183-year-old Woolrich Inc. passes family torch to new generations

WOOLRICH – There’s a new energy at Woolrich Inc., the “original outdoor clothing company.”

Amid an ongoing restructuring by the private, family-owned apparel icon to cut operating costs and get its brand in front of more consumers, two new, young faces are emerging as the 183-year company’s leaders.

And they’re up to it.

Nicholas P. “Nick” Brayton and Joshua W. “Josh” Rich are, with the company’s employees, designers, manufacturers, licensing partners and sales associates, the new future of an apparel and fabric manufacturer-wholesaler-retailer that has defied the test of time.

Brayton is just 34 and is the seventh generation of Woolrich founder John Rich II, a man who established a woolen mill in Little Plum Run, then trudged the mountains and valleys of Pennsylvania in a mule cart to sell wool to lumberjacks and their wives for clothing. He is the son of the late Roswell Brayton, a gentle man who managed Woolrich and earned the respect of company employees and many others before he passed suddenly in 2007.

At age 27, Josh is an eighth-generation family member of the founder, and is the son of Woods Rich.

Brayton is the company’s president; Rich is vice president, international.

They are second cousins, bound by family ties that go back well before America’s Civil War.

The two recently sat down with The Express community newspaper, talking from the company’s corporate conference room along aptly named Mill Street in this tree-lined village, the walls graced with portraits of past family members who guided the company over the years.

Amid their smart phones, laptops, spreadsheets and iPads, the two men talked with a determined focus, a common vision of what they believe is a successful future for the company.

As of late, the business, they admit, has been about having to make some tough decision, led mostly by reducing the company’s workforce and payroll so it can invest in new strategies in the high-stakes world of apparel manufacturing and sales.

With those tough decisions, they said, has come a dose of humility and the need for patience.

“Josh and I have common goals, but we need to be patient. We both believe that Woolrich has not lived up to all of its standards in the past. But there needs to be balance. We can’t walk away from certain price points that have been established. It’s a gradual process of making our products more appealing from a fashion standpoint and price standpoint,” Nick said. “We’re taking more of a leadership role with how to guide our product evolution.”

Here, in general, are some of the actions they’ve taken thus far to re-position the company for growth:

– Reducing overhead costs by consolidating operations and reducing manpower. Layoffs were made at all levels and across all areas of the company. Woolrich, along with much of the outdoor market, is faced with a challenging economic landscape due to increased costs of doing business, including rising costs in raw materials, labor and energy.

– Moved its design team to the “fashion capital” of New York City.

– Opened a new design center and showroom in the Big Apple.

– Organized a staff of eight to 10, high-energy design and sales associates in New York to build new and stronger connections with fabric buyers and major clothing and accessory retailers.

– The design team is lead by Karuna Scheinfeld, vice president of design, with showroom/sales efforts led by Patrick Nebiolo, executive vice president.

– Established a plan to significantly upgrade the firm’s online presence at www.woolrich.com to make it easier – “and more fun” – to shop.

Woolrich now has a little over 200 full time employees worldwide, down from more than 400 just several years ago.

The company boasts gross revenues worldwide of about $250 million.

For perspective, Woolrich offers an array of outdoor clothing and gear, and of course, wool fabric. Its product offerings include shorts, pants, sweaters, vests, jackets, coats, pajamas and robes, sleepwear, and short-sleeve and long-sleeve shirts, as well as footwear, petites, capris, and skirts and dresses for women. In recent years, Woolrich has expanded its products to include bedroom accessories such as blankets, as well as throws, a line of goods comprising home decor wall accessories, outdoor furniture, area rugs, bath accessories, lighting, and mirrors.

The company serves customers through its flagship outlet store in this quaint. tree-lined village of Woolrich and through other retailers in the United States and Canada, as well as distributors internationally.

It has a growing online customer base.

And, Woolrich still operates the oldest, vertically integrated woolen mill in the U.S., producing woolen fabrics sold to various brands worldwide.

Among Woolrich’s ambitious strategies is having selected products “Made in the USA” at a time when many apparel-makers still rely solely on offshore manufacturing.

After having joined the majority of U.S. clothing makers in moving their manufacturing off shore in the 1980s and 1990s, Woolrich believes there’s a stronger market now, appealing to all generations, for domestically made products.

That, combined with the emotional connection many consumers have with Woolrich because of its rich history and longevity, are helping to guide the young executives’ strategies.

With 183 years under its belt, it’s no surprise that the name Woolrich can evoke an emotional reaction from consumers aware of its rich history.

Check the reviews of Woolrich apparel on its website and Amazon and you’ll see consumers using the word “nostaligic” or saying, “My dad and grandfather used to wear one of these …”

The brand resonates with people, Nick said.

Historically, Woolrich has appealed to the 35 and up age group. The brand has relied heavily on outdoor specialty stores amid competition from Northface, Patigonia and Columbia brands. L.L. Bean and Lands End also are competitors.

Nick said he and Josh “want the same things for Woolrich,” and are “working to foster a new reality with employees.”

“We’re evaluating and refining new processes for more efficiency, more profitability, how we market our brand … all in a way that leads to more business and more job creation,” Nick said.

It was the summer of 2011 when “Josh and I were called to make more family decisions for longevity.”

The two said they understand that effective leadership must bring with it humility.

While the restructuring is ongoing, Nick said employee morale is generally good, and “everyone understands where we want to go as a company … we’re focusing on who we are and what got us here – 183 years of tradition.”

“Sometimes hard decisions have to be made and I think people understand that,” Nick said.

The future will bring “greater opportunity for our brand,” Josh said. “There are markets we’ve not yet tapped into.

“We’ve been a manufacturing company forever … and that’s been successful,” Nick added. “But we need to tell customers that we’re marketing what they want.”

However, he said, the company at times “hasn’t paid enough attention to our roots.”

The apparel industry is high stakes, requiring labels to get in front of customers with appealing design and pricing. Manufacturers must closely watch inventory levels amid higher labor, raw material and shipping costs.

The two said Woolrich must do better job of marketing its brand.

“We will be more market driven, more consumer driven. There’s a resurgence in our team,” Josh said.

Social media is a strategy the two are working to better utilize.

“We get a visceral … emotional reaction to our brand from people – something born from 183 years,” Josh said. “We’re focusing on making a commitment to what got us here today. We’re getting in front of customers in new ways.”

The two said the investment in people, a new design center and showroom in the Big Apple is very important. While Woolrich has had a presence in NYC for many years, its new location is a much bigger and bolder step to gain a broader marketing image and new customers.

“We have had a presence in New York for years. It was a smaller operation and we needed more resources to allow us to showcase to a much larger audience,” Nick said. “We’re more available, more accessible.”

“The accounts we want are in New York City, our fashion and lifestyle brand that we’ve not capitalized on in the past,” Nick said. “It shows Woolrich is back again, doing it the right way. The Nordstroms, Neiman Marcus, Sax Fifth Avenue … all the big clothing retailers are there … and so are we.”

New York also offers a closer connection to the national and global media covering the apparel and fashion industry.

“A lot of firms want to tap into our brand and that includes companies selling sneakers, purses, boots, iPad cases. Wool can be used for a lot of accessories, and we’re also looking at companies that use recycled materials-fabric. There’s a company called ReFleece that recovers fleece from jackets to make iPad cases,” Nick explained.

The two executives said the firm’s licensing partnership with WP Lavori in Italy “is a huge part of who we are globally.”

“They’re seeking out consumers and partners in markets and talked about growing opportunities for licensing in Europe, Scandanavia, Russia and Asia,” Nick said.

“Growth is occurring with our licensing partner,” Josh added.

In Europe, Woolrich sees more demand for its outerwear in the colder climates.

Back home, federal contracts to provide apparel and blankets to the U.S. military also play a key role.

“Our goal is to use all Woolrich made wool in any garment in our Outdoor collection. This is the line of clothing that is sold in the U.S., not anything under license to our Italian partners, that includes wool. For fall 2013, there are several garments we were able to do this for. Our goal is to increase over each season as fast as we can. Ideally by 2015, anything made of wool will be from our very own wool, not imported wool,” Nick said.

“The same is true for our accessories line. A large portion of our accessories lines is already made here in the USA. … our socks, many of our belts and wallets, but we want to help those lines increase in production in the USA, as well. We are also committed that 100 percent of our blanket line will be made in the USA. Currently, any product that is non-wool is imported,” he explained.

Also for this fall, Woolrich has introduced a small capsule of men’s apparel and accessories made 100 percent in the USA, Nick said.

“There are wool coats, shirt jackets, T-shirts, iPad cases and laptop covers and bags which we partnered with TOPO designs to create exclusively for Woolrich,” Nick added. “These include backpacks, duffle bags and, dopp kits. As mentioned, 90 percent of our blanket line is currently made here in Woolrich and finished in our facility in Jersey Shore. Many of our collaborations are also made here in the USA of wool made here in our mill. Also, most of our socks, belts and wallets are made here in Woolrich.”

With so many years under Woolrich’s belt – and a brand unequalled in the industry – “No one has the story we do,” Nick said.