It’s Christmas Eve, and everyone at Kitsbow but the Old Fort Ride House crew is taking the day off to be with their families. They’ll take next week off too, because they’ve worked so hard all year. Kitsbow is silent and dark, after a very long 26 months.
The Ride House crew will enjoy the holiday tomorrow along with most of America, one of the four days of the year that our welcome center combo cafe combo bike shop combo retail store is closed (don’t worry, we’re paying them double-wages any holiday when the Ride House is open, and Kitsbow is not).
It’s hard not to think of elves and Santa’s workshop, given that the Kitsbow crew of about 55 people are resting up this holiday after making 10,273 shirts, pants, shorts, and other apparel in Old Fort, NC.
Since COVID is unfortunately still with us, and fortunately the NY Times and others still think Kitsbow makes some of the best masks, the crew also made 40,474 fabric masks by hand, in Old Fort.
It is definitely time for a rest. And for me, some heartfelt reflection and pride in these people.
Kitsbow will be 10 years old in less than two weeks, but for all of us making this dream happen, it kicked into high gear just 26 months ago on October 1, 2019 when we unlocked the doors at 59 Commerce Street in Old Fort, NC and started teaching North Carolina team members how to make clothes again.
Three Pivots in 18 Months
Most of you reading this already know the high points of this story… founded in California in 2012, constantly growing, establishing a well-known brand, and then after 8 years, an abrupt reset to move the company (but only one employee) to North Carolina in late 2019.
Hire a whole new crew just 26 months ago, and then celebrate with our new community the accomplishment of making one style (the Iconic Pendleton wool shirt) just a few months later in December 2019. One style? Our most complicated, most expensive product. Shipping in just 10 weeks from North Carolina artisans. Pivot #1.
After 5 months of making our Iconic Pendleton wool icon… we get leveled in March 2020 with retail sales of apparel stalled (nearly to zero) nationwide in the face of a Pandemic.
Then bounce back 4 days later with one of the first high-quality fabric face masks… and make 140,000 more in 2020. Pivot #2.
First for first responders and medical personnel exclusively, and later for the public (heralded by Wired, Outside, NY Times, Forbes, and countless others). Like our clothes, fits really well and does the job. Some models are “N93” (very nearly N95 in filtration efficiency).
Wake Forest Baptist Health comes calling, and we collaborate on super comfortable, daily wearable face masks with Wake.
We double in size, and attract an important type of employee: they want to come help. This turns out to be a big factor later.
And customers keep voting with their purchases: we started with about 10,000 customers and this explodes over 500%. Many buy again and again.
Pivoted a third time in late 2020 to start making clothes again.
Our leadership makes tough decisions on assigning precious, awesome staff and sewing machines to make masks… or clothes. Our reason for being is durable, stylish, amazing clothes… yet we need to keep making masks! We’re barely a year old.
In the meantime, America has rediscovered outdoor recreation, and long-time customers are getting frustrated with waiting for their awesome gear from Kitsbow for riding their bikes. We start making clothes and masks at the same time. It’s exciting, but grueling.
Making apparel was the reason why the company was founded, it is the reason why we moved to North Carolina, and with other industries struggling with supply chains located offshore, we have renewed motivation to make apparel again.
We finish 2020 with roughly 2/3rds of our business in masks and PPE, and just 1/3rd in apparel.
The Team in 2021
Many of the people who came to help Kitsbow in the 2020 Pandemic days are with us now. They “came to help”, some motivated by lost income and some who authentically wanted to help in any way to create PPE.
Many are with us still, in part because their values aligned with ours. Spoiler alert: key success factor.
Kitsbow pays above the median wage in McDowell County, and we provide 100% of the employee’s healthcare premium for a Silver plan. Since then we’ve added 50% subsidy for food from our cafe, 100% vision coverage, paid days off, and other benefits that might make someone want to be part of our long-term vision.
After what we learned about hiring during the Pandemic, we incorporated that wisdom into our hiring today… we hire first for values, and second for skills. We want people in our boat that paddle as hard as we do, and for the same reasons. It is about values (and always has been).
The Clarity of Christmas
Today, on the eve of Christmas and 26 months after landing in North Carolina, I see two things.
First, our revenue earned from making clothes here in America doubled from 2020 to 2021. That has never happened before at this company. We’ve had steady growth (45% to 50% per year) but this was a huge pop: 100% growth in just a year.
And we could have sold more, if we could have made more (most customers had to wait patiently for 2 to 10 weeks to receive what they ordered, and not all could be patient).
100% growth is not a typical accomplishment for many businesses, and since only 2% of all the clothes sold in America are made in America (like ours are) this is really something.
In case you skipped over that last part: we never grew at this rate in California. This is because of our team here in North Carolina. Because of using Lean Manufacturing methodology. Because our 65,000 customers care about how their products are made, and where they are made.
I believe that more conscious buying decisions by customers are in our collective future.
Second, the necessity to remain nimble will continue. Yes, we were resilient in the Pandemic. Yes we've swung back to serving our apparel customers as our top priority. But what about the economy?
So yesterday we told all of our hourly employees that they were getting a raise when they got back from the holiday.
As an older, white, male I found myself explaining what inflation was, and how this was something we endured in the 70s. And that at Kitsbow, the leadership team had made the decision that we were going to get in front of it, not wait for the pain.
As a result all hourly employees would get a raise – ranging from 3% to 10% depending upon their position. No one at Kitsbow makes less than $15.00 an hour, and with this raise many are bumping up against $18, $19, and $20 an hour.
The leadership team decided to be proactive about the increased costs of living here, and this led to a discussion about “COLA” (Cost of Living Adjustment), and why it mattered to them. Most are too young to understand the storm we are sailing into next…
But one of the team explained to the others that most employers would be waiting this out… hoping inflation would soften, or at least delaying the increased cost of wages. Not this leadership team. And he explained his appreciation.
What I loved about that moment was that team members could see that the leadership team looking out for them. Clarity. Compassion. Aligned goals.
Our ambition is to train, support, and encourage our employees in a way where they find personal satisfaction, financial reward, and, well, stay forever. At least for decades. Not only a new kind of apparel manufacturing, but with a renewed passion.
Tonight, on Christmas Eve, we’ll put that thought on pause, and simply look back.
Three pivots in two years. Nimble and resilient, this crew has embraced change. Our manufacturing method requires constant change, constant shifting of what you make and how you make it.
This crew made those 10,000+ premium clothes and 40,000+ masks. And finished them, packaged them, shipped them to tens of thousands of customers. And before that, they cut all the fabric and organized all the parts, so that our Makers could sew them. Perfectly, in just the size and color that each customer ordered.
This is our future, and I hope, yours.
Merry Christmas and sincerely, best wishes in the new year. (Where this team will do it again, only twice as much).
Visit us in North Carolina at the Old Fort Ride House for a factory tour and to see the magic for yourself. Ride our trails, hike the ridges, and fish in the streams of the Other Pisgah. Meet our community.
And we’re always looking for more talent and artisans. Send your friends, family, and best promising candidates to join our team here.
Help us change an industry, build a community, and save the world.