working device from an erector set.
He began manufacturing the device in 1925 and was issued a patent in 1928. By 1939, Brannock had sold more than 33,000 of the devices.
During World War II, the U.S. Army needed help fitting soldiers for regulation Army footwear. Brannock developed a double unit that could measure both feet at the same time and was calibrated for Army sizes.
When Brannock died in 1992, Gus Charles, Brannock’s accountant and friend, placed an advertisement in the Syracuse Post Standard to find a prospective buyer. He looked for someone who had experience with small businesses and who would keep the company in Syracuse.
Leonardi was a perfect fit: a Syracuse native who had previously worked in his father’s business making lady’s handbag frames. He was tall, quiet and respectable, the type of fellow who kept a handkerchief in his rear pocket.
When Leonardi bought the company in 1993, workers were assembling the devices by hand using Phillips-head screwdrivers to twist in each of the 33 screws.
“I wish I could have kept the place as a museum,” Leonardi said. “It was like walking into the 1940s.”
The first thing Leonardi did was buy some cordless power screwdrivers. He moved the company to a larger space on Luther Avenue, where the company now produces roughly 100 devices a day, up from about 25 in 1993. To speed up the manufacturing process, he uses machinery like a robotic arm to cut the grooves into the base and a numerically controlled mill to file away rough edges.
Leonardi would not disclose revenue figures, but said that the company has doubled sales since he took over.
“I’m making a living,” he said, “but not a lavish living, to be sure.”
Tim Follett, 42, the vice president of the company, said it’s difficult to quantify how much Chinese replicas have hurt sales, since the devices are such niche items they aren’t tracked by the government like basketballs and staplers. But knockoffs have definitely been the biggest detriment to the company.
The Justin Blair device is almost identical to the Brannock, although its movable parts slide easily when the device is shaken. It comes with exact copies of the Brannock instructions, including pictures of Charles Brannock’s hands holding the device.
Many who buy the device can’t tell the difference. But there are some who recognize the Brannock Device as sui generis: a Toronto jazz band and an alternative rock band are both called The Brannock Device, and in 1998, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington archived original drawings, patents and photos of the devices.
Seeing these relics “takes you back to a time when you were a kid and the shoe salesman would come over and measure your foot,” said Alison Oswald, 39, an archivist at the Smithsonian.
Brannock treated his employees well, and Leonardi tries to emulate that. He’s never fired anyone. Nobody gets flack for missing work now and then.
One female employee who runs a pedal-operated electric screwdriver had a problem with her leg. The company accommodated her by attaching a shovel to the pedal so she could push it by hand.
“We can’t pay what GM or Ford pays,” Fallott said, but “if someone’s not feeling well, they go home. In other places, you almost have to say, ‘Can I please go home?’”