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The Soul of the Shoe Business
January 2, 2023
Branson McRae is remembered not only for his business brilliance but also for his deep devotion to the well-being of others.
FOR YEARS, when Branson McRae was president and CEO of McRae Industries, he proudly displayed in his office a huge color picture of Scotland’s Eilean Donan Castle. A genealogy buff, he learned that his ancestors, the McRae clan, were literally keepers of the castle, beginning in the 16th century.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that the McRae family comes from the Gaelic Mhic Raith or Mac Rath, which translates to “Son of Posperity” or “Divine Grace.” Branson McRae lived his life as a son of prosperity – and in divine grace. With a keen mind and intrepid heart, he imparted his love of work and country to his family, employees, and community.
Playing by the rules
Branson’s sons, Gary and Jim, began working summers at the Wadeville factory in 1966, clocking in at 7 am. A legendary tale to this day is how Branson taught his boys to play by the rules.
One morning, the two arrived at 7:02 and punched their timecards. Branson’s response? “Boys, let me see those cards.” Noting the time was two minutes after the established hour for start of business, he ripped the timecards apart in front of startled onlookers. “Go home and stay there. No pay today. I’ll call your mama. She’ll have plenty for you to do at home.”
"Branson didn't have a college education, but he was by far the smartest man I ever met."
— Victor Karam, Director, McRae Industries
Quick study: Branson craved knowledge and readily imparted it.
“Dad had a unique ability to rapidly read and understand-everything from government contracts to operating manuals, ” says son Gary McRae, current president and CEO of McRae Industries. “He knew nothing about footwear manufacturing when he started his first shoe business in 1959-but he learned at the speed of light.”
“At all times, he carried around a yellow pad of paper to take notes. He didn’t want to miss a beat. Along with quickly digesting documents, he was also an excellent reader of people.”
By all accounts, Branson was uncommonly dedicated to his employees. “When the company made money, he shared it with everyone on staff,” Gary says. In the mid-1970s, a profit-sharing plan was established. Each employee received a profit-sharing check, along with an amount placed in an ESOP retirement account that consisted of cash and company stock. Today, the company has a cash profit-sharing plan and 401K plan into which it makes contributions.
“Dad was always colorblind and all-inclusive, hiring not only Laotians but Hispanic and African American workers,” son Jim says. The Hispanic employees came primarily from the hosiery industry nearby and migrated to McRae when two hosiery mills shut down in the area.
Senior workers were welcome also. Many staff members stayed on long after the official retirement age of 65. One employee retired at age 95. “He died a week later,” Victor remembers. “He loved his work at McRae, and I’m convinced that giving it up took away his purpose.”
Colorblind: Branson was devoted to creating a diverse workforce.
Branson cared deeply for his hometown. He was a cornerstone of the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Gilead, serving as a deacon and elder. After his death, the company established the Branson and Lorraine McRae Scholarship Endowment at Montgomery Community College, awarding annual scholarships in honor of Branson and his wife, Lorraine. Today, Lorraine is 97 years old and still lives in Mount Gilead. Another endowment with the North Carolina Community Foundation provides annual gifts to a variety of community and school projects.
“Dad lived from a soulful center,” Gary says. “In everything he did, every boot he made, and every life he touched, his vision, values, and vitality never wavered.”
An education advocate: Although Branson did not attend college, he was a lifetime supporter of higher education, setting up a scholarship endowment for Montgomery Community College in Troy, NC.
Hometown hero: Branson is immortalized on a wall mural in downtown Mount Gilead.