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thedrifter
10-01-09, 10:14 AM
Keeping the shine on: old world Sunnyvale company thrives in recession

By Bruce Newman

bnewman@mercurynews.com
San Jose Mercury News
Posted:09/30/2009 05:51:26 PM PDT


Mannie Rice was sitting behind his desk at Lincoln Shoe Polish the other day — same as he had for the past 50 years — when the telephone rang. The phone is the most advanced piece of electronic equipment in an office filled with yellowing ledgers and furniture that can be carbon-dated back to the Coolidge administration. It's bleating like a sheep when Rice finally picks up.

From the other end came the booming voice of command. "He didn't say hello, just, 'Where the hell can I get some Marine Cordovan wax around here?' " recalls Rice, 76. "That was his opening line."

An old Marine had become separated from his supply line of Lincoln wax polish. His devotion to a shoe shine that many consider the finest in the world has provided the small Sunnyvale company with a legion of loyal foot soldiers.

Located in an industrial park near the sprawling campuses of National Semiconductor, AMD and Fujitsu, Lincoln Polish is a little piece of the old world that stands shoulder-to-shoulder — on spit-shined shoes — with Silicon Valley's elite companies.

And at a time when companies great and small are floundering as consumers cut back, Lincoln's bottom line has been buffed, not buffeted, by the recent economic storms.

"Recessions aren't a bad time for us," Rice says. "People take better care of their shoes instead of buying new ones."

It has been that way since John Lincoln — Rice's father-in-law — founded the company in 1925. After years on the road selling rubber heels, Lincoln developed the secret formula for the high-gloss Lincoln shine, brewing a batch in his San Francisco apartment each night, then selling it to the trade the next day.

When the United Nations came to San Francisco in 1945 to develop its charter, Lincoln created a special polish for the United States Marines who stood watch over the proceedings. Following World War II, the Corps made Lincoln's Marine Cordovan standard issue in a soldier's duffel, so that the military's boots on the ground would shine with the finest carnauba wax.

One sergeant was so infuriated by the ease with which his dogfaces were able to raise a spit-polish shine with Lincoln that he sent the company a letter saying he had banned its use by his unit. That grudging testimonial remains tucked away in a safe at the Lincoln Shoe Polish Co.

"That was the product that launched the company," Rice says. "Everybody had to have cordovan shoes in those days, not just the Marine Corps."

The popularity of the reddish-brown horsehide shoe endured from 1940s brogues to penny loafers in the '70s, until schoolyards finally were overrun by Vans and Nike sneakers. The company still holds exclusive rights to the name "Marine Cordovan" — its second-biggest selling shade after black — although the Marines began storming beaches in synthetic suede boots years ago.

"They don't even have to shine their dress shoes anymore," Rice says, a note of horror creeping into his customary deadpan. "Those are now Cor-fam, which is plastic. There's very little military business for the polish people today."

That's been offset somewhat by the outsized popularity of Lincoln's waxes and creams at repair shops and shoeshine stands, although the civilian population seems only marginally more interested in taking care of its footwear these days than the Marines. "Most shoes now are sold at places like Wal-Mart, where it's cheaper to throw them away and get a new pair than to get the old ones fixed," Rice says.

Still, the company sells about 200,000 cans of polish a year, in line with the good old days, when cities such as New York and Philadelphia had shine stands on almost every corner. "You don't want to buy a pair of Cole Haans, wear them a few times and toss them," points out Barry Shepard, a 30-year cobbler at Barry's Shoe Repair in Sunnyvale. He sells Lincoln for $4 a can.

At A Shine & Co., the San Francisco shoe-buffing empire, they use Lincoln wax polish exclusively. "Pretty much everything Lincoln makes, we like," says co-owner Rachel Leamy, who won't go near the mass-market Kiwi polish popular outside the land of Lincoln. "I can always tell people from the East Coast because they have a Kiwi wax buildup on their shoes."

Attention to waxy buildup isn't what it was in the swinging '60s, when San Francisco experienced an explosion of topless shoeshine stands. "We were the only product they used," Rice says. "Unfortunately, or fortunately, they're all gone."

When Rice went to work for his father-in-law in 1959, the old man made him retype the pages of the company formula book to drum it into his head. "It was like the Bible," Rice says. "We don't deviate from that. I'm still using the same formula as when I got here."

When the company moved from San Francisco to Sunnyvale in 1970, it transported the large, tallow-crusted machine in which waxes and colors are blended, then deposited in Lincoln's distinctive yellow and blue cans. The thing has been wheezing to life for 60 years, and its work still shines. Rice insists his old school business isn't going anywhere.

"Put it this way," he says, "I just had the sign outside by the expressway repainted, and it's supposed to last 10 years."

Longer than that if he would polish it occasionally.

Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004.

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Ellie