Woolrich Inc. passes the torch

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.

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, 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 the son of Woods Rich.

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

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

The two recently sat down with the Williamsport Sun-Gazette and The Lock Haven Express newspapers, 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.

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.”

Woolrich now has a little more than 200 fulltime 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 and through other retailers in the United States and Canada, as well as distributors internationally.

It has a growing on-line customer base, according to the two executives.

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 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 is 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 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.

The consumer reviews of Woolrich apparel on its website and Amazon and use the word “nostaligic” or often say, “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 a 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.