Gurkee's sandals take off running after moving from Mexico to WV - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Gurkee's sandals take off running after moving plant from Mexico to WV

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Photo courtesy R S Marketing LLC / Ray Sickles bought the company that makes Gurkee's sandals in 2009 and moved its manufacturing plant from Mexico to Morgantown the following year. Photo courtesy R S Marketing LLC / Ray Sickles bought the company that makes Gurkee's sandals in 2009 and moved its manufacturing plant from Mexico to Morgantown the following year.
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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD

For The State Journal

MORGANTOWN — A little American ingenuity has led to a popular sandal not just being Made in the USA, but Made in West Virginia.

R S Marketing LLC has manufactured Gurkee's rope sandals in the Cheat Lake area of Monongalia County since 2010.

When Ray Sickles bought the company in September 2009, he discovered the pitfalls of being an absentee owner of a factory in another country. Not quite a year later, he moved the company from Mexico to Morgantown.

He had become friends with the previous owner, who told him he'd never be able to make them in the United States, saying, "You can't beat the labor rate in Mexico."

Sickles had to. He found shrinkage in his inventory and supplies.

"I discovered the numbers weren't adding up, and it just wasn't a good thing," he said. "All in all, I ended up losing a lot of money from crooked dealings, and I had no control. They weren't making deliveries, and they were causing me to miss my market."

The Morgantown businessman found he could move his company to Monongalia County if he automated the production process.

"I figured out how to make the sandals myself," Sickles said. 

The company came with seven pictures that showed the process of making the sandals. Sickles duplicated what the photos showed but it took too long to make a pair of sandals by hand, especially at American labor rates. 

"I would watch my employees work and watch their hands move and develop pieces of equipment or tools to make it faster and that's where we got the process time down and are able to match their labor rates."

Gurkee's now employs 14 people.

"I wanted to move before we ever had problems with the Mexico guy. All he did was hasten the move," Sickles said. "We've shipped thousands of sandals to Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, Romania, Italy and to Zanzibar. We have Gurkee's sitting on coast of Africa."

Sharon Stratton, manager of the West Virginia Small Business Development Center in Morgantown, has helped the company with strategic planning.

"They wholesale the sandals to Urban Outfitters, Burkman Bros and Opening Ceremony. They have hundreds of retailers carrying their product," she said. 

Sickles, who has a degree in marketing from West Virginia University, started selling Gurkee's in 1998 and within a year or two was filling orders for 10,000 pairs out of his house. He found out about the sandals when his wife, Debbie, bought a pair from a tanning salon.

The sandals are popular because they conform to the wearer's feet, making him or her feel like they are barefoot. Sickles said it's like walking on carpet because the rope in the sandals is made from carpet yarn that is wound together. In fact, the next upgrade will be the purchase of a rope-twisting machine.

"I have lots of testimonials from people who say they've had them years and years and years and they're comfortable, they last forever and they hardly ever wear out. They're very light. A women's size 8 weighs about 8 ounces for the pair. You can hardly tell you have them on your feet."

He said that's because the rope is made of polypropylene, the same stuff Tupperware containers are made of.

The company's rope sandals can be ordered in six styles and a variety of colors, including school colors. Its product line also includes dog leashes, belts and key chains.

Recently Sickles added handmade scented candles to his product line to keep his workers employed during the sandal business's off-season.

ON THE WEB: http://www.gurkees.com/