Veteran Boot Maker
By Danna Burns-Shaw
As the mind gathers words and concepts to express and relate a story, it goes through several different scenarios. The ultimate goal is to write a memorable story that depicts the featured character; those words are the journey of the story. This story is about a man named Rodney Ammons. Anyone who has met Rodney is now smiling, because if you know Rodney you cannot help it, you must be grinning.
Rodney is the type of guy that is extremely memorable. Big sparkling eyes, quick-witted, fun-loving and a giant of a man, both in personality and boot size! Rodney’s acquired a rich knowledge of boot making that goes back to the early 1970’s and continues on today. His life has been filled with twists and turns, good luck and bad fortune; including being severely injured in Vietnam, involved with a boot factory making over 2500 pairs of boots per day and having his own boot factory shut down almost overnight.
All of those things have granted Rodney perspective and an appreciation of embracing and living each day, one at a time. Rodney’s resilience has given him the strength to always bounce back. He feels that someone else is in control of his life; his humble amazement of whoever is in charge leaves him open and unattached to any outcome. And so the story begins…
Becoming a Veteran of Foreign Wars
Few young men grow up with the aspiration of becoming a war veteran; Rodney was no exception. He joined the military, ironically, to avoid being drafted and to take advantage of the opportunity to further his education. So in 1966, Ammons joined the services and was sent to what he said was the worst place to do your basic training – Ft. Polk, Louisiana. As things were developing in Vietnam, it was just a matter of time before Ammons was deployed. Three months into his tour, Ammons woke up tied to a bed, with tubes coming out of several places in his body. He was surprised to find out that he was back in the States; he had been medevaced back home because of the severity of his shrapnel injuries.
Learning the Trade
After completing his military stint, Rodney went in search of employment to Genesco, which was a large company headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. He had worked in one of their factories during the summers while still in high school. They hired him and sent him to school at the University of Tennessee-Nashville, where he took night classes in Industrial Engineering. Rodney continued to work there for five years while attending school at night. After receiving his degree, he was hired as an industrial engineer by Blue Bell, Inc., the parent company of Wrangler Jeans and Wrangler Boots, working for Wrangler Boot Company in Nashville. At the time, Wrangler Boot Company was making about 2500 pairs per day of one style, the old snub nose, harness boot in two colors, black and latigo. “The easiest production I’ve ever seen,” says Rodney. But when the hippie movement started dying down in the mid-seventies, that type of boot became less popular. So, Wrangler decided to get into the western boot business, in order to try to capture some of the western-influenced businesses that had started to become popular. They approached the legendary Sam Lucchese and asked him to do some consulting and designing for them. Sam came back with a counter proposal – buy his company and put some money behind it, take good care of his employees (some of which had been with him for 40 and 50 years) and in trade he would move to Nashville for a year and design them a new line of western / cowboy boots. Sam had always been a good salesman, so he sold the proposition to them. At that point, Blue Bell asked Rodney to move down to San Antonio and help Benny Gray, another ex-Genesco man, to “crank up the production” while Sam was in Nashville designing boots.
Meeting Sam Lucchese
Rodney had spent time in San Antonio at Ft. Sam Houston, so he was eager to get back to Texas and start a new adventure working with the legendary boot maker. The first time Rodney walked into the Lucchese factory, he thought it looked like a boot repair shop. He asked Sam, “How many pairs per day do you produce?” The response was between 6 and 12. Stunned, Rodney looked around puzzled, wondering if he meant 600, because surely he did not sustain a boot company on just six pairs per day!? Once Sam showed him around, he realized these were a different level of boots than the boots being built in Tennessee. That day Rodney realized there are certainly different levels of boot building; one model is to collect the lowest priced materials and refine a process and system to maximize your production – to produce the most yields with the lowest cost of goods. The other was to source the finest materials and pair those materials with expert hands – the result being a wearable work of fine art.
Rodney did what he was hired to do, build up Lucchese production. He helped refine Sam Lucchese’s processes and systems, and he brought the yield up and the costs down, without compromising the quality of the product. All the while, falling in love with the beauty of a fine-crafted boot and learning from one of the masters in fit, pattern and style.
Sam Lucchese was a stickler for quality; he methodically studied every aspect of the human foot. He even relocated a last maker from Germany, where he had him build wooden lasts off specs he drew and designed. Rodney helped Lucchese go from 6 pairs to 120 pairs per day.
Urban Cowboy Craze
In the rich history of boots, there is a period of time that will never be forgotten – the Urban Cowboy craze! Many of us experienced the absolute mayhem that erupted when Buford Uan “Bud” Davis (John Travolta) and “Sissy” (Debra Winger) fell in love and two-stepped into mainstream culture. Boots, hats and all things western took off like a rocket because of the blockbuster 1980 film. Rodney, with his success and experience, was approached by T.O. Stanley to work for them. Rodney states, “We couldn’t make enough or charge enough money during the Urban Cowboy boom!” As with most big booms, bust will follow. Unfortunately, the bust came after many manufacturers had expanded their production by purchasing buildings, equipment and labor. Rodney was caught in the middle of the bust and he found himself with a company that went belly-up.
But as one door closes, another one will certainly open. You may have to build the door and open it yourself, but there is always an advantage in disadvantage…you just have to think your way to the advantage. Rodney decided to just that and find a new opportunity. He knew every aspect of building a boot, he had helped scale small companies and turned them into big companies, he had worked with the world’s best boot makers and designers, and over the course of all those years he had expanded his knowledge and talent. Rodney knew all the best boot makers and he knew everything about boot making equipment. So why not hire the best boot makers (out of a job), purchase equipment for pennies on the dollar and start his own boot factory? So began…the era of Rodney Ammons Boots.
Building a Brand
An old Ammons Boot ad: “Of all the boots available, no boot maker takes more care to produce the finest footwear than our friends at Ammons Boots. Handmade of select leathers, your Ammons boots will remain a wearable work of art. Every detail is sculpted. Every stitch placed for beauty as well as function. Hand pegged with lemonwood. All edges are skived. Rolled and finely dressed soles. Heels of stacked leather. Linings are of the best glove leathers. Channeled outsole stitching. Quality second to none! Ammons boots fit true to size.”
In 1985, Rodney chose the boot capital of the country, El Paso, Texas, to build his boot factory. He was so connected with the industry from T.O. Stanley, he quickly found a crew, building and equipment. What he thought would be a 5 year stay in El Paso, turned out to be 20. Ammons boots started getting noticed, making an impression as a quality high-end boot. Still having ties to his home state of Tennessee, Rodney decided to open a studio in Nashville in 2000. Rodney’s son also came to work for him. They carried a variety of custom boots, belts, buckles, jackets, shirts, etc. Located on Music Row, they were constantly getting calls to go in at all hours of the night to fit someone from the entertainment business.
Then, the landlords of their building sold it and most tenants had long leases. The new landlords wanted to redo the whole area and were putting pressure on the tenants to walk away from their leases. Mysteriously, the complex caught on fire, forcing the tenants out. Without his space, Rodney oddly received a call from Neiman Marcus. They wanted to feature Ammons Boots in a full-page magazine ad and purchase 50 pairs of full-wrap alligator boots. The magazine ad was a huge success; they sold 48 out of the 50 pairs!
The Neiman Marcus collaboration led to another big brand solicitation. Saks 5th Avenue contacted Rodney and wanted him to put a store in Texas at the Dallas Galleria. So off he and his son went, to start a new adventure of creating a store within a store. Rodney worked seven days a week with long mall hours, but business was good so after his five year lease was up, he signed on for five more. About three years into the second lease, Rodney saw a real slowdown in the center and decided not to renew his contract. Around the same time, Rodney’s biggest account faxed him a letter saying they had decided to no longer carry boots. He had built his production up to over 100 employees and was building hundreds of boots per day, but the double whammy forced Rodney into shutting down his El Paso factory.
Tony Lama Opportunity
Ironically in 2010, decades after the passing of his mentor, Sam Lucchese, Rodney was offered a position with Tony Lama, a division of Justin Brands, Inc. John Pierce, a larger than life TL boot guru, had suddenly passed away. The VP of Manufacturing for Justin Brands knew of the deep knowledge and rich history Ammons had in producing boots, so he contacted Rodney, asked him for advice and encouraged him to be a consultant. Rodney had barely made the decision to not renew his contract with Saks, when the Justin Brands opportunity presented itself. As Rodney stated with amazement, “Things just seem to work out. I don’t feel like I’m in charge of my life – it just keeps sending me in a new direction.”
Rodney Ammons’ size 13 boots have traveled many miles and left quite a footprint on the boot industry. His legacy continues with his new role: to re-life the Tony Lama Signature line of boots by pairing the best materials with expert hands, using the priceless knowledge he has learned during nearly 50 years in the business. Few boot makers have a Rodney Ammons type of story; a story filled with adventures that crossed several states and several companies, building not only boots, but a lifetime legacy – a legacy that is far from over.