A Step UP When it comes to giving its customers a lift, Frederick's Richlee Shoe Co. tackles the tall order in high style

December 16, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Charles E. Budinger is retired now. But every day, he continues to rely on the one thing he credits most for his business success, for taking him from lowly bellhop to the banking boardroom.

His shoes.

The 87-year-old Budinger, a resident of Victorville in southern California, built a 40-year career and climbed to the rank of vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, one of the nation's largest -- all while wearing size 8 1/2 elevator shoes with a hidden, 2 1/2 -inch insole.

The secret lift boosted the 5-foot-2 Budinger's height to nearly 5-foot-5. But more importantly, it boosted his self-confidence.

"It's like a lady who gets a face lift; it may not make any difference, but she sure thinks it does," says Budinger, who still owns and wears about 20 pairs of elevator shoes, including boat shoes, black patent leathers and even two pairs of fuzzy bedroom slippers.

If the shoes indeed made this man, Budinger has the Frederick-based Richlee Shoe Co. to thank. The retired banker is among thousands of male customers of Richlee, one of only a few remaining U.S. outlets for elevator shoes -- specifically the company's patented Elevators with the "hidden innermold" it claims only the wearer will notice.

You'll find Richlee ads in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Playboy and GQ magazines (just call 800-290-TALL, they say). But most of the family-owned company's reported $270 million in annual sales is from word-of-mouth -- or foot -- referrals. Company owner Bob Martin won't talk profits, but says the shoes almost sell themselves, thanks to that secret boost in self-confidence it gives their customers.

Martin is quick to distinguish his product from those 1970s-style stacked heels now making a fashion comeback.

"Anybody can sell a pair of boring shoes in a regular shoe store, but we cater to our customers," says Martin, who runs his nondescript, 150,000-square-foot warehouse with his three brothers and a sister. "Everybody knows the shortest kid gets stuck in right field, and it follows the guy through his life. We're trying to help guys overcome it."

Martin and his father took over the company in 1981 from Foot-Joy in Brockton, Mass., which had made the shoes since 1939. In 1985, the family moved the business to the Frederick warehouse, and began adding the special "Eurathan" rubber innersoles to shoes manufactured elsewhere.

Within a few years, Martin says, Richlee realized it needed to expand beyond a basic dress shoe.

"We found that guys used to go to work and wear their [Elevators] dress shoes, and then they'd go to a company picnic or out on their boat and they'd have no casual shoes or sneakers to bum around in," says Martin. "It was like they'd shrink from getting that boost during the week to having to be flat-footed on the weekends."

Today, Richlee offers as many as 100 different shoe styles priced from $44.95 to $159.95. While a few styles are sold through department stores, most sales are mail-order through a colorful, pocket-sized, 64-page catalog. And whether they're golf shoes, high-top sneakers, wing-tips, sandals or penny loafers, every pair gives the wearer a hidden lift of an inch to three inches.

Overcoming a stigma

"It's hardly noticeable," Martin says as he leads a tour of company headquarters. "We build up the back of the shoe to accommodate the thickness of the sole. Bury it inside ... and they look no different than a flat-footed shoe."

For as far as elevator shoes have come in fashion, though, they still can carry a social stigma. Beneath the heightened soles is a world of buying in secret.

To save his customers the embarrassing Napoleon-complex jokes and prevent their wives, girlfriends or macho buddies from catching them flat-footed, Martin ships all his shoes in plain boxes -- no frills, no logos, no slogans, no sizes. Identifying the contents, Martin says, would mortify his customers -- not all of whom can be classified as truly "short."

Take the 5-foot, 9 1/2 -inch New Jersey real estate agent considered one of Richlee's most dedicated customers. He doesn't want his name used because, he says, he would "get ribbed by the guys at the gym" if they found out he sometimes wears a pair of high-top basketball shoes that give him a 2 1/2 -inch boost on the court. He didn't tell his 5-foot-10 wife that he was wearing a $139 pair of Italian dress elevator shoes (one of the Richlee's most popular styles) until after their wedding night.

"I don't have a Napoleon syndrome, but I just always wanted to be 6 feet tall," the 42-year-old says. "They are just nice, classic-looking shoes that happen to give you a boost. Not those ridiculous, stupid ones guys wore years ago."

Some Richlee customers are a little more comfortable bringing their elevator shoes out of the closet.

It took Wayne Jagusch a few years to tell his tennis buddies -- and his wife -- that he owned a dozen pairs of Richlee shoes, including a pair of "Lite Walkers" -- white sneakers with a 2-inch lift.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.