Skip to main content

One day in 1959, Greb Industries, a family-owned shoe company in Kitchener, Ont., secured a licence to start selling a new kind of shoe in Canada - Hush Puppies.

Made of brushed pigskin and built on a lightweight crepe rubber sole, the Hush Puppy constituted something of a footwear revolution. Until that time, high-end casual shoes were virtually non-existent - people either wore dress shoes, even to picnics, or they wore low-cost sneakers.

The initial market testing was inauspicious. Buyers for major retailers were skeptical that Canadians would be willing to pay $9.95 for a pair of shoes, no matter what their level of alleged comfort.

Story continues below advertisement

The company's senior executives, brothers Harry, Arthur and Charles (Chuck) Greb, who died recently at 80 at his home near Kitchener after a three-year battle with cancer, wrestled with whether to proceed.

In the end, they decided on a risky but innovative course of action. They would go over the heads of the retail mavens and appeal directly to consumers.

Launching a $40,000 advertising campaign, they ran a series of TV spots trumpeting the "barefoot comfort" of the new shoes, and featuring a loveable basset hound, Velvet. Consumers immediately pressured retailers to start carrying the shoes. When they finally arrived, the brand was already a household name.

The results were astonishing. Sales jumped from 44,000 pairs in 1960 to 600,000 pair in 1962, and soon eclipsed one million annually. Of 18 international licensees for Hush Puppies, Greb proved to be by far the most successful.

The name of the shoe came from the fried cornballs - or hush puppies - that American farmers in the deep South used to throw to quiet their barking dogs. Because "barking dogs" was also a common euphemism for aching feet, one alert executive at the Wolverine Shoe company, the U.S. inventor, quickly suggested the name Hush Puppies.

Wolverine early on adopted a photograph of a dog as part of its branding exercise. However, it was Charles Greb, then national sales director for Greb in Canada, who conceived the idea of putting a live dog into the TV commercials.

Then Mr. Greb went further, taking Velvet (and body double Jasmine) on cross-Canada promotional trips. "Velvet travelled with me wherever I went," he later recalled. "She stayed in the finest hotels."

Story continues below advertisement

With its other product lines, Greb Industries grew to become the country's largest shoe manufacturer. By the early 1970s, it was operating seven plants in North America, employing 2,200 people, and, in addition to Hush Puppies, selling 950,000 pair of Bauer skates, 700,000 pair of Kodiak workboots and 100,000 pair of cowboy boots annually.

Charles and his two older brothers had inherited the company from their father, Erwin. Erwin's father, also named Charles, had moved his family from Zurich, Ont., to Kitchener, then known as Berlin, about 1910. A few years later, he bought the Berlin Shoe Co. and renamed it Greb Industries in 1916.

Its fortunes ebbed and flowed with the economy. Like other businesses, it suffered during the Depression, but recovered with the start of the Second World War, when it landed contracts to manufacture combat boots for the Canadian military. Its growth was facilitated by a new technology - vulcanizing machines that could fuse rubber soles to the leather boot, creating a completely waterproof unit. Demand began to decline only with the end of the Korean War in the mid-1950s.

With his brothers, Charles Greb, who had started working at the company in 1948 as a factory hand straight out of high school, decided to sell the company in the early 1970s, in the teeth of another recession. Warrington Products, an entity then controlled by the Bronfman empire, bought Greb Industries in 1974.

"We thought, 'This is going to be wonderful,'" Mr. Greb said. "I felt pretty good about it at the time. But it became obvious that we'd made a huge mistake."

The company went into a long downward spiral and never really recovered, suffering a succession of plant closures and layoffs. Warrington, Mr. Greb later explained, had its fingers in too many consumer products and tried to operate shoe factories by the Harvard Business School book.

Story continues below advertisement

Shortly before the sale, the two iconic bassett hounds disappeared. First, Jasmine went missing from Charles's home in Reidville, Ont. A few days later, Velvet, apparently heartbroken, "decided to go looking for her." Jasmine's body was eventually found at the bottom of a silo. Velvet was never found.

Mr. Greb stayed on a year after the sale, and then went on to work for other companies and to launch his own business and investment ventures. These included Musitron Communications, of which he was CEO, Skyjack Inc. (director and chairman), Virtek Vision International Inc. (director and chairman) and the Woodside Fund (managing partner), a California venture capital partnership.

He also played an active role in the community organizations, serving at various times as chairman of the National Council of YMCAs of Canada; director (for 50 years) and president of the YMCA of Kitchener-Waterloo; honorary life member of the K-W Hospital Foundation and president of Kitchener Chamber of Commerce, among many other posts. He won many awards for volunteering.

CHARLES (CHUCK) GREB

Charles Greb was born on Sept. 2, 1929, and died on Nov. 18, 2009. He leaves his wife Fern (McEwing); sons Ross, John and Paul; stepdaughters Lori and Janice and 13 grandchildren.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter