Interview and article by Julie Miles, Platinum Group: HR, Payroll, & Accounting Asheville, NC
“My life is my message.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
They say the mountains here are some of the oldest in the world. Along with its great evolutionary history, the varied topography, climate, soils and geology make it the most diverse, temperate
deciduous forests in the world. And in these forests, there is a natural harmony where diverse plant communities thrive. What nutrients a tree does not need to grow, it deposits at its base for
other plants to utilize, creating an intricate, symbiotic web. Nature has an innate way of sharing and living together in a mutually supportive way. It knows just what to do. And, where there is
strong community, there is harmony – for it benefits all.
We have a gem in these mountains that understands this principle. They work from their heart, and for everybody’s benefit, making innovative, high-quality, outdoor gear, that not only supports our fun adventures, but has created a lasting legacy: giving life back to the special craft heritage here we all hold dear. Listen to the story of Diamond Brand Gear – which has been around as long as some of our ancient trees, and holds every bit of the same wisdom.
Where there was once a ghostly silence in the wake of the textile industry moving overseas (nearly overnight), Lauren Rash saw a great opportunity to keep jobs local, and preserve the craft. Diamond Brand Gear has always had a relationship with the local textile industry, specifically the Carolina Textile District, who connects makers and manufacturers across Western North Carolina.
Wanting to create a learning program that could benefit the community as a whole, Lauren reached out to them and other local craft manufacturers tocreate the Industrial Sewing Program, offered
at both A-B Tech and Blue Ridge Community Colleges. With the largest percentage of crafters now belonging to millennials, this program can fill a niche with a generation that wants to make
things with their hands as a viable alternative to the typical desk job.
“As a region, we’ve lost many of our sewing skills, and we feel it is important
to bring the craft back to the area where so many cut and sew businesses are
setting up shop. Diamond Brand Gear recognized the need for workforce
development and approached it in a collaborative effort to help the sewing
community at large. Collaboration is key so that we can continue to grow
the industry and to grow the workforce here. No one company was large
enough to make this happen on our own, so we are teaming up to grow our
own companies together.” – Lauren Rash, speaking with Asheville Made
A LASTING LEGACY
Revolutionizing the outdoor gear world, Diamond Brand Gear sewed the very first Boy Scout backpack, and brought us priceless gear like the Free Spirit Tent.
Origin of the Diamond Brand name: when the military was sourcing canvas for tents and gear, they would always stamp the top grade canvas with a diamond (which was sourced from Diamond Brand Gear). Started in 1881, they have covered everything with these top quality threads, from juke boxes to helicopters. Here’s what they have crafted that has kept them thriving for over a hundred and thirty years.
For a company, your employees are your best spokespeople. They see the actions you take, how you interact with them, your customers, and the community-at-large. The values they see are what they will carry into the world and talk about. Imagine, your first day of work for your new job happens to fall at the beginning of a global pandemic. This was true for Bradlee Hicks of Diamond Brand Gear. Only after a month on the job, we sat down (virtually) for a talk. Despite the short period of experience with Diamond Brand Gear, learning his new role, and adapting to the current times, Bradlee was able to shed deep insight into the legacy and ethos of the company.
PG: Describe what Diamond Brand gear makes?
DBG: Our primary manufactured items are canvas wall tents, made for summer camps. They are very durable and made to last for decades, with proper care. We also make helicopter covers for a company called Cocoon. They provide these helicopter covers to the military and hospitals. The helicopters are very sensitive so everything has to be covered when they are not in use so they will function properly. This is one of the many facets of our essential businesses.
A small part of our factory is dedicated to Shibumi, that is essentially a tent shade. It is an unsupported, bendable tube of fabric that blows in the wind, creating a large square footage of beach shade. It’s a very smart product. Additionally, we’ve been producing PPE. A lot of people out there are doing masks, and need that work to sustain their business. Because we have a larger facility and larger equipment, we were able to make gowns. The other day we had an all-hands-on-deck operation and produced 4,000 gowns in 2 hours. It’s been really cool being a part of that and helping to produce these things that have been difficult to come by, and fortunately, we have the capacity to produce them.
PG: Did someone reach out to you to make them?
DBG: A lot of our production of PPE has been in coordination with the Carolina Textile District. To streamline efforts and meet the need for this, they’ve been helping to coordinate with all of the smaller manufacturers in the area. We have also been helping with cutting fabric for masks because we have large cutting machines.
PG: Have they been distributed locally?
PG: The high diversity of who you serve. Your ability to be malleable and act quickly also shows you must have very good operational systems in place, just to switch over to the PPE. That sounds like quite a big undertaking.
“It’s a testament to the leadership, and the amazing craftspeople that make
our gear,” Bradlee says.
PG: What makes Diamond Brand Gear’s values, culture, and vision special?
DBG: We have a staff meeting every morning and go through the 50/50 profit-sharing program, where 50% of all gross profit goes back to employees. This also helps promote efficiency with performance, and helps us with our strive to be a zero-waste company. We also practice LEAN manufacturing principles. This helps put money back into employees pockets, and is a symbol of the collaboration we have here.
We have a small team, around 55 people that work here. There is a lot of collaboration between researchers, developers, and creators of the products. It is all very much like a family.
Another interesting thing: 80% of our employees are women. There’s the CEO, John Delaloye, myself, and a handful of other guys on the staff, but aside from that, the business is very much driven by women. I think it’s a refreshing thing to see in business and a cool thing to be a part of.
PG: Do you sell online only?
DBG: The bulk of our business is probably done in person, as a result of our industry relationships, but in general our business model is direct-to-consumer and online, though we do have gear for sale to factory visitors. (Diamond Brand Gear CEO) John Delaloye explained the pricing markup of both wholesale and retail to me once, and by doing direct to consumer, you’re able to shed so much cost for the customer. It’s a model that I think we’re going to see more of. I’ve seen a lot of businesses during COVID, by necessity, doing direct to consumer. It’s a good time to get people more familiarized with this model.
RESPONDING, IN A TIME OF NEED
PG: Besides making PPE for the community, I hear you also created a Pay What You Can program. Can you tell me about that?
DBG: The Community Deals Program started with a question: “How can we help people get the gear they want or need in this time, but do it in a way that is not self-serving?” CEO John Delaloye came up with this plan of Pay What You Can. We offer three tiers of pricing. The top tier is the “Community Hero” pricing, which allows you to pay extra. The idea is that this tier supports the lower tier pricing which is the Friend in Need. Essentially, you have people saying, ‘I can afford to pay a little bit extra, so that DBG can give a bigger discount to people that are having a harder time.’
Everyone could just pay the least amount possible, but we’ve had a substantial amount of people pay more, or just the suggested middle tier, The Gear Enthusiast tier. So that’s an exciting program. We’d like to look at launching future products with this pricing structure.
PG: I love it. It shows the support and loyalty to your brand. There’s that reciprocation, community feel. That’s special.
DBG: Yes, we have had a lot of community support. We make everything right here, and they value that. Fortunately, we haven’t been hit that hard in this area from COVID, but, if it gets to that point and we didn’t have these local resources, where would we be?
“The world is big and I
want to have a good look
at it before it gets dark.”
– John Muir
So the next time you’re out at Roan Mountain, say, breathing in the cool mountain air that defines such an altitude, resting for a bit, having just travailed through the Boreal forest, up the grassy bald, now filled with awe at seeing the infamous Gray’s Lily, that, because of the unique web of geology and plants found here, is one of the only places it exists: thank yourself for getting out there; thank Asa Gray for taking note of it in 1840; thank Diamond Brand Gear for making the Free Spirit Tent that will provide you shelter for the night; and thank your neighbor, for the great job they did sewing it.