IF THE SHOE FITS
The Life and Lessons of George Denney
by Joshua M. Sklare
George Denney’s many faceted career followed the difficulties of the domestic shoe industry during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The way he built Cole Haan shows how to build a company, a brand, and a management team. His is also the story of Freeport, Maine. He describes the relationship: “I have been good for Freeport and Freeport has been good for me.”
The relationship between a man, and his hometown is complicated, perhaps more so when the person grows up in a smaller town or community rather than major city or suburb. Some people are anxious to leave the place where they grew up, perhaps to forget parts of their childhood or a desire to start fresh. Others are attached to their hometown, some vigorously so. With the exception of a short time in California, George Denney is one of those who has spent his entire life living, working, building a business, and raising a family in that very town. George Denney is as devoted to Freeport as if it were family, and the relationship is reciprocal.
George experienced firsthand Freeport’s decline in the 1960s and 1970s following the downturn of the shoe industry. He mitigated the changing times as he climbed the ranks of E.E. Taylor and launched Cole Haan. Although George had moved his business operations to nearby Yarmouth by the late 1970s, he lived in Freeport and was very much involved in the goings on of his hometown. Particularly striking during this time was the decline of downtown Freeport.
Even with L.L. Bean, the town appeared in trouble, mirroring the country in 1977, with the sense that life was on the decline and malaise the theme of the day. Town leadership looked for ways to revitalize after its industrial base had suffered so many losses. To explore opportunities for the future, Freeport created an initiative called “Townscape.”