September 29, 2023
BY VICKI MAYK
Audrey Zimmerman ’14 always knew what she wanted to do when she grew up.
From an early age, she planned to join her family’s business, the Kepner Scott Shoe Co., which produces handmade children’s shoes in Orwigsburg, Pa. At 135 years old, it’s America’s oldest children’s shoe company.
“I remember wearing our footwear as a little girl and visiting the shoe company. Our team was like family to me,” Zimmerman says, noting that the firm’s 21 employees boast an average of 30 years with the company. “I just knew I wanted to be part of it one day. I felt it was so special, this family tradition of making footwear.”
Now, as the fourth generation to lead the company, she’s launched a new line of children’s footwear under a daughter company, Zimmerman Shoes. Designs sold under the new brand are based on heritage designs created by her great-grandfather and grandfather. Even though most shoe manufacturing has moved overseas, the company’s shoes are still made in Pennsylvania.
A STEP BACK IN TIME
Kepner Scott began in 1888. The company was purchased by Zimmerman’s great-grandfather, Milo, in 1961. Working with his son, Clair – her grandfather – the two men saved what had been a failing business. Milo revolutionized the way children’s shoes were made. Previously, the shoe’s upper was sewn to the sole, making it inflexible. Replacing it with a process called cement construction made for a more comfortable shoe, and the process is now the industry standard. One of the shoes sold by Zimmerman Shoes, the Milo Boot, is based on one of his designs and named in his honor.
Company leadership passed to Zimmerman’s father, Steve (pictured above), and his sister, Sue Murphy, in 2000. Although his daughter has assumed a leadership role, Steve Zimmerman still oversees production and Murphy is responsible for order fulfillment and inventory. Both are members of the board of directors, providing more than a half-century of knowledge about the children’s shoe industry. Other family members also serve on the board, including Zimmerman’s husband, Jeff Gaddy. an accountant, and her brother-in-law, noted economist Adam Ozimek.
During summers in high school and college, Zimmerman pitched in at the company wherever needed, from fulfilling orders to helping the seamstresses making the shoes. Majoring in business administration in college was the obvious choice for someone entering the family business. She visited Kutztown University while her brother-in-law, Thaddeus Pasierb ’07, was earning his art education degree.
“I just fell in love with the school,” she says, adding that her business courses gave her a solid foundation for leading her family’s company.
I just fell in love with the school.Audrey Zimmerman '14, on her decision to attend Kutztown University.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
After graduation, she started working at Kepner Scott full time. She was eventually joined by her sister, Addie. “I’m mainly in charge of sales and marketing and Addie fulfills orders. But like all small businesses, the owners tend to wear a lot of hats. We both help out in many areas,” Zimmerman says, adding that people calling customer service are likely to speak to one of them.
Her father says his daughters’ commitment ensures that the business will remain in the family.
“It’s a blessing, actually. I’m 72 and my sister is 68: If there wasn’t another generation there to run the business, the future would have been doubtful,” Steve says.
He notes the most significant change initiated by his daughter: direct-to-consumer sales. Previously, Kepner Scott used a team of salesman to get product in stores. Now, customers buy shoes via the company’s website. Zimmerman also has leveraged selling to niche markets, which include the Amish community, parochial schools, and high-end boutiques.
“We’ve done collaborations with children’s clothing companies and worked with adult footwear brands to make a miniature version of what they’re making, which is really fun,” Zimmerman says. “We’ve partnered with designers to do limited edition lines.”
Like many others, the company faced challenges during the pandemic. On March 11, 2020, Zimmerman had traveled to participate in Spring at the Silos, a special event hosted by Magnolia founders Chip and Joanna Gaines at their venue in Waco, Texas. Forty companies were invited to showcase their products to an expected audience of 30,000, but it was canceled due to pandemic restrictions. At the same time, the Pennsylvania factory closed during lockdown.
Zimmerman brainstormed a way to pivot and Kepner Scott began producing masks, focusing on helping health care workers who needed them. Before they were done, 100,000 masks had been produced, earning the company a Wall Street Journal story. Zimmerman Shoes also was featured in 2021 on the Magnolia Network’s series “Extraordinary Stories About Everyday Things.”
Her future plans include merging the Kepner Scott and Zimmerman Shoes brands so that the companies will share the same website and social media presence. Under the merger, her new footwear line will become Zimmerman Shoes by Kepner Scott Shoe Company.
She is aware that handmade shoes created with quality materials are a high-end product. Zimmerman is grateful to her customers for their loyalty, savoring the times they send photos of children in the shoes.
“I will never get over what a great feeling it is that they were made right here and now they’re out in the world, with kids learning how to walk, taking their first steps or hiking, doing all of those great things in our shoes,” she says.
Audrey Zimmerman is a 2014 graduate of Kutztown University's Business Administration/Management program.
This article originally appeared in the 2023 Tower Magazine.