Willi Kümpel is one of the veterans at HAIX. The master shoemaker is not only connected to the company by years of work. Even before his time in Mainburg, he had a deep friendship with the late Ewald Haimerl. Their paths had parted in the meantime – time brought the two shoemakers together again.
“Impossible never existed”
„When we both started out, back in the day, Willi’s business was just about bigger than mine.” This is how Ewald Haimerl once started to tell me his and Willi’s story with the trademark twinkle in his eye. Willi Kümpel has run the repairs department at Mainburg for many years. He met the grand seigneur of HAIX in 1984, when both attended the shoemakers’ school in Munich.
Hailing from the Upper Palatinate, Kümpel was rarely seen without a cigarette in those days, and he vividly remembers that Haimel, a native of Lower Bavaria, was sporting a swollen nose from a mystery accident. They shared a room for six months. One was a passionate tinkerer, the other a strategic developer. Both were predestined for shoemaking and obtained the title of master craftsman with ease. Their shared time in Munich was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
Early success as a shoemaker
Willi Kümpel’s grandfather and his wife had earned their living by manufacturing handmade shoes in the 1930s. In 1962, Willi’s father continued the family’s entrepreneurial tradition of shoemaking in Tirschenreuth in the Upper Palatinate. Willi himself followed in his ancestors’ footsteps in the mid-1970s, when he qualified as an orthopedic shoemaker. At the age of 21, he took over the management of a shoe repair shop with three employees. He couldn’t help but laugh when his roommate in Munich prophesied, “Willi, you’ll be working for me one day.”
Upon becoming a master craftsman, Wilhelm Kümpel started his own business, a repair shop back home. As an independent orthopedic shoemaker, he had several employees. “We made everything: Shoes, bags, tractor covers… and we fixed anything that was even remotely fixable,” he recalled. Today, we met at his current workplace: The HAIX headquarters in Mainburg. The service and repairs department is a stone’s throw away from the production facilities. Kümpel picks up a restored boot and, with the other hand, holds up its tattered counterpart, still awaiting restoration. “Anything is possible,” he says. This has been the master shoemaker’s motto since the beginning of his career.
Two friends follow different paths
After successfully passing his master craftsman’s examination, Ewald Haimerl initially returned to his father’s shoemaking business in Mainburg. In 1992, he took over the company and its 15 employees, who were making cross-country ski boots, hiking boots and sandals to order at the time. The HAIX brand was yet to be born when Ewald developed his first legendary leather firefighter boot. “He visited me at home and proudly presented this boot to me,” recalled Willi. “He was looking for someone with a lot of experience to help him get his idea of a HAIX repair service off the ground. And I was who he’d had in mind.” From Tirschenreuth to Mainburg? Nearly 200 kilometers each way? How was that ever going to pay off for a small business like HAIX? To this day, Willi shakes his head in disbelief when he remembers his friend’s plan.
And yet HAIX kept on growing. Twelve months later, Willi finally agreed to carry out repairs for HAIX. When the company struggled to keep up with large orders due to production issues, it was he who spotted the problem. Willi, a quiet man, helped his ambitious friend overcome many a teething problem. “Just let me do my thing, and it will all work out,” he said with his signature calm demeanor.
What eventually led HAIX out of its crisis was none other than the Fire Fighter boot. Kümpel soon found himself taking the minibus from Tirschenreuth to Mainburg twice a week. In 2006, he finally accepted a full-time employment contract and built up the HAIX service department with Haimerl. “In the beginning, the senior manager still got his hands dirty himself.” He still remembers the prophecy Ewald Haimerl had made back in Munich.
Two shoemakers, one friendship
Their friendship remained strong through the years, giving rise to plenty of anecdotes and memorable stories. When Kümpel became seriously ill and kept postponing an important surgical procedure because he was determined to get the service department of HAIX North America off the ground first, Haimerl helped—but with a condition attached: Kümpel’s wife had to accompany them at all times, just to be on the safe side. In Vancouver, he booked a hotel right next to a renowned clinic— again, just in case—and when they returned to Germany, Haimerl was one of the first visitors to see his friend in hospital.
Ewald Haimerl passed away in 2019, far too young. Once every year, Willi Kümpel takes a new shoe from the latest collection, places it on his friend’s grave, and plants flowers in it. “So he can have a look at the sole from underneath and see that we’re still going strong,” he joked, but with deep sadness in his voice.
The service and repairs department that Kümpel helped build has long become an important part of HAIX’s company philosophy and its approach to sustainability. “Quality shoes deserve quality repairs.” To Willi Kümpel and everyone else at HAIX, this is what the brand is all about. The 62-year-old makes sure to remind his designated successors, Lisa Steiger and Ahmed Wahhab, of this principle, who, like their boss, are on fire when there is something to fix.