BuiltOregon

Category - Apparel & Outdoor

Forming a darned good business

Carrie Atkinson picks up a framed photo from her desk and gives a slight grimace before handing it over.

“Day one,” says the founder of Sock It To Me while passing along a picture of herself from a decade before, taken on her first morning of business at Portland’s venerable Saturday Market; Carrie looks a bit chilly standing under a canopy she bought from Craigslist and next to a table she lined with paper lanterns and grass skirts.

She shakes her head at the décor.

“I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea,” she says. “It was cheap.”

It didn’t matter.

That first day was on the cold side, but Carrie’s soft, stretchy socks were priced right, and she sold 27 pairs. Sales held relatively strong, and months later, the Nebraska native’s kitschy booth had moved to the wholesale market. Within a year, Carrie was plotting to quit her day job, and a decade later, she stood in front of a 25-person Sock It To Me team and celebrated the company’s 10th birthday like any 10-year-old would.

OK, maybe not any 10-year-old—but definitely the coolest one you know.

… and a llama“We had a jumpy castle and a llama,” Carrie says, sitting up straight in her desk as dance music bops along in low volume from the desktop computer speakers in her Southeast Portland office.

“And circus games,” adds Sock It To Me CEO Michelle Walker, unable to contain her smile. “Those were great.”

Indeed, they sound awesome, but Carrie’s mind is still with the llama.

“Rojo, the therapy llama,” she says with a slight look of whimsy, “wearing our socks and a top hat.”

OK, right about now you’re thinking, “I wish I had that much fun at work.”

You’d be correct. Sock It To Me’s socks are fun (tacos, ninjas, mustaches, monkeys, beer, and other magical items are common subjects). But don’t be fooled: The imaginatively designed creations are no joke to Carrie and Michelle—they’re serious business. Not that they take themselves too seriously.

Imaginatively stitched

Just ask Sock It To Me’s design team, which is within earshot of Carrie’s open office door, unpacking a box of socks sent as proofs by the company’s manufacturer to ensure artist vision has been fully brought to fruition. The group huddles, laughs, and cheers as they check out their latest creations for the first time—next fall’s line, in prototype form.

“Treats are trending—donuts with eyes, or cupcakes.” says Alicia, a senior designer. “Cats and dogs do really well for us—animals wearing sweaters, you gotta have that. And anything mythical—unicorns and narwhals.”

Alicia holds up a sock with the latter locked in an epically cartoonish battle, adorably stitched in stretchable, shin-sized glory for all to see. Her voice deepens to that of a movie trailer narrator: “Two horns, one battle.”

It’s a funky take on a fairy tale, and the type of thing Carrie in no way expected when she started Sock it to Me in 2004 with 40 pairs of Korean socks, some cheap party favors, and a secondhand table.

Big dreams afoot

After graduating college and teaching English in South Korea for a year, Carrie had moved to Portland to be close to friends. With her degree, effort, and an enterprising spirit (she’d sold lemonade and jelly beans as a kid, had a homemade-clay-necklace empire in junior high, and hawked T-shirts she printed at the 2002 World Cup), Carrie figured she’d be handed a “real job” soon after arriving.

“That’s how it’s supposed to work,” the Nebraska native says sarcastically. “You go to college and you’re automatically granted this job, right? But that’s not how it happened, especially in Portland, where there’s so many educated young people.”

Carrie spent two years applying for jobs left and right amid a tough economy. She was able to get a foothold on her finances with steady, part-time employment at a house-cleaning company for $9 an hour, but nothing close to a career came calling.

Carrie brainstormed ways to go into business for herself. Two ideas bubbled to the top, the first involving a mobile auto-cleaning service that would specialize in detailing cars while they sat in parking garages. The other was socks.

Red, green, striped, and skull

“When I was in Korea, there were all these outdoor sock vendors in the streets of Seoul, just a person standing behind a table with socks stacked on top of it,” Carrie remembers. “No packaging, no labeling; you’d just buy them, like a fruit stand—get a couple and take ‘em home.”

St Johns BridgeCarrie liked the softness of the knee-highs especially—quality she’d never seen in the States. She wasn’t an obsessive sock person by any means,(“Those exist,” Carrie assures), but whenever she saw them in the markets, she’d likely buy a pair or two. Fast-forward three years, and Carrie wondered if those same-style socks would appeal to Portlanders. After much deliberation, she bought an $800 plane ticket to Korea on a mission to find a wholesale market.

“I had nothing to lose, so it was a pretty easy decision for me,” Carrie says. “If I had the real, salaried job like I’d been looking for, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

She ran down a wholesaler and bought 10 pairs of red, green, striped and “skull,” then stayed up until 2 a.m. with her Korean family labeling each set with country of origin and fiber content so the socks could be legally sold stateside. She stuffed two suitcases full, declared the loot, paid her duties, and headed back to Portland.

“And the first weekend back,” she says, “I went to Saturday Market.”

After an encouraging first day, Carrie’s sales slowly but surely ticked up amid months of cleaning houses weekdays and tending the table weekends—where despite some slow summer months, it was clear Carrie’s socks had legs. She replenished supply through a Korean import broker who’d helped her legally tote the goods on her first trip and continued to be busy at Saturday Market, especially in comparison to her neighbors.

The wholesale enchilada

Hoping to kick her day job once and for all, Carrie walked into Naked City, a boutique on SE Portland’s proudly weird Hawthorne Blvd., hoping they’d be interested in buying Sock It To Me socks wholesale.

“I remember being really nervous,” Carrie said.

Not that she gave such a feeling enough time to show. Carrie happened to catch Naked City’s owner, Julian Recanzone, in the shop that day and asked, flat out: “Do you want to buy some socks wholesale?”

Before Carrie could give any sort of pitch, Julian answered.

“She’s like, ‘Yeah, OK,’” Carrie says with a laugh. “It was totally normal for her to buy wholesale, but not for me.”

The first few six-packs sold out in a couple weeks, and Naked City asked for more. Carrie visited other boutiques to peddle her wares, and eager to get in front of more store owners and buyers, learned from Julian that many store owners stocked their shelves through the bi-yearly MAGIC fashion marketplace and trade show in Las Vegas. With insight into where store owners wandered—and what they were looking for—Carrie visited MAGIC the first time solely to walk the show, scope the vibe, and see what kind of practical items she’d need (order forms, business cards, and the like) to make a splash. She brought along 20 designs to exhibit on her next visit, and began placing orders. Suddenly, Carrie’s Saturday Market success story had international customers.

Even the best socks need to be pulled up

Michelle knew she was in for a tough conversation before she even sat down.

She’d recently relocated to Portland from Texas to be closer to family, moving west and taking some time off after 12 years of business strategy and brand marketing with PepsiCo. Friends of friends introduced her to friends of theirs, and soon, between setting up her new home and helping her family get settled in, Michelle found her calendar dotted with lunches—networking with a side of business consultation.

“I sort of fell into this advisory role, which was natural for me,” she says. “I found it really rewarding and fun.”

One of her favorite mentees was Carrie. After being introduced and finally connecting through various entrepreneurial circles, things clicked, and Michelle and Carrie started meeting regularly for coffee, brainstorming, and idea bouncing. That is until one day, when Michelle arrived at the café with some bittersweet news: She’d been mulling a job offer, and was all set to accept. Ready to get back to full-time work, she preferred something steady over the consulting work she’d essentially picked up by accident since setting foot in Portland.

“It was corporate, a little more in line with my background,” Walker says. “I have bills and a family, and it was stable—a known entity and compensation package. I knew what I was getting into.”

One minute later, that all changed.

“She was trying to break up with me,” Carrie laughs. “I had to snatch her up.”

So Carrie asked Michelle, flat out: What if Sock It To Me could afford you?

“My mind was blown,” Michelle remembers with a laugh. “That kind of changes a lot.”

Call in special ops

A rapid-fire negotiation (Michelle was about due to accept her other offer), quick risk assessment (“I didn’t totally know where the business was going,” Michelle admitted) and lots of soul searching (“I had a heart-to-heart with my husband, and he said I clearly wanted [to work for Sock It To Me] by the way I was talking about it,” she said) later, Michelle was on board. Her acceptance was for many of the same reasons she’d been meeting with Carrie in the first place.

“I think you have something super fun going on here,” she remembers telling Carrie during what was supposed to be their last regular meeting. “And you’re going to continue to be successful.”

“Super fun” was a certainty, but success requires more. Carrie thought Michelle could help get the nine-person company aligned, polished, and more professional.

“I’ve always described her as a Navy SEAL trained in business,” Carrie says. “Special ops.”

Michelle met with each member of the team and immediately recognized Carrie’s personal story resonated with them, and that Sock It To Me’s brand values were cohesive, no matter what words folks used individually. She excitedly wrote up a short comic strip about what she thought the brand story was and what it meant, then rolled it out slowly to her new teammates.

“Everyone touched it, massaged it, blessed it,” Michelle says. “And everyone gravitated toward it pretty quickly because people were so close to what it could be.”

People first

Beyond the foundational branding work, Sock It To Me has also taken pains (however pleasurable) to make daily life around the office more fun. Like observing pie day (on 3/16—otherwise known as Pi Day), holding a competitive Halloween sock-design contest, embarking on laser tag treks, and offering Hawaiian trips for hitting sales goals (they’re footing the bill for 41 people to go this spring). Or having their customer service reps officially change their titles to “special agents” striving to bring “super-mega-awesomeness” to every phone call, email, and conversation. Or having warehouse workers fulfilling orders hand-draw doodles on every invoice. (“It’s so easy and people love tweeting and Instagramming about it,” Michelle says).

Sock It To Me HalloweenOr, perhaps most importantly, always leading off managers meetings with people-focused topics before getting to business matters.

“Hiring, team issues, birthdays, trips, weddings, baby showers—we always talk people first,” Michelle says. “Because people make the business.”

The numbers follow, and lately, they’ve been good; Sock It To Me has grown to 25+ employees, with 90% of their business wholesale and the rest direct-to-consumer via their web site or kiosks in malls during the holidays. They’ve found what they need to stay a leg up on the competition in Oregon, where, in addition to a deep pool of contract designers, Portland’s reputation as an apparel hub means there’s plenty of talent nearby to help with everything from inventory and printing to building trade show booths to modeling, fitting, and sizing.

“The whole toolkit is right here,” Carrie says. “Our socks come right in through the Port of Portland, which is handy, and there are lots of creative people here who can wear our funky socks.”

Growing beyond Oregon

Three years ago, the business took what Michelle called “a hockey stick turn” that saw high double-digit growth spurred by a focus on distribution and new markets for socks, like kid’s and men’s. Bigger accounts like New Seasons followed, and now, with an eye on the underwear market, Sock It To Me has employees set up on folding tables in conference rooms, packed into a now-cozy office adjacent to a large warehouse they’ve also outgrown.

This is probably part of the reason why, for Sock It To Me’s big birthday bash, Carrie dug into an old folder and chose to read a handful of letters to the revelers. It wasn’t fan mail she was sharing—it was rejection letters from jobs applied for 10 years before.

How else would you keep your feet on the ground? (Socked, of course.)

“It doesn’t fully absorb,” Carrie says. “It’s too big to absorb it all—you just keep working.”

For more information, visit http://www.sockittome.com/, follow Sock It To Me on Twitter, like Sock It To Me on Facebook, or follow Sock It To Me on Instagram.

A turn for the better

You could say the folks at Rolf Prima are reinventing the wheel, but undoubtedly, they’ve heard that one before.

That’s because it’s basically true.

The company, based in Eugene, Oregon, makes some of the most respected specialty bike wheels out there.

In 1997, original founder Rolf Dietrich patented his wheel ideas, including a new paired-spoke technology, which, according to rolfprima.com, “neutralizes the left and right outward pulling forces,” allowing for lighter rims and fewer spokes in total.

eIMG_7940“It started a revolutions in wheels,” says current owner Brian Roddy. “You might say, ‘Oh, wow, it’s rounder,’ but it’s about the weight, the strength, the aerodynamics, the materials … You can save weight to make it faster.”

Dietrich licensed his wheels through Trek in 1997, and the company made them for several years, during which Rolf wheels made their debut in the Tour de France in 1999.

Changing lanes

In 2001, Dietrich’s license with Trek expired, and he decided he wanted to start his own business, possibly in Ohio. He got in contact with three engineers he’d worked with at Trek, who by then had moved to Eugene to work at Burley. Roddy was one of the trio.

“In 2002, when Rolf wanted to start a separate company, the three of us were already here, and we said no to Toledo,” Roddy says.

Eugene it was. That began the era of Rolf wheels being built in Oregon.

Dietrich’s team added some new technologies over the years and began winning notice for them, but not widely.

“In mid-2005, we were best in class, but we were terrible at telling that story,” Roddy says. “We expected people would come find us. We weren’t aggressive. We didn’t introduce new things, and the market changed without us.”

By 2009, Dietrich was ready to retire, and Roddy’s fellow partners wanted to move on, so he bought them out and became the sole owner of Rolf Prima and reconfigured the business.

“In 2009, we refocused on product development as a company,” he says. “But we also spent more energy on making a concerted effort to tell our story.

“Making the best thing in a vacuum turns out to not be a great business practice.”

The company expanded its product lines, adding in 2010 single-speed and CX models and in 2012 all-Carbon Clincher road models, an alloy mountain model and more.

Crafting new wheels

But the keyword in the company’s story turns out to be “handmade.”

“We’re built in the United States, hand-built in Eugene,” says Brooke Stahley, marketing manager. “We’ve been manufacturing in the U.S. since the start.”

As such, they’re not competing with most of the wheels available in the U.S., which are largely made by machine.

eIMG_7920“It’s not just wheel assembly,” Roddy says. “It’s very much a science of getting the tension of the spokes just right. You can just put the parts together and it looks just like a wheel, but try to ride on it, and it’s going to come unglued.”

The people making those minute adjustments couldn’t be more invested in the product.

“Cyclists build our wheels,” Roddy says. “Our builders actually race, and they know, in a group race, you never want to hear, ‘There’s a problem with my wheel.’ ”

The main reason they’ve kept all their production local is to maintain that level of control over their product and its quality.

“In the bike industry, it seemed like all companies went overseas by the mid-2000s,” Roddy says. “We could join the race to the bottom and have the sales get higher, but …”

“We stayed true to ourselves,” Stahley says.

Build local

Forget outsourcing. Instead, the Rolf Prima team has been making strides toward bringing even more of its production processes in-house.

For a long time, they could not find a U.S. source for rims.

“We had a subcontractor in Taiwan, and one vendor was totally messing with it and delaying again and again, and then introduced almost the exact same rim themselves,” Roddy says.

They scrapped it 100 percent and moved on, and then in 2013, they learned of a company that had once made rims in the U.S. that was selling all of its equipment.

eIMG_7915Rolf Prima bought the equipment and moved it to Eugene, and earlier this year, in-house rims went into full production.

“We’d have gladly always made the rims here,” Roddy says, “but we couldn’t before.”

Now, an aluminum extrusion of 15 feet long goes into a roller, and out comes a double circle of metal that will be cut to create two rims.

Another machine is programmed to drill the holes for the spokes, in whatever configuration this particular wheel might need.

“For an all-silver rim, we can do the whole thing in-house,” Roddy says. “Working flat-out, we could make a whole wheel by the afternoon.”

That’s not how it’s done, firstly for efficiency reasons. But also because most of the rims are anodized, a process that takes place outside of their workshop, but nearby at Quality Metal Finishing Inc., another Eugene business.

Nearly every part of a Rolf Prima wheel but the spokes, which hail from Belgium, is U.S.-made.

Bringing another aspect of production under their roof means space is at a premium.

“Our limiting factor now is the ability to store,” Roddy says.

Becoming a bigger wheel in the community

They’re looking for new digs, but staying local of course, while they continue to build their place in the community.

“We’ve been here for twelve years now, and we’ve been the best-kept secret in the bike industry for seven of them,” Roddy says.

But that is changing.

Everyone at the company is an avid cyclist, and they participate in many of Eugene and beyond’s cycling events.

“Engineer Joel is at all the races,” Stahley adds.

Rolf Prima also sponsors a local “factory team,” a training group that wears the company’s gear at events and races under its name, in turn receiving special pricing on wheels.

The company’s story is certainly spreading, as its number of local fans has grown.

“It used to be, we’d see someone in town on our wheels, and we knew who it was,” Stahley says. “Now, we don’t always know.”

But whoever that cyclist might be, they should know they’re invited to come to Rolf and get a look at how their wheels were crafted.

“We’ve gotten lots of support from Oregon bike shops, especially in Eugene,” Roddy says. “We’ve made people understand: This was made here, right down the street. Now we can show them around, and they love that.”

For more information, visit http://www.rolfprima.com, follow Rolf Prima on Twitter, like Rolf Prima on Facebook, or follow Rolf Prima on Instagram.

An overnight success, 20 years in the making

It’s rare to use the words “hot tub” and “great idea” in the same sentence. But those two seemingly incongruous terms came together on a pivotal day in August 2010. Lem James relaxed in the hot tub with his son discussing business and life, which wasn’t unusual for the pair.

Lem had spent the last several years seeking the perfect startup idea—a niche idea to be exact, so the conversation focused on startup ideas to opportunities. He had watched and compared businesses inside very competitive markets and niche markets. But nothing had quite fit the mold.

All it was needed was a spark.

“Hey Dad, why don’t you build those concrete ping pong tables you saw in Germany?”

And that was all it took.

Lem recognized a viable product and innovative idea.  Permanent, outdoor table tennis tables took something familiar and turned it on its head. Lem liked the purposeful creativity of combining ping pong and concrete—two things that didn’t seem to mesh—to create a new outdoor experience in public places.

But this would be more than a niche market; it would be wide open without any competitors and an immediate customer focus; Parks & Recreation.

From a fleeting idea, a permanent table

Normally, “outdoor” ping pong tables need to be set up every day and put away at night. This, combined with play, causes them to wear out every few years. Left outside, table tennis tables deteriorate rapidly.

A concrete table, however, can stay outside through harsh weather and doesn’t need to be set up and taken down at all. This was the key.

Concrete tables could save money for parks, military bases, community centers, and even home owners. Using concrete completely redefines where table tennis works. Instead of backyards and garages, tables can be installed in parks and outdoor school yards.

Forming a business as sturdy as its product

Within a week, Lem had AutoCAD sketches and plans to build forms. As he shared his idea, however, others raised concerns. Who would buy these concrete tables? Wouldn’t shipping costs eat up any profit? Who would even think to search for a product like this? America just wasn’t familiar with the idea. It was a luxury item and, in 2010, we were in a recession.

P1020652With his work experience, Lem knew parks across the country and beyond would be interested, and he knew the channels to reach them. As for shipping, that’s a normal cost of doing business. Even when others shared their concerns, the passion grew.

“Every once in a while, we had to do a gut check because they were putting out a few quotes but nothing was selling yet,” said Lem. “We had to hone in on our product and our marketing to put our products out there to our target markets without traditional advertising. We began selling a table here and there. Then, once we could put enough story and photographs together to show tables in parks, schools and nice backyards, sales started rolling.

“It’s frustrating to watch potentially good businesses start and poke around, and then evaporate before they even get the traction to move forward. I’ve watched several businesses fail to launch in this manner. Many times so much time gets spent on making a perfect product that marketing and sales get ignored.

“A lot of these businesses get launched by very smart successful people, but people who don’t need the business to succeed. They have other successes that are easy to fall back on. Early on, a friend asked what my back up plan was. I said plan A was to succeed wildly, and plan B was to succeed mildly. There was no backup plan to fail. If we ran into failure, we would plan around it and continue. Don’t quit.”

During the first year, the company focused on developing and improving the tables, adding steel nets, integral concrete dye to offer color options, and making other refinements. Concrete chess tables were a natural addition to the product line, and these weren’t as foreign to the American market. The playing squares are marble inlaid tiles in a background of polished, exposed aggregate concrete in an array of color options, including recycled glass.

Why Oregon?

The entrepreneurial community in Oregon supported Bravado from an early stage, including the Roseburg Small Business Development Center and Young Entrepreneur Society (YES), a Roseburg group that supports new innovation.

These groups provided the cross pollination of ideas, which has been central to Bravado’s product development and marketing. In addition, they provided crucial support to a founder with a unique concept. Lem was able to pitch ideas and get feedback from a unique cross section of business thinkers and fellow entrepreneurs.

Oregon is also home to an array of groups, like Portland based City Repair, who are great supporters of the placemaking movement. City Repair builds community projects—like turning an intersection into a public park. They describes placemaking as “a multi-layered process within which citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces which they inhabit, the landscapes of their lives, and shape those spaces in a way which creates a sense of communal stewardship and lived connection.”Permanent outdoor games—especially table tennis—fit in perfectly with placemaking by providing the community a gathering point where everyone can play.

Best of both worlds

As Lem perfected the engineering and production of the ping pong tables, his mind began to turn to other product opportunities based on the company motto, “Everybody plays!”

Cornhole, a simple, but not very well known game immediately came to mind. The bean bag game was easy to adapt to concrete and place as a permanent feature in parks, while also creating a more entry level product line. Foosball was added to the product line after a table tennis fan sent a picture of a similar table in Paris. While the actual forming and production took some fine tuning, the actual game itself is to pick up and learn.

Foosball and cornhole allow almost anyone to begin playing and then develop mastery over time—just like the sport that inspired the original product.

Work that inspires activity

Lem shares a contagious enthusiasm for his products and the games they facilitate. it’s not just about selling something and making money. These tables are on the cutting edge in concrete work, the placemaking movement, and the sport of table tennis.

Bravado Outdoor’s table tops are recognized in the concrete industry for design and finish work and have been featured by different suppliers. The tables are another example of combining two different disciplines: concrete engineering and concrete countertop finish work.

These publicly available tables support the developing of ping pong in America, and integrate into the urban placemaking design movement; where sidewalks, corners or small urban spaces are turned into an oasis where people can gather. Where an old empty lot can become a miniature neighborhood gathering spot with ping pong and chess as the focal points.

Screen Shot 2014-12-07 at 3.25.47 PMThe sport of table tennis, in particular, has been a second tier sport in North America, usually played in garages and basements. But Bravado is taking table tennis into the outdoors and public places, putting the sport front and center and giving more people across America and the chance to hone their skills. The Bravado team strongly believes that by making table tennis more accessible, the level of play will be raised—ultimately helping the US become more competitive on the international scene.

Lofty goal? Sure. But the accessibility of basketball courts in parks and urban areas has definitely played a central role in the development of many top players, and while there is a big difference between basketball and table tennis in regards to the idea of being a competitive sport, accessibility and awareness are still critical development steps.

And once in place, these tables will be around for years to come. No nets to replace or backboards to repair. No play structures to fix. No swing chains to replace. Just hours of enjoyment by kids and adults alike.

And much like the products they have developed, Bravado has created a solid company, firmly grounded in the community that supported them from the beginning.

For more information, visit http://www.concretetabletennis.com, follow Bravado on Twitter, or like Bravado on Facebook.

Fording the rapids of Oregon entrepreneurship

Peter Newport laughs. “I do chaos.”

In addition to the many roles he plays—from budding Gold Hill, Oregon, mayor to president of Sawyer Paddles and Oars—Chief Pot-Stirrer is also in Newport’s personal mix.

Newport is the former chief executive of Breedlove Guitar Company, a renowned custom instrument maker based out of Bend, Oregon. After selling the company in 2010, Newport moved to southern Oregon and bought Sawyer Paddles and Oars.

And it’s that fast-paced, 100-percent, year-over-year growth path that he helped generate at Breedlove that Newport wants to repeat with the similarly renowned custom paddle maker in Talent, Oregon.

But in the three years he’s been at Sawyer, the growth trajectory is slower than what Newport thrived on with Breedlove.

“We are growing Sawyer slower than we grew with Breedlove,” Newport said. “I’m engineered for 100 percent growth. I don’t have a whole lot of patience and it’s painfully slow. We’ll start ramping up our growth in the coming years.”

Nothing a little chaos can’t stir up

Tracking down the man known as “Crazy Pete” isn’t easy, especially in the middle of shifting manufacturing operations to Grants Pass, Oregon. in a partnership with custom furniture company Roguewood.

In fact, it seems wherever sawdust is flying and gorgeous wood products are crafted in Oregon, Newport can be found.

“He should be here later today,” Roguewood CEO Elizabeth Bauer says on a Monday afternoon. “Pete is just awesome. He’s a superstar.”

The next day at the Sawyer shop in Talent, Newport is again missing in action.

“He started real early this morning and I don’t expect him back anytime soon,” co-owner Zac Kauffman, says. “Things are a bit crazy around here right now.”

The company is making significant advancements, including the strategic partnership with Roguewood. It’s a partnership that has the two companies combining equipment and employees in the same facility — a temporarily chaotic move that will likely create an even higher level of product quality and consistency.
“Our peak seasons are opposite. It’s going to be beautiful. It will allow us to keep a steady workforce year round. We’re hoping if we cross-train on furniture and paddles and oars we can switch for whatever orders we need to get out the door,” Newport says.

Man in the middle

"Crazy Pete" Newport

“Crazy Pete” Newport

Any significant change will find Newport directly in the thick of it.

“Wherever the bottleneck is, that’s where I like to be,” Newport says a few days later, when he finally slows enough to talk.

In short, he wants more chaos because — for a die-hard kayaker turned entrepreneur who is now in the business of making fantastic paddles and oars – turbulence is not only expected but welcomed.
“I was taught how to communicate that type of chaos,” Newport says. “It leads to a fair amount of time in meetings but everybody’s on the same page.”

Finding a Niche. And another. And another.

Like many entrepreneurs, Newport spent a fair amount of time finding his own direction. His central Oregon upbringing weathered into him a love for the state, love for the extreme outdoor sports the region is known for, and love of music and love of adventure. All of these facets, in one way or another, have shaped Newport’s life trajectory.

The defining moment? When he took a kayaking class, “on a dare.”

“It totally changed my life,” Newport says, “The Bend and the Oregon boating scene is pretty advanced and I had a lot of great paddlers around me and fell head over heels into kayaking and that’s pretty much all I wanted to do.”

Newport navigated through Oregon colleges, including Southern Oregon University, University of Portland, and Portland State. By 1995, he wanted to try out for the 1996 Olympics in kayaking.

“It was a longshot,” he admits, “but I ended up breaking a bunch of ribs before I could even try out. But during that time I realized… wow, pretty much everything I was trying to do got shut off within a couple of weeks. I got kinda depressed.”

He followed his wife back to school—this time for an actual education—landing at Oregon State University.

“I was so sick of school and not knowing what I wanted to do,” he says. “But, when I went to OSU I ended up finishing pretty much near the top of my class in business.”

That led to a stint with Pepsi. Newport was working for the beverage company in marketing when Bend-area business leader Jim Schell sought him out. Schell, an entrepreneur and co-author of Small Business for Dummies (who still says on his Linkedin profile that “my favorite thing to do is to connect the dots,”) enticed Newport to consider working with a Bend- area company.

“He called me up and said, ‘Crazy Pete, have I got a perfect project for you.’” Newport recalls.
Soon Newport was the general manager of Breedlove Guitar, with a plan to earn more of the company each year moving forward.

“It was nightmare for three years,” Newport said. “Then we finally figured out how to grow it profitably.”

He also began slowly buying out investors. He became the chief executive and over the course of 11 years bought out most of the partners what he calls a “a great formula for budding entrepreneurs.”
Those wonderful, chaotic, 100-percent growth years soon followed and Breedlove Guitar Company became known as an industry leader. The company’s 500,000 annual sales hit $10 million and Newport sold it.
The experience helped craft Newport’s personal vision, combining his love for Oregon, its signature products and all the state has to offer in terms of lifestyle, recreation and environment.

“I really like niches where we can execute being number 1 or number 2 in quality, so we can dominate it,” Newport says.

The question that had once depressed Newport now enthralled him. What’s next? He wondered.

Method to the “madness”

Crazy Pete isn’t all that crazy when you get right down to it.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, he’s learned to combine his passions with past experiences to build success. But Newport kept the nickname given to him decades earlier while working at Pepsi.

“One day they called me the ‘Crazy Pete ‘and it just stuck. I thought it was kinda funny because I wasn’t really that crazy. But then I saw a definition for crazy as simply being open to another point of view,” says the perpetual pot stirrer. “It also gives me a lot of license.”

whitewaterJust as riding whitewater in a kayak, Newport keeps a fixed gaze on how best to navigate. He credits a book he read that said to be truly happy as an entrepreneur one must “design your dream customer,” Newport recalls.

“That was probably the most significant hit over the head I’ve had in forty years. I read that line and that changed everything. I was so excited to get a white board out and trying to fill it out,” he says.
That effort funneling down to a list of businesses where he could work with his dream customer. The list was short. One name long in fact. Sawyer Paddles and Oars in Talent.

“I used to work at Sawyer,” he said. “I wondered if they were still kicking.”

He sent an email to the company’s owner, Bruce Bergstrom. When he didn’t hear back immediately, he called. When he got an answering machine, he started driving to southern Oregon. On the way he called again and then again until at last Bergstrom picked up.

“I said, ’Hey, teach me how to run the company and I’ll help you retire.’ And it was kinda silent for a while then he said, ‘we’re gonna need some beer.’”

They met that day in May 2011 and penciled out a plan.

“Then we made it happen,” Newport says.

Playing in unison

The similarities between Breedlove Guitars and Sawyer Paddles and Oars are hard to miss, starting with the names: both remain branded by the vision of their respective owners who lived in Oregon and saw the opportunity to stunning craftsmanship into niche products of exceptional quality.

Both needed a healthy amount of Crazy Pete’s chaos to truly scale into a leader in their respective niche market.

“I love the initial quality,” he says of Sawyer but could equally be speaking of Breedlove. “We have dramatically improved the consistency and global excellence.”

To scale these niche manufacturing businesses takes more than pot stirring. Newport again is relying on his past experiences. At Breedlove the guitars were known for its innovative graduated top and bridge truss construction. At Sawyer the company has made innovations around some of their paddles that improves their competitive edge, Newport says. The company intersected with the rapid growing Stand Up Paddleboard markets through innovation becoming the first to create a tapered oval carbon fiber shaft. The tapering cuts the weight by 30 percent, Newport says, while the oval shaping makes it less fatiguing.

“The oval allows you to relax your grip so you don’t have to work so hard to aim it where you want it to go,” he says. “It’s probably the best racing paddle in the country right now.”

Shane Perrin, founder of SUP St. Louis, backs up Newport’s claim.

Perrin says he is considering changing his entire fleet over to the Storm Stand Up Paddle, which he describes as “ultra-tough.”

Equally important is a crucial factor often associated with Sawyer.

“Made in the USA,” Perrin says. “Says it all right there. I love that they are made there in Oregon.”
According to Sarah Layton, CEO of the Corporate Strategy Institute, Inc. , quality is spurring the comeback of American manufacturing.

“We conducted an informal survey of manufacturing CEOs, and the general consensus is that manufacturing will make a comeback in the US. The reason is partly because of perceived poor quality coming out of other countries, mostly China,” she forecasted.

Perrin is proof of that trend.

sawyer-oars“It’s been sad to watch companies that originated making their products here and then source through China so they can make more money,” Perrin says. “Almost always that product’s quality declines.”
Among the other moves Newport made to launch Sawyer’s growth curve was connecting directly to those like Perrin. To do that, he aggressively recruited Kauffman whose connection to the company goes back 30 years as an outfitter and guide trainer. Newport enticed Kauffman with the opportunity of ownership through sweat equity, a typically entrepreneurial move that has worked out as well as he could have imagined.

Like Perrin, Todd Freitag, owner of Grassy Knob Guide and Outfitters in Bandon, Oregon, knew Kauffman for several years. Sawyer sponsored Freitag’s steelhead tournament and Freitag serves as a regional ambassador. He speaks with intimate knowledge of his favorite product a square v-lamb top oar.

“It’s an absolute beautiful piece of wood,” Freitag says. “When I first saw them I couldn’t believe them. It’s almost like a piece of art. When you run those oars down the river you always attract attention.”
Freitag is quick to point his fellow river rats to Sawyer.

“There’s a lot of other great products in other states to, but let’s try to employ those craftsman who are local first. There’s tons of stuff in Oregon,” Freitag says.

New rivers to run

So the age old question of what to do with his life has become increasingly clear amid the chaos, Newport says. He wants to run a $100 million company in Oregon and has a typical turbulent way to meet his goal. It starts with becoming the mayor of Gold Hill, a town of 1,200 residents that sits on less than a square mile of land in Jackson County.

“I’m a die-hard Oregonian,” he says. “I think Gold Hill will be the coolest town in the world. Ten years from now it will be known as the best place in the world… it already has the best white water on the Rogue.”

The wannabe mayor is quick to list Gold Hill’s vision and virtues, from recreational marriages, a new parks plan, a 5,000-seat amphitheater that he hopes will rival the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Ore.
“That’s where Sawyer as a brand belongs and it will become a $10 million company. Then all we need to do it cherry-pick ten other $10 million companies. As the mayor I’ll have reached my goal.”

Turbulent? Chaotic? Crazy? You bet. Doable? No doubt about it for Crazy Pete Newport. He’s seen it clearly and even drawn the whole thing up, a necessary first step for any entrepreneur with a dream, he insists.

“Anytime I start a project I take a poster board and draw a picture of the company in the future. I put it right next to my desk so anyone can see it,” he says. When we make a decision we ask, ‘does that get us closer to that picture or further away?’ It so easy to see when you have an image of what you’re going to become.”

For more information, visit http://www.paddlesandoars.com, follow Sawyer on Twitter, like Sawyer on Facebook, or follow Sawyer on Instagram.

Nau and again, time and again

For a sneak peak of Nau’s Fall ‘15 line, your best bet is the main conference room adjacent to the outdoor apparel company’s small lobby. That wall to your right? It’s actually a sliding door, heavy and rough with squeaking overhead wheels that harken back to the Northeast Portland building’s warehouse history—and, fair warning, might give you away.

But the old wooden door also unveils a glimpse of the future: Rolling racks filled with jackets, shells, sweaters and pants, peppered with selections from next fall’s collection that face toward the middle of the room and a long slab of an empty conference table.

Jamie Bainbridge grabs her favorite piece from among the designs that won’t hit stores until next year. Nau’s product design and materials development lead reaches toward a cluster of jackets and fans a black, cape-style coat with an insulated—but not-too-puffy—fill over her arm. “In women’s, we’ve been really bold,” she says. “But it’s the same notion we’ve used since Day 1.”

Recycled polyester? Check. Durable water repellant? Yep. Fashionably cut and logo-free? You bet.

That much hasn’t changed for Nau. Along with their corporate giving—2% of every sale to charity partners like Ecotrust and Mercy Corps—Nau’s seamless blend of outdoor performance, urban fashion and sustainable everything has been the thread that’s run through ups, downs, way downs and every season in between. From grand ambition to giant setbacks to gradual growth. From big-time backing to bankruptcy to being born again (and again). From wanting to change the face of business to just trying to stay afloat.

And today? General manager Mark Galbraith says Nau is that much closer to where they started.

Back to basics

“The original iteration of Nau, at its core, was very much from [Nau founder and Marmot co-founder] Eric Reynolds,” says Galbraith, who along with Bainbridge was an original Nau employee. “He wanted to use business to have a discussion about how to make the planet a better place to be.”

Early stages of Nau designMore than just talk, Nau walked that walk—right from birth—on philanthropy, product quality, supply chain, and global citizenship. The company’s original name, “UTW” for “Unfuck The World” was a not-so-subtle hint at the Nau’s aspirations. They hoped to not only redesign the outdoor apparel business, but change all business. They used phrases like “shifting paradigms” and turned the typical retail experience on its head by allowing customers to reduce the carbon footprint (and price) of their purchase by having their shirt, skirt or scarf shipped to their door instead of the store. They helped pioneer materials and kept a critical eye on toxicity levels—not just for the people who’d wear their products, but the people who’d made them. They designed clothes to be worn (and last) for multiple seasons, leaning on more timeless styles and durable materials that shunned specialty and begged for multi-use. Nau seemingly had every angle covered, and weren’t afraid to point that out—an attitude Galbraith says came from the right place but didn’t always strike the right tone.

“Underlying it was, yeah, the world and business is somewhat fucked up and we can fix it,” Galbraith says. “It felt a little preachy and a little finger-waggy to some people. And I don’t blame them.”

But that’s changed. Or, rather, evolved a bit.

Finding a balance

Nau is no longer “the punk, know-it-all college kid who just graduated and thinks, ‘God, business is stupid and my dad’s dumb, and this what I need to do to fix everything,’” Galbraith says with his best exaggerated-angst eye-roll.

A Nau jacket and bagWhile admitting such an attitude is an important ingredient many new ventures must share, after seven years and tens of millions in funding, Galbraith says a more mature approach has brought Nau closer than ever to reaching its lofty goals. In the same way they strive to balance sustainability and performance with aesthetic, Nau is tempering the youthful zeal behind the business-can-change-the-world bit with earnest work inside the apparel industry that put everyone’s environmental practices front and center.

“One of the most interesting aspects of sustainability is the odd collaborations between bedfellows you wouldn’t think would be interested,” Bainbridge says. And she should know: Part of her official capacity at Nau is working with the Outdoor Industry Association, a 25-year-old trade group that represents 4,000 members and $686 billion in sales. Inspired to help preserve the playground where their products are best enjoyed, Bainbridge worked with OIA to create an open-source tool that provides a relative metric for how sustainable apparel or footwear products are.

Creating a nontoxic environment

The 15-year Nike vet (material research and advanced product design) who’d previously worked at Patagonia (a time in which she met other Nau originals, including Galbraith, who worked at Polartec at the time) said the six-year effort included weekly input from 75 companies and a hearty dose of checking competitive urges at the door. And now that the tool is up and running as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, Bainbridge, and the OIA sustainability working group she chairs are taking on challenges previously left on the cutting room floor.

“We’ve never been able to figure out how to address chemicals and toxicities,” she says. “Three years trying to wrangle with chemists and figure out how we help companies that aren’t filled with chemists understand where their impacts are and how to address those.

“The other big effort is transparency; so if you say that’s recycled polyester, can you prove it from inception to final product?”

Attention to detail has become the defining factor of Nau's productsNau can. In part, because the most tangible representation of their brand is and always will be the clothes themselves, Galbraith says. You can line up your messaging, create a persona and talk all you want, but much like a first date, when customer meets product for the first time and the words or experience suddenly ring hollow, someone feels duped. In a culture where new versions of smartphones are introduced (and sold to a gleeful market) before the previous version’s battery stops holding a charge, apparel is (unsurprisingly) driven by trendy, seasonal wear, and consumers don’t carry an expectation for lasting quality and long-term use.

“For us, the actual product, the craft, the materials it’s made out of, how it fits, how it wears, what it’s like—it’s probably as tactile and real as anything you do,” Galbraith says. “There are three things in your life: A relationship with somebody else, the food that you actually taste and smell and put in your body every day, and clothing you put on right next to your skin and actually live in—there’s probably very few things that are that intimate, and that tactile, that real to what you experience every day.

“And when you’re making clothing it either works or it doesn’t. Having that integrity and focus is what’s always been the at the core of what we do.”

Finding like-minded business people

Which is certainly an approach that appealed to Black Yak, a South Korean outdoor powerhouse that sought out and purchased Nau in October 2013. The 40-year-old mountaineering supplier with a Himalayan-conquering heritage injected new life—and capital—into a company that had been plodding along on the back of Horny Toad, a Santa Barbara, California-based active wear company that resurrected Nau with Galbraith, Bainbridge and three other original employees in 2008 amid economic turmoil, and whose Lizard Lounge helped keep Nau in front of consumers since.

Galbraith calls Black Yak “the Patagonia of Korea” and lauds the degree of both support and autonomy they give Nau as a wholly owned subsidiary. The folks in Seoul mostly stay out of design and brand discussions. Instead, they provide the stout financial and strategic infrastructure necessary to outfit Nau for a climb toward its original ambitions.

“They’re in it for the long haul. And operationally, they’re extremely tight,” says Bainbridge. “They run 300 retail stores in Korea of only their own product, and they can probably tell you, hourly, what sales they’re doing and how they’ve shifted product on the floor. It’s tight—and that’s been really welcome: The cowboy days of the original company, where we had this insane burn rate [are gone].”

Black Yak’s diligent approach was foreshadowed by its acquisition of Nau, a process Galbraith said stretched over nine months and included countless discussions, a surprise trade show visit, sitting in on sales meetings, a peek at the new lines, and time in the office with core management team asking—and receiving—a lot of good, hard questions. After so much promise led to turmoil then to slow, deliberate building, the Nau team wanted to ensure the sale would set them up for a leap forward Horny Toad couldn’t provide, just as the Black Yak team wanted to ensure Nau was serious about its approach to business.

“When we asked Jun [Suk Kang, the president of Nau] the biggest part of why it went down, and what he was interested in,” Galbraith remembers, “’he said, ‘I want this to be the most sustainable company in the world, in the broadest sense.’

“[Black Yak’s] own business practices are much more centered on the responsibility of what a culture has to each other. They’ve very much taken a humanitarian, cultural approach to really saying we’re a family and this is how we really look at business and our relationships. There’s a high degree of integrity, honor and a concern for people and geographies.”

Not to mention great gear. When studying business in the States, Kang—the son of Black Yak founder and CEO Tae Sun Kang—visited the original Nau store in Chicago and brought several jackets back home with him to Korea. Fast-forward five years, and Jun Suk Kang is now splitting his time with Nau while helping the mother ship Black Yak take a crack at the European market—a global reach that means he lives in South Korea, but travels to Portland for about a week per month, “and probably a week a month somewhere else,” Galbraith says in a tone that suggests experience with the joys international travel. “That’s the way it works.”

Nau women's jacketAnd it all appears to be working. It’s a week before a new web site is launched, and 20 new sales reps covering previously unchartered territory descend on Nau headquarters for presentations on the Fall ’15 line. Everyone on the floor is busy. They’ll be beta testing the site over the next seven days, trying out every click and drag a customer might possibly do to veer off-course. Bainbridge says the all-hands-on-deck approach is necessary, daunting, and exciting. But not new: To necessitate the kind of growth they hoped for with the resources they had, Nau re-thought verticals and reconsidered who should cover what at every step.

Nau’s women’s designer, for instance, is also its color czar. Anything to do with color is on her, so she works with textile mills to color fabrics, lays out artwork for stripes, patterns and prints, speaks to China one day and Japan the next, then goes back fitting to garments or building the catalogue after.

“Nobody can be above doing something,” Bainbridge says. “I do stuff I did 25 years ago. That’s just the way you gotta do it. Until you’re big enough that doesn’t happen, but then it starts to get boring.

“When I worked for Nike, I had a guy in the Hong Kong office and I’d tell him to go over to the mill. I had a guy in China and India, someone on the ground to do the work for me. There’s nobody here to do the work but yourself.”

Both the risks and level of work are obvious. But for Nau, the rewards are, too. Bainbridge says at a larger company, the amount of effort and repetition it takes to get countless people rallied around an idea and moving forward is immense. A tagline or a campaign doesn’t just happen overnight. Nau can move more quickly.

“The strange thing about working here,” she says with a wry smile, “is you make forward progress every day.”

Proof in the progress

The year since the Black Yak acquisition has proven it. Nau has added a creative director, a real wholesale sales department, e-commerce director, and a Web team. They’ve built a new trade show booth to solidify their wholesale presence, overhauled their enterprise inventory software and launched a new web site to better reach an audience whose expectations of what an online experience should be are ever-evolving.

“Most of those things you do once or twice in a business, and it’s a big pain in the neck,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a year of foundation building.”

And it’s happening in Oregon, where Galbraith says Nau draws from a pool of talent, but also a way of thinking that—like Portland’s winter rain—permeates the people. The Rose City may not compete for title of worldwide fashion capital with the likes of Paris, Milan, New York, or Tokyo, but its point of view on sustainability and collaborative creative community willing to offer resources and ideas, are second to none. You can characterize it all the way down to cable TV comedy, but the ethos of Portland—Oregon’s intersection of tech, design, and progressive thinking—makes it a place where curiosity and conceptual thinking are equally acclaimed.

“It’s a place where people are looking for stuff that has meaning and substance and is a little bit different than what’s anywhere else,” Galbraith says. “I love that.”

For more information, visit http://www.nau.com, follow Nau on Twitter, like Nau on Facebook, or follow Nau on Instagram.

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