Progressive Vision Thrusts Maine Business Owner into National Spotlight

Jul 18, 2014

Jim Wellehan, the owner of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes.
Credit Patty Wight

President Obama recently thrust a Maine businessman into the social media spotlight. The president used Facebook and Twitter to link to an online video of Auburn businessman Jim Wellehan supporting a hike in the federal minimum wage. Wellehan has gained recognition for the way he treats his own employees at Lamey-Wellehan Shoes.

Jim Wellehan is the kind of guy who knows the name of each of his 100 employees - whom he prefers to call "associates." He can even recall the number of years they've worked at Lamey-Wellehan Shoes.

"Nancy, how long you been with us?" he asks one employee. "Three years," she says. "Come on, tell me the truth," he says. "Thirty-six," she concedes.

Many of the answers are in the dozens of years. If you've been at Lamey-Wellehan for under five, you're considered new. And when you first start the job, it's a given that you're going to make well above the $7.50 minimum wage. Base pay for a floor salesperson is about $9 an hour, but commissions and bonuses boost that rate.

"Actually it's $14.06 for the sales associates in all the stores," Wellehan says. "One of the stores is $15.71, in Augusta."

It was never a deliberate decision to pay a decent wage, says Wellehan. It's the way the business has alway run, ever since his dad opened the first shoe store 100 years ago. Around the time Jim Wellehan took it over in the '70s, he added pensions and used company profits to cover employees over 55 who would never save enough in time for their retirement.

"They were my friends- what was I going to do - say, 'Look, I'm glad you worked here for the last 40 years. Have a nice retirement. I hope you eat once in awhile?'" he says. "You can't do that."

A recent report by the AFL-CIO found that the average U.S. CEO makes 774 times what minimum wage earners do. Wellehan makes less than four times the amount of his lowest paid associate. And when the company hit some rough spots in the '90s, he made an unusual decision:

"Let's cut the highest salary the most, the next salaries a little bit less, the next just a tiny bit, and let's leave everyone else where they are," he says. "Because everyone else is taking care of our customers, and if they're grouchy and discouraged and downtrodden, they're not going to do a great job. But if they're doing a great job, I'm going to feel better pretty soon, and everyone else is."

Employees who are paid well have more pride and perform better, says Wellehan. That's why he supports raising the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. His business ethic caught the attention of Organizing for Action, a grassroots group that supports President Obama's agenda to raise the minimum wage. The organization produced a two-minute video about Wellehan.

"I started here at nine dollars an hour five years ago," says Sara Caron. Caron was hired as a sales associate. She's now manager at Lamey Wellehan's Auburn store.

"At the time, I thought $9 was great," she says. "But then when I stated getting my paycheck and it wasn't $9, it was quite a bit more than that, I thought, well this is a great job! And after being here for only a couple of months I had already been given an incentive raise for taking some trainings that were offered, and I had also been given a performance raise at the same time. So I had, within a couple months of being here, been bumped up by $1.50."

Since the video was released earlier this month, Jim Wellehan says he's received a lot of praise through emails and letters from fellow Mainers. It's satisfying recognition as the 75-year-old prepares to retire.

But you likely won't find Wellehan basking in the sun at the beach. Aside from minimum wage, he's worried about other things, like the cost of healthcare and higher ed, and the impact of global warming.

"It's important to stay active and interested in what you're doing. You and I have an awful lot to do in this world," he says.

But first, Wellehan will set up an ESOP - an employee stock ownership program - so employees will share ownership of the company when he leaves.