Small Business Success Story: Belleville Boot Co.

Original Article: Metro-East News

It is a tough time to be in the military boot business. Just ask Mark Ferguson, the president of Belleville Boot Co.

It’s not enough that Belleville Boot must compete against traditional makers of military footwear. Some of the biggest names in athletic footwear, including such heavy-hitters as New Balance, Nike and Under Armour, have also entered into the market for military-grade boots.

“Everybody’s jumping in,” Ferguson said in a recent interview. “Quite frankly, Nike has a huge brand, and Under Armour has a huge brand. The younger military troops are obviously drawn toward that.”

Recently, however, Belleville Boot dodged a competitive bullet that had nothing to do with the marketplace, and everything to do with how the federal government defines a small business. The boot maker’s success in hanging on to its small business classification enabled it to win a $43 million Pentagon contract for Navy flight boots, saving 150 jobs along the way.

In 2012, Belleville Boot caught a big break when the federal government changed a criterion for a small business from 500 workers to 1,000, according to Ferguson.

“So we were back to being a small business and getting the contracting opportunities that we normally don’t get,” Ferguson said.

Trouble is, Bates Footwear, a subsidiary of footwear giant Wolverine, tried to use the House version of the defense spending bill to take away Belleville Boot’s small business classification.

The amendment’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., does not represent the district where the Bates factory is located, but does represent a district with constituents who work at the Bates plant. Huizenga tried to redefine such an enterprise as one with no more than 499 workers. Belleville Boot has a workforce of about 1,000.

“Which would, in effect, not allow us to compete on small business contracts,” Ferguson said, “which we certainly didn’t think was fair.”

Enter U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Belleville and Scott Air Force Base. Bost said he got involved only after sharp-eyed members of his staff spotted an obscure provision in the defense spending bill that seemed to apply only to Belleville Boot.

“They were observant enough to realize that the only boot company that fell under this description was Belleville Boot,” Bost said.

Bost said he confronted Huizenga and told him he was going to oppose the measure that would benefit Bates, one of the world’s biggest makers of military and law enforcement footwear, to the detriment of Belleville Boot.

“And I ended up standing against it,” Bost said.

Brian Patrick, a Huizenga spokesman, acknowledged that Huizenga was trying to save jobs in his state by sponsoring what is known as a “limitation amendment.”

“All this limitation amendment would do is allow Bates to compete for it, because right now, they can’t even bid for it,” Patrick said. “The rule when it was created negatively impacted Michigan jobs. That’s why Bill took action.”

In a written statement from Huizenga’s office, the Michigan congressman noted that the U.S. military should have access to the highest quality footwear made in the United States.

“In order for that to occur, small businesses such as Bates should be able to compete and bid for defense contracts,” according to the statement. “Because of a rule put forward by the Obama Administration in 2012, a Michigan manufacturer was disqualified from even competing for a military footwear contract. This arbitrary rule endangers good-paying jobs for my constituents which is why I introduced this amendment.”

Ferguson applauded the pro-active nature of Bost’s effort to fend off Huizenga’s move to change the rules, which comes in the wake of previous moves by much larger competitors to change the criteria for qualifying as a small business for the purposes of obtaining federal contracts.

“So as soon as they saw this was trying to occur again, he was right on top of it,” Ferguson said. “He was really aggressive bringing this to the House floor and getting a vote on it and getting it eliminated for us.”

In pushing back against Huizenga’s measure, the Murphysboro Republican was continuing the work of his predecessor, Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, who served in Congress from January 2013 to January 2015.

On Nov. 10, 2014, Enyart sent a letter to the Small Business Administration urging the agency to keep the size criterion for a small business at 1,000 employees.

“Belleville Boot had been operating with slightly more than 500 employees and competing for Defense Logistics Agency contracts against companies with 5,700 employees or more,” Enyart wrote at the time. “At a time when DLA contracts are declining, the 1,000-employee threshold will remain relevant for Belleville Boot to compete in this market.”

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