Shinola executive in a Philly visit puts a Detroit sheen on its American-assembled products

When city fathers were declaring Detroit bankrupt in 2013, Shinola was making its first product there.

While digital tech is taking over the world, this oft-contrary company has embraced all things analog – from old-school watches that give the time “just by looking at them” (a dig at smart watches) to city-style pedal bicycles, vinyl- record turntables, and leather bags.

All bear a “Built in Detroit” label. And all priced in the middle-upper stratus of the consumer market -- $550 and up for timekeepers sold with a lifetime guarantee, $999+ for two-wheelers, $2,500 for record spinners, $750 for a satchel.

Another head-scratcher -- while retailers have been contracting, left and right, Shinola has been expanding with company stores – now  20  in the U.S.  including a “doing well, thanks” branch at the King of Prussia Mall, “where people get what we’re all about.” So shared Shinola president Jacques Panis on Thursday, at a pep rally for entrepreneurs in the WeWork shared office space at 19th and Market Streets cosponsored by the Cozen O’Connor law firm.

Taking its name from an iconic American shoe-polish brand and a sardonic expression (“He doesn’t know s*@#  from Shinola”), the firm is all about being “disruptive and counterintuitive,” Panis said. It’s also about having fun while seeking a reinvigoration of U.S. manufacturing.  

The president argues that a comeback could happen here, too, “given Philadelphia’s long history as a manufacturing hub and talent base and your start-up enthusiasm.” (We made everything from clothing and car bodies to missile nose cones.)

Making Detroit the Shinola headquarters – and putting the town’s name on its products -- resonated with customers.  (Founder Tom Kartsosis’ past achievement was co-launching the Fossil watch line, based in Texas but with product made in China.)

Detroit's name still suggests “American quality, American luxury,” Panis suggested, more so than saying “Made in the U.S.”  

Shinola underscored its Motown links by locating its offices, first store, and assembly facility in a downtown building that once housed GM’s global R&D headquarters. “It’s where the Corvette was born, where the first automatic transmission and electric window motor mechanism was developed."

And its several hundred employees now share space with a charter school and a college. “We’re hoping students will start at the Henry Ford Academy, continue their education at the College for Creative Studies,  then come to work for us, all without leaving the building,” Panis said.  

Detroit has embraced the company, added the Shinola spieler. Noted musician/entrepreneur Jack White “just opened the first modern vinyl record pressing plant/retail store" nearby. "So you can buy a record player from us and then walk down the street to get hot-off-the-presses stuff to play on it. And even with our global expansion” (including a branded shop in London and a coming Japanese retail partnership) “we’re still selling 37 percent of our products at our factory store,” where visitors can see watches, bikes, and turntables being assembled in the back.

“Everybody who stops in wants to take home a piece of Detroit,” Panis said.

Calling the firm “totally apolitical,”  Panis said Shinola was championing domestic production long before Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. 

The company has taken some heat from the Federal Trade Commission for its homegrown claims, Panis shared late in his chat.

Some FTC concerns were picayune: Were the cows they use for leather goods raised in America? But other gripes needed clarification, he admitted. While it’s true the complicated “engine” driving the wheels of its time pieces is assembled in the Motor City, the parts are sourced from Swiss partner Ronda, “which came in and taught locals how to put them together.”

Watch cases and glass come from China “because we haven’t found anyone in the U.S. who could still make them.” So now Shinola watches are accurately billed as “Built in Detroit . . . with Swiss and other imported parts.”  

Shinola is “not yet profitable,” Panis conceded, “but getting there.”

Nor has every product panned out. “We've given up on pet accessories.” Still, its plans remain ambitious. The same audio expert who helped design Shinola's 87 percent American-made turntables is now prepping a line of headphones. Original furniture, bedding, and bath designs might debut, he hinted, in the first Shinola-branded hotel planned to open in Detroit “in fall of 2018.”

“We’ve got to fill the rooms with something!”