Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

Author - Brian Gjurgevich

Forming a darned good business

F0187-MODEL-SIDE

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.

Finding a new way through recycling

Home_page_3

Alando Simpson takes one look at my shoes and decides to keep the tour short.

“I don’t want you to step on any nails,” he says.

His boots sink into increasingly softening ground as we circle the small house at the center of two acres in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood. The house—or, more precisely, its basement—is home to City of Roses Disposal & Recycling, a waste hauler-turned-recycling-facility founded by Alando’s father, Al.

Alando stands next to one of the pieces of heavy equipment lined up against the wall of the house.

“The grinder,” he says, reaching into a small pile of spare parts and filling his hand with a softball-sized metal tooth that will soon be chewing wooden building debris into 3-4 inch chips prime for paper mills. At one point in its rumbling, diesel-fueled life, somebody scrawled “The Beast” in black marker on the side of the grinder’s front panel—a name Alando says fits a machine that can slice and dice its way through 150 cubic yards of wood per hour. During construction season they haul two 48′ trailers per day, which is equivalent to 300 yards of wood.

“That’s a lot of good wood,” Alando says, as places his hands back in the pockets of his brightly colored Columbia jacket.

City of Roses truckThe Beast sits quiet today, but the rest of City of Roses’ recycling facility is abuzz. A half-dozen men dressed head-to-steel-toe in reflective gear pick away at a pile of drywall pulled from a site near Lloyd Center. Under a barn-sized structure flanked by piles of different colored plastics, films, metals, wires, and cardboard, the men sort debris while negotiating the movements of ever-beeping heavy machinery. To their left and right, expanding collages of industrial, commercial, and residential waste is being salvaged and stockpiled by City of Roses and its growing recycling division, CORE.

It’s a cold January morning. Our breath hangs in the air, as does a patch of fog at the other side of the lot.

“If we can’t find value, it’s going to be a cost,” Alando says. “So we try to recycle as much as we possibly can.”

Turns out, “waste not” is more than a good business practice for the Simpsons, it’s a way of life.

A consuming hobby

We walk past the vehicle scale that’s a staple of most recycling facilities and Alando stops next to a truck parked at the front of the house. It’s a lot like the rig Al drove to drop off his oldest son at Southwest Portland’s Lincoln High, he says, a bit beat up with rusty scars that stood out amid BMWs and Lexuses, but just as functional.

City of Roses dumpsterTo call Al “frugal” is an understatement, Alando says, describing his dad as notorious for rarely ever spending money—and almost never buying anything brand new.

“Unless its underwear or socks, he’s always going to buy used,” said Alando.

Enjoy the fruits of his labor? Al rarely had a moment, especially after he started City of Roses in 1996—while working full time as a truck driver for the City of Portland’s maintenance bureau.

“It was supposed to be a hobby,” Al said. “I used to go drinking beers with the buddies every night. That shit got old, y’know? I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I had to figure out something else to do. I knew I could drive a truck, and I needed something I could do after work and on the weekends.

“Garbage—they’re open seven days a week.”

A recurring work ethic

Al was born and raised in the Humboldt neighborhood of North Portland. His father, Oscar, worked on the railroad.

“He worked all of the time,” said Al.

Besides his weekday gig, Oscar took a second job managing the apartment complex where the family lived. He collected rent, mopped floors, and kept the toilets running on weekends and after hours.

“I remember he used to ask me to help him mop the floors and I always wanted to go play basketball or football on the weekends,” Al remembers. “Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. It makes me feel bad now, that I didn’t.”

“The times he’d say,” Al pauses, switching to the lower octave even older men reserve for imitating their fathers, ‘Go on, boy.’”

Oscar died in 1976 when Al was 20. But his work ethic lived on in Al.

Al realized that, while Oscar worked hard—and he, himself, worked hard—it had always been for someone else. A fact he continued to consider as City of Roses grew in the early 2000s, and he began feeling spread too thin. Family members urged Al to retire from the city and focus on his own business.

He said he couldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

“His standard line was that he wouldn’t retire from the city unless we had our own facility,” says Alando, 31, who joined the family business in 2004 and graduated from Portland State University in 2007. Once on the inside, Alando quickly saw why his father—and a hauler like City of Roses—would want its own recycling center to process the goods: Picking up and carrying waste from homes and businesses to recycling centers and landfills was only so profitable, particularly with waste fees, overhead, repairs, and taxes inching up as the business grew.

The idea of a facility had legs, but it was just an idea. Al and Alando weren’t sure where to start.

The light bulb moment

Al started with a single truck. One that had been sitting in front of his house for three months before he landed his first job.

Climbing into the truckHe poured all his free time into City of Roses, which grew steadily. Eventually, the phone was ringing too much. Al wasn’t exactly enjoying his “hobby” anymore. Family and friends helped for stretches here and there, but the seven-day workweeks mounted, and those closest to Al grew increasingly worried he’d work himself to death.

Taking over the family business can be a tough sell as it is, but when that business is trash? Alando wasn’t exactly feeling it, especially in his early 20s.

“My life was too easy,” he said. “I was doing a lot of fun stuff because a friend of mine was in the NBA, and my life was too easy. My dad was working his butt off.”

That didn’t sit well with Alando.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way I can hang out in this environment,” he said. “To essentially rely on the revenue of friends to determine success—that doesn’t make a man in my eyes.’”

Alando started at City of Roses working admin roles, where he often dealt with contractors. Their most consistent complaint centered on low recycling rates for their projects, particularly if they were striving to achieve LEED certification. Alando felt their pain, but as a hauler taking debris from site to dump, there was little City of Roses could do.

“That’s when the bulb went off,” Alando said.

City of Roses would open the facility Al always talked about, but it would specialize in helping contractors attain higher, more accurate recycling rates than the competition—often multi-billion-dollar, multinational waste companies who aren’t about to overhaul their proven operations model.

“Recycling is not why they’re in business,” Alando says. “The margins on landfilling are higher because there’s no labor. They’re going to recycle what they can, because it’s the status quo thing to do, but in reality they’re just trying to move stuff as fast as they can.”

One person’s trash…

Alando soaked up everything he could about LEED and wrote a business model targeted toward a niche, but growing market of contractors seeking higher recovery rates and the certification that went along with it.

The banks passed, but after receiving assistance from the Portland Development Commission and State of Oregon, traversing Metro and DEQ regulations, and paying system development charges, City of Roses had what it needed to break ground on its own facility in 2011. They spent a financially shaky 2012 under construction (“There were times we didn’t pay ourselves,” Alando says) and were officially permitted to “tip” (AKA dump) waste on April 1, 2013.

Quickly securing an 18-month job at Intel enabled City of Roses to build cash flow and acquire equipment (used, of course) like trailers, fifth wheels, tractors, boxes, excavators, and forklifts. And less than five months after the facility opened, Al retired from the city. But he’s by no means stopped working.

“I’ll come out here on a Sunday, and he’ll be here doing something,” Alando says. “He can’t stop. It’s almost a gift and a curse.”

“It’s gift because you see the work ethic, and you understand what it takes. But the curse is when you’re trying to implement different procedures and processes and tasks.”

Alando smiles.

“The numbers get skewed because he does things outside of what’s supposed to be recorded data,” Alando says. “I’m just trying to get him to understand that he’s going to be more of an asset to the company if he provides wisdom, instead of his actual hands-on work.”

I ask Alando how Al takes that constructive criticism.

“He’s not hearing it,” Alando laughs. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

Building up by tearing down

Al and Alando’s desks sit within a few yards of each other in the basement office, a space whose wood floor carries the basketball lines from the gym it was salvaged from. Al’s desk looks too organized to be heavily used—its neat stacks of papers and business cards a sure sign the older Simpson does most of his work out on in the field.

“Shit, I work harder now than I did when I worked for the city,” Al laughs, toothpick out the left side of his mouth, a bright-yellow construction vest across his chest. “That was a gravy job. This is work.”

Alando and AlOne look at Alando’s cavernous office area shows the workaholic tendencies didn’t fall far from the family tree. In addition to being vice president of City of Roses and CORE, the father of two chairs the Oregon Sports Authority Advisory Council, helps run the FAST (Fitness And Sustenance Training) camp, sits on the state transportation board, and is treasurer for the National Association of Minority Contractors.

What’s more, Alando CrossFits on weekday mornings at 5:30 and plays hoops on Saturdays.

His calendar mirrors the walls of his workspace, which is covered with posters, notes, and maps of Portland. A large, hand-written list tacked above his desk stands out.

It reads: “THINGS WE NEED FOR GROWTH”

Beneath, there are practical purchases (“more drop boxes” and “newer equipment”) and larger projects (“new wood process” and “obtain a franchise”). But when it comes right down to it, the area Alando thinks will best build up City of Roses is, ironically, tearing things down.

“We’re looking at deconstruction and demolition,” Alando says, noting the highly regulated and often politically franchised waste industry can present more barriers than growth opportunities, especially when his competition is multinational corporations. “I don’t really have the ability to take their market share. So for me, it’s ‘how do I create new markets or concepts within the industry?’”

With a deconstruction division, City of Roses would add taking apart buildings (while carefully maintaining anything that has value to it) to its hauling and recycling repertoire. They’d pick a structure clean of salvageable 2×4, 4×6, or 2×6 pieces of wood and either resell them or grind them into material for fabricated and engineered wood.

“A lot of demolition companies will haul their own debris, but none of them have their own recycling facilities—so at the end of the day, they’ll at some point pay for waste,” Alando says.

“We can recycle whatever waste we have. Salvage, reuse, recycle, discard—especially in a sustainably conscious region like Oregon, it gives us a lot of upside for providing alternative value. There’s a different cultural sentiment here. To me, Oregon is just one word that’s an extension of the term ‘organic.’ It’s the original root way of how people should be.”

For more information, visit http://www.cityofrosesdisposal.com/.

Nau and again, time and again

nau-featured-crop

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.

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 9.54.54 AM