Shinola's main product isn't what you think it is.
In becoming one of America's most prominent new brands, Shinola has bared the brunt of inevitable criticism. In particular, they've been admonished for "manufactured authenticity," capitalizing on a "we're from Detroit" narrative that some allege is not entirely genuine.
However, the President of Shinola, Jacques Panis, is not a faker or a phony. He's a very real American dude in charge of making a very real American thing. Watches? Heck no. According to Jacques, Shinola was never about Made in America watches or Made in America other stuff. It's about Made in America jobs.
But why does anyone care? What sort of for-profit company gives a crap about where things are made? You make the best product you can as cheaply as you can and sell it for as much as you can. That's business. Leave the social good to the snowflakes and their silly charities and inefficient governments, amiright?
Ah, but capitalism just ain't what it used to be. Brands aren't suddenly pivoting towards social missions because they want to, it's something they have to do in order to survive. And, given what's happened in the past twelve months, is there a more pressing social mission than creating American manufacturing jobs?
Jacques Panis doesn't just think so, he knows so. And Shinola—love it or hate it—is trying its best to manufacturer those jobs, even if it means putting watches second.
How does your story begin?
My story is one of a scrappy young kid from Urbanna, Virginia, a town of 500 people on the Rappahannock River. I've worked in all sorts of of capacities, whether it's been hanging sheetrock or working on marketing campaigns for Fortune 500 brands.
How does a scrappy kid from a tiny town in Virginia become President of the coolest brand in America?
I eventually landed in Dallas and had an idea for an online gaming platform slash virtual world for kids called Webosaurs. That's how I met the gentleman I work for today, and have been with him for 10 years. We built that platform, were not successful at getting it to scale, and eventually had to pull the plug. From there, I was fortunate to be able to stay on board with Tom and his group and when Shinola was founded I was brought over. From there I was made president of the company in 2013, and ever since have been working with what is today 654 people around the world building this brand.
I think from a brand perspective, Shinola captured something about three years before it came full force into the zeitgeist, which is the focus on American manufacturing. Why was that something that you were prescient enough to see from far out?
That was the mission of the company from the get-go. Our mission at Shinola has always been job creation here in the United States.
Why was that something important to the brand?
It’s important to for us to demonstrate that job creation, creating companies, starting enterprises in the United States is doable and possible with some innovation, capital, and a willingness to not take no for an answer. It's not easy. The battle is not won here at Shinola just yet. We're working very hard every single day to get to profitability.
Do you think it's harder today for an American company achieve profitability than it’s been in the past?
I think it depends on what you're doing as an American company. I can't speak for all industries, but with what we're doing, building things in the United States, it's hard.
What do you say to the common criticism that Shinola is trying to capitalize on the whole Detroit resurgence thing? You know, that Shinola isn’t really a Detroit company, but it's sort of trying to hold itself out that way.
We have never tried to portray Shinola as a Detroit company. Shinola is a job creation vehicle that's based in Detroit and we're creating jobs in the city of Detroit as we said we were going to do from the start.
What’re the biggest challenges you’re facing right now?
Right now we are dealing with everything from raw material costs to supply chain challenges across the varying categories to training of the workforce to driving traffic into stores. There are a number of challenges but they're all good challenges. We have incredible teams of people that are prepared for the challenges that exist today and in the future.
Our audience includes a lot of people who are trying to make it to where you're at right now. Is there a solution you’ve discovered recently that might be of help to them?
I don’t know that I have a solution to share, but I would say be willing to take risks and step out of your comfort zone to make a change, a positive impact on community. Invest in people! Believe in people!
Products-wise, what's the next step for Shinola? I know you’re making turntables.
There are a number of exciting things that we are coming out with in the future or have recently launched. One of the product categories we recently launched at the end of last year was audio, with the Runwell turntable, and later this year we're going to be launching other incredible pieces of equipment. We'll be opening up the Shinola Hotel the fall of 2018. One of our big initiatives is, as you can imagine given our mission, is to continue creating jobs. We'd love to go to the South Side of Chicago and open up some sort of light manufacturing operation in the near future as well.
What other products do you see as working for Shinola in the future? Is it just "cool stuff"? Or would you one day make shoe polish again?
We do actually sell shoe polish. It’s produced in small batches in Chicago by a family-owned company who has been making it since 1905. It’s a lighthearted homage to our roots.
Otherwise, it has lot to do with what we can find, where we can find people to help us. Whether it's audio engineers or bicycle designers or leather designers. It's about being able to find people who can teach us to do and make things that we want to make or build here in the United States. As we look to new categories, we look for people and we look for ways in which we can create more jobs and continue focusing on our mission.
Back in the day, Apple got into trouble when they moved away from their core sales items. Why do you think your strategy is different? How will you avoid diluting your brand?
Our intention with Shinola Audio, like everything we do, is to create a business built on skill at scale, creating high quality American manufacturing jobs, and products made to last. Audio, like all the categories we work in, is an industry where the jobs and the skills have gone elsewhere over the years. While I can't comment on other brands, I do know that there is a hunger in this country for authenticity, quality, and for things made here by American workers. We’ve seen it with every product category we’ve introduced. Many people know us as only a watch brand but our other categories, like leather for example, are quickly playing a larger role in the mix of goods.
Since you have such a strong social mission, have you ever thought about doing a hybrid business model thing? Like a B-Corp situation where you have a dual mission?
We are a for-profit company and that’s not going to change, but our mission is one that has purpose. Still, the fact of the matter is we have to get profitable to continue on our mission of creating jobs. It's that fine balance of purpose before profits or profits before purpose and that balance is something that we work on every single day.
How did you decide how to price Shinola products?
Our focus is delivering immense value to the end user, the consumer. For example, in the watch category, we're the only company in the world that has a lifetime guarantee on our time pieces. All of our products are designed, developed and manufactured to deliver an incredible amount of value.
I'm trying to put myself in the room when you decided exactly how much a Shinola watch would cost.
We wanted to be priced underneath where the Swiss guys are, but at the same level of quality, and priced above the fashion brands, the $250 watch brands and below. That holds true in all of our product categories. Whether you're buying a leather bag that’s in the $595 to $895 range, you're getting a bag that is cut, sewn, stitched, tanned, you know, et cetera, here in the United States from people who pour their heart and soul into everything they do.
Why do you think the American consumer is suddenly more willing to pay a premium for American-made goods?
I don't know that they're finally willing to pay more. I think the American consumer is being offered more and more products nowadays that carry a narrative similar to Shinola, a narrative that is about doing things here in the United States. Again, we're not an American made play. We are a job creation vehicle. With that in mind, we have a beautiful narrative. I think globally consumers are interested in products that have a clear answer to the “why.” Why does this exist?
I do feel like that narrative, that product narrative, is something that wasn't always as important as it is now, though.
No, I completely agree. I think we're dealing with a consumer that has a mindset that is more conscious and more aware of where their goods are coming from. I think a good analogy is the food industry. We have all become more conscious and have demanded that food purveyors be transparent about where the food comes from. I think we're seeing that similar sort of mindset come to the surface when someone's buying into a consumer good, a watch or a leather bag or a journal book, something that you can look at and pick up and understand why, where, what, and who is behind it.
A hundred percent. Why do you think that is, though? Why has that become important to the consumer?
I think that's become important to the consumer because we have, in so many instances, so many cases, been duped by brands, been told one thing but delivered another. Now we demand transparency, we demand real, we demand pure, we demand this ability to understand the "why" within all of our products. Brands should be able to deliver that. We should demand that of brands, not just Shinola. I think it's very, very important that we give the consumer the level of transparency that allows them to really peer into everything that we do.
Since you’re making so much already, have you thought about doing original content?
What do you mean by that?
I mean like a Shinola channel or Shinola podcast, something like that.
We don't have anything firm. We're always creating content, we're always sharing story. With the launch of audio, we have an incredible video that talks about how we made our turntables and all the collaboration that went into it. As we get further down the path of audio and the audio story, you can begin to imagine there being some sort of Shinola content play where we're curating a channel of musicians or makers or entrepreneurs or guys like Farber.
What does it feel like to run Shinola day-to-day?
It's the most humbling, rewarding, incredible experience I have ever been afforded in my life. It's amazing to walk through this facility where I work every single day and to see people collaborating, to see people crying together, to see people sharing, to see people eating together, to see a collective group of folks who are all focused on the mission of creating jobs in this country and doing it for the most part with smiles on their faces. I say it all of the time, I have the greatest job in the world and I'm the luckiest guy in the world.
It can't be all sunshine and rainbows all of the time though right?
No, for sure. We talked about challenges earlier, no doubt. Constantly wracking our brains, constantly looking for ways to gain more brand awareness, constantly looking for ways to develop product better, more efficiently, more cost effectively, constantly looking for ways to drive more value to the consumer, constantly focusing on the integrity of the brand. Yes. It's not peachy and sunny all of the time, but you know what? It's damn fun.
Do you ever get approached the people from the old Detroit manufacturing guard who have an opinion about what you’re doing?
Sure. There are men and women who have worked in this city for 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, who remember the Packard plant when it was operating or remember these massive automobile manufacturing operations that are now closed today, that know that Shinola is the little engine that can. They’re pulling for us and rooting for us. Those are the people that are part of the Shinola story and love being being part of this brand. People take ownership of it, and they are fighting for this brand, which is really endearing and amazing to see and hear when it does happen.
As president, you’re interacting with people all day long right?
Yeah. All day.
What’s your strategy?
How do you implement that?
You implement it by not sitting behind a glass wall in a corner office where you have a living room and a refrigerator and you never leave. You communicate with people. You walk around and you listen to people. You don't email back and forth more than two times with people. You get up from your desk and you go and you talk to people and you solve problems and you collaborate and you work face-to-face.
Is your sort of natural, small-town approachability part of the reason you’re good for the job?
Are you asking if my natural approachability is why I got the job?
Maybe. All I know is that I was given the opportunity of a lifetime and for that I am forever grateful and work everyday to ensure our mission is accomplished.