To be honest, I never met Louis Karno. I know he was a Polish immigrant, whose last name was Karnowsky. He died long before I was born. So, why is this firm named Louis Karno & Company? Well, the answer goes back to 1905 when my grandfather, Max Siegel and his family came to the US fleeing pogroms near Kiev. My grandfather was just 5 years old, and other than their samovar, they had few belongings.
My grandfather went to public school in Chicago, where he was ridiculed for not speaking English. But he soon learned, delivering ice as a way to earn some money for his family. He graduated high school, and studied bookkeeping – and got himself a job working at L. Karno & Company on Chicago’s 13th Street. Mr. Karno’s company made shoe leather and machine belts. My grandfather worked his way up in the firm, until he was given the opportunity to buy it from a retiring Mr. Karno.
So, the good news was as a young man he owned and ran his own business. The bad new were it was in gangland infested Chicago, and the economy was about to implode.
But Max Siegel was up to a challenge – he knew that most people could not afford new shoes, but he knew that if he could come up with a home shoe repair product - he could sell them. He developed a self-adhesive shoe leather that could repair a pair of worn shoes for those who could not afford a new pair. And he came out with a steel toe and heel plates for worn shoes. L. Karno made it through the Depression – and his next invention was to be a big one too.
Most shoes were hot and uncomfortable – and he knew that there was a good market for padded insoles- but he also knew that they added comfort, but offered little relief from the heat. His idea was genius – perforate the insole – so when you walked the air passed through it. He called it Air Cool. This was before a certain Dr. S came up with the same product. A booming department store chain, Kresgy’s, offered to sell them nationwide – and a star was born.
L. Karno went on to sell men’s ties, shoeshine cloths, one-size fits all insoles (you cut them yourself). By the 1960s the company started wholesaling baby goods in the face of the baby boom.
Max Siegel passed away in 1982 at the age of 77. His company would last another decade, but fade as Wal-Mart put many of L. Karno’s baby goods customers out of business, and sent big customer K-Mart into a free fall as well.
I used capital from the original L. Karno to start the communications firm in 1999. And in a way, I took on the philosophy of the old L. Karno. Times were changing, media was in the middle of a massive upheaval, social media was emerging – it would take new thinking to succeed – just like perforating the insole, it would take a new approach to an old industry to succeed and prosper. Times have changed, so has business – but smart thinking and getting back to basics remain the key to good marketing.