Adopted Southern gentleman gives back to Arkansas

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published March 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 1, 2013 at 12:19 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Don Munro is chairman of the board of Munro & Company Inc., a shoe manufacturing company that ships its products all over the world. The company was once centered in New England and made the move south with Munro to Hot Springs.

When you talk to people about Don Munro, they eventually get back to one word — “gentleman.”

Two people even said that if you looked up the word in a dictionary, you would find a picture of Munro, the 84-year-old chairman of Munro & Co. in Hot Springs.

Soft-spoken, formally courteous, known for his conservative striped ties, Munro’s demeanor is famously polite, and he is renowned for his deep concern for the well-being of others — the title fits.

“He is the Southern gentleman

in every way,” Naccanman Williams, who holds a Doctor of Education

degree and is director of special initiatives for the Walton Family Foundation, said in a video honoring Munro made in 2011 — a surprising title for a Boston native who grew up calling New Hampshire home.

“I’ve always thought of myself as more of an Arkansas person than a Hot Springs person,” Munro said, “because my business and my interests have

extended out over the state.”

In recent years, Munro has been best known for his philanthropy. He was one of the original members of the Foundation of the Mid South, an organization that promotes education, health and financial security for the residents and communities of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. He was one of the early supporters of the Arkansas Community Foundation and helped it establish the Hot Springs Area Community Foundation.

He has also been an involved supporter and fundraiser for organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Arkansas Arts Center.

“He has made a huge impact in Arkansas with his fundraising,” said Mollie Munro, one of his three daughters and executive vice president of Munro Shoes. “He has brought in money for organizations such as [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences], the Arts Center and the University of Arkansas System. No one can tell my father no.”

Sally Carder, president of National Park Community College, who has called on Munro and his colleagues to help her school, said she knows how dedicated he can be.

“He will choose a cause, and when he does, he is extremely passionate about it,” she said in a tribute to Munro given at the Governor’s Mansion in 2011.

Munro is on the board of governors of the NPCC Foundation.

“I believed in the mission of those organizations, so I signed on to help,” Don Munro said. “I have a very small foundation, and I try to do my share.”

Munro and some friends in the Hot Springs area have also created a circle of giving for individual projects. It is an endeavor he enjoys.

“The way I understand it, it is like an investment group for philanthropy,” Munro said. “It is a small group of enthusiastic people. People submit proposals, and we interview them. It is very educational and very rewarding.”

The gifts made by the members of the giving organization are considered seed money, he said. Most of the proposals are local in scope.

He said the group also encourages others in the state to create their own giving circles. Munro is also involved in community development.

“Being with the organizations I have worked with, I have been exposed to the needs of people in a community,” he said. “I live pretty well, so I like to try and help others have a better life.”

Even without his generosity and community services, Munro would still be a hero to many Arkansans because of what he did with his company in the 1980s.

At that time, many American manufacturers were closing down and shipping their operations overseas, seeking lower operating costs and higher profits. There were 1,000 shoe factories in the U.S. in 1975, and about 40 remain.

Munro wanted Munro Shoes to remain American made and to keep as many jobs as possible in Arkansas.

“By then, Don was chairman, and he looked to us, the next generation, to figure out what to do,” Mollie said. “We could either be a brand and look for manufacturers or be a manufacturer for a brand. We decided to have our own brand that we would make at our factories.”

The company created the brand Munro American in 1983.

“We limped along as a brand, and then Bruce took over as CEO in 1993 and set our sights on Nordstrom,” Mollie said. “We have been the company’s No. 1 brand for 15 years.”

The company found a niche in the market with quality and size. Much of the manufacturing process is done by hand, with some parts handled by high-tech machinery, at the company’s factory outside Hot Springs. For instance, lasers cut out the inside lining of the shoes with computer control to decrease waste, but the shoes are shaped and assembled by hand.

The Munro shoes are also known for fit. For each style, the company makes 75

sizes, from super slim to extra wide. Shoes are usually made in only 14-17 sizes, Munro said.

The company has survived, but not without cutbacks. There were once 2,200 workers in seven factories. There are just more than 500 working at the Hot Springs factory today. Son Neil Munro purchased the company’s store in Wynne and created Neil M Footwear for men, using the same quality and size philosophy.

“Business is fair,” Munro said. “We may try to look at new markets and new products.”

Munro came to Arkansas from New Hampshire when the shoe company he worked for was looking to expand, and he was encouraged to look at Arkansas locations.

“I never really found out why, but I have always suspected Winthrop Rockefeller knew someone on the board of directors,” he said. “The Arkansas Industrial Development Commission gave tours of different places, but they picked Hot Springs.”

Munro said he found the mountain terrain around Hot Springs much like New Hampshire and that the people were always friendly.

The company did well in Arkansas, and soon there were eight plants in Arkansas and only three in New England.

“When the partners there retired, I purchased the company,” he said. “I later sold the factories in Maine and New Hampshire to the son of one of the partners.”

What could have been just a career stop became home for Munro and his family. It has made for a good partnership for both the family and Arkansas.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460

or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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