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Converse CEO John O'Neil Kept All Star Shoes in Game

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05/21/2020 | 11:24am EDT

By James R. Hagerty

John O'Neil, son of a Converse factory manager, took pre-med courses at Tufts University in the early 1940s. His father wanted him to be a doctor.

After graduating from Tufts and serving in the Army, however, and with a young family to support, Mr. O'Neil followed his father into the shoemaking plants. He started on the production floor and rose to become chief executive of Converse from 1976 to 1986.

Mr. O'Neil, who died March 30 at the age of 98 of pneumonia unrelated to the novel coronavirus, confronted two existential threats to the company's canvas Chuck Taylor All Star basketball shoes, sometimes known as Chucks. Nike, Adidas, Reebok and other brands were sprinting past Converse as demand for running shoes soared. Meanwhile, low-cost Asian manufacturers were gearing up to dominate shoe production.

Converse remained relevant in the athletic world with endorsements from basketball stars Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Though its share of the basketball market dwindled, Converse benefited as rock musicians, artists and skateboarders discovered Chucks as retro fashion statements.

Converse egged on fashion buyers by offering dozens of colors. Fashion-related demand was strong in Japan and Europe as well as in the U.S.

The company began importing shoes from Taiwan and South Korea and closed its New England shoe plants, but kept one in Lumberton, N.C. To retain U.S. manufacturing capacity, Mr. O'Neil told New England Business in 1985, Converse installed computerized stitching and materials-handling equipment. "We still need to do more," he said.

Early in his career, when Mr. O'Neil ran a stitching plant in Berlin, N.H., people seeking jobs occasionally knocked on his door at home in the evening. Rather than shoo them away, he sat them down at his kitchen table, offered them a beer and took down their information.

As a former factory worker, he found it painful to close plants. The Lumberton factory remained open until 2001, long after Mr. O'Neil's retirement. Converse has been owned by Nike Inc. since 2003.

Marquis Mills Converse founded Converse Rubber Shoe Co. in 1908 in Malden, Mass., to make rubber boots and slip-ons to protect leather shoes from snow and slush. It introduced what would become the All Star canvas sneaker in 1917. In the early 1920s, Charles H. "Chuck" Taylor, a former high-school basketball star from Indiana, joined Converse as a salesman and traveled nationwide to host basketball clinics promoting the brand.

Mr. Taylor, whose name went on the All Star shoes in 1934, whipped up the demand that provided work for Jeremiah J. O'Neil, whose first son, John Patrick O'Neil, was born Nov. 1, 1921, in Malden.

While studying at Tufts, John O'Neil worked at Converse plants at night and on weekends, stamping sizes on soles among other tasks. He graduated from Tufts in 1943 and enlisted in the Army, where he attended officer-training school and held administrative jobs in the U.S. during World War II.

In 1944, he married Nancy Hodgkins, introduced to him by a mutual friend.

Mr. O'Neil learned that Chuck Taylor had strict quality standards. "We almost hated to see him come into the factory," Mr. O'Neil told the Boston Globe in 1987. "He picked at everything. Nothing was ever right. He wasn't antagonistic, but he was very persistent."

Eltra Corp. bought Converse in 1971. Allied Chemical Corp. swallowed Eltra in 1979 and decided Converse didn't fit its business plan.

Richard Loynd, a former Eltra executive who oversaw Converse, organized a group of investors who, along with Mr. O'Neil and other executives, bought the company from Allied for about $100 million in 1982. Mr. O'Neil was chief executive of the newly independent Converse and Mr. Loynd chairman.

"We moved into a fast break, to use a basketball metaphor," Mr. O'Neil told the New York Times later. Converse was a sponsor of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and sales jumped as the company introduced new colors and styles. But sales and profit dropped in 1985 amid tough competition from Nike and Reebok International Ltd. Though Converse results improved in 1986, the owners couldn't resist a $145.6 million bid for the company that year from Interco Inc.

"We got one hell of a price," Mr. Loynd said.

Mr. O'Neil's survivors include four children, five grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and a brother. His wife, Nancy, died in 2011. For the past 14 years, he lived at a retirement community in Palm City, Fla. He kept busy writing profiles of new residents for a newsletter and helping form a foundation to provide scholarships for employees of the community and their children.

His son John W. O'Neil, who also had a career at Converse, recalled one of his father's sayings: "You've got to have a reason to get up in the morning and shave. If you don't, you're in trouble."

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com


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CAREER CO., LTD. -0.57% 349 End-of-day quote.-29.49%
DEERE & COMPANY 0.67% 157.9 Delayed Quote.-8.87%
JUST GROUP PLC -4.49% 48.9 Delayed Quote.-38.10%
LINE CORPORATION 1.83% 5570 End-of-day quote.4.11%
NIKE, INC. 1.06% 98.43 Delayed Quote.-2.84%
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THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY -1.90% 41.81 Delayed Quote.29.97%
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WORLD CO., LTD. -1.19% 1496 End-of-day quote.-44.41%
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