Episode No. 003

Gerbing

Stoneville, NC est. 1975

By Mary C. Curtis

One of the first things Tom Nolan did when he bought Gerbing—a wearable technology company that makes heated clothing—was buy a 1909 Singer pedal-powered sewing machine on eBay.

The machine paid tribute to his grandmother, who sewed on one just like it when he was a child.

But learning to master needles and thread also is his way of understanding the constraints and struggles of his sewers, who he considers critical to the company.

“I kept hearing ‘no,’ we can’t make this product because we don’t have the talent. No we can’t do that because the material is too hard to sew,” he says. But he decided that if Gerbing’s sewing supervisor Nancy Salinas could teach him, a novice, then he could say, “If I’m able to do it, then you’re going to be able to do it.”
“What I did learn is that sewing is really hard,” Nolan admits.

Chapter 1

To China and Back

Sewing isn’t the only challenge Nolan faced after buying Gerbing—a company started in the 1970s—that he knew little about before it became his life.

Nolan dreamed of creating his own apparel company after working at Ralph Lauren for a little over three years. But the private equity firm he partnered with, McCarthy Capital, out of Omaha, had a different idea. The team there suggested that he’d be better off turning around a distressed company.

But when the firm suggested the heated clothing maker,  “I said it sounds ridiculous to me,” Nolan recalls.

But that was before he started wearing Gerbing’s jackets.

“Every time I wore it, five people would ask, ‘What is that?’ Then they would ask how much it cost. The next question was always, ‘Where can I get one?’” Nolan says.

He ended up buying the company a year and a half ago through his holding company, Prospect Brands. But even though people loved the products, Gerbing was a 40-year old company with a recent history of faulty wiring and problems with manufacturing in China.
Gordon Gerbing started the company out of his machine shop in Olympia, Wash. A number of his employees rode motorcycles to work despite the often chilly, rainy weather. So he created liners—think of an electric blanket sewn into a motorcycle jacket—that heated up when they were plugged into the motorcycle’s battery.
The business took off. In 1996, the company, by then managed by Gerbing’s son, Jeff, was making heated apparel for motorcycle giant Harley-Davidson. It also made heated clothing and accessories such as gloves that were powered with a small battery pack.
To keep up demand, the company moved production to China in 1998. But in 2011, the company began getting reports of faulty wiring in jackets made there. There were two reports of people being burned on their backs.  In the end, the U.S. government’s consumer product safety commission required Gerbing and Harley-Davidson to recall about 9,900 jackets.
In 2011, it began moving production back to the U.S.— choosing North Carolina in part because of tax incentives—and into an empty furniture factory in Stoneville, N.C. A year later, Nolan decided to take a chance on Gerbing. 

While Gerbing still makes gloves and some styles of its 7-volt jackets in China, Nolan wants to bring back as much manufacturing to the U.S. as possible—if not all of it.
 
It’s not just about being “American-made,” he says. Being in America actually makes more sense than having production done thousands of miles away.

Nolan is moving the company’s main headquarters into a refurbished flour mill in Greensboro, about 30 miles from the factory to bring the people and the work even closer together. 

“If [Creative Director] Spencer Bass designs something today, (and) we sent it to China, we wouldn’t see it for at least eight weeks,” Nolan explains. But if they make it in Stoneville, they can have an actual jacket in an hour. “We either love it or hate it, we change it, we fix it, we make another one.”

But wanting to make things in America is one thing. Actually doing it is another.

Chapter 2

Make Something

Nolan, 36, didn’t set out to change the way we make things in America. He was in advertising sales and then ran the golf and tennis division at Ralph Lauren. “When I was in the publishing business, we were selling a promise,” he says. “Subscribe to this magazine and it will make you better at your job. … Ralph Lauren got better because you’re selling a product.”

At Gerbing, he makes things.  “Every day here, you see the needle move.”

But sewing Gerbing jackets is a meticulous hands-on process that requires skilled sewers who pay attention to quality every step of the way. First, thin wires are sewn into heating pads. Those are then sewn into the clothing, and then the connections are soldered together. Sewers have to work with a variety of materials, depending on the use and style of the garment.
Nolan has had to find skilled workers in a state whose textile mills have been shutting down for the past 20 years—or train them on the job—including his own ongoing training on that Singer sewing machine. He still practices on it at home.
Greg Ziglar, 52, knew nothing about making clothing. He worked in North Carolina’s furniture industry for 15 years. But when he was laid off, he took an entry-level job at Gerbing, putting connectors on wires. “I just came looking for a job,” he said. “I didn’t ask what it paid.” Promotions came quickly – from working with heating pads to shipping to plant manager to running distribution. “If you do a good job and do it well and have a good attitude, you will move up,” he said.
Nolan’s also hired people like Enola Settle who worked as a sewer more than 20 years ago when the state’s textile industry was still an economic force. She lost her job in the 1990s when the company she worked for shut down. For two decades, she did customer service, cleaned houses whatever she needed to do to earn a living. Now she’s proud and pleased to be back using her sewing skills.
Dwayne Corum, 40, was once a supervisor at Hanes. But when it moved thousands of jobs to Asia in 2009, he lost his job. Corum decided to take a law enforcement course, but ended up competing in a market flooded with applicants with the same idea. Then he heard about about jobs at Gerbing through a woman at his church and put in his application.

Chapter 3

All in the Family

Buying Gerbing also has brought change to Nolan personally—from leaving his Madison Avenue office in Manhattan for the South. It’s also helped him tap into his roots. He grew up in a working class family on Long Island in New York, and went to Fordham University on golf and baseball scholarships.

Gerbing has brought him even closer to his family, creating a connection he never expected. Nolan’s parents, Tom and Janet, spend months at a time in North Carolina with their son and his family. His father, a retired Long Island Rail Road electrician, works alongside his son, and has helped to set up the Gerbing headquarters’ electrical system.

“It’s the first job that I’ve had that he really understands,” says the younger Nolan.

That same connection runs through the rest of Gerbing’s 100 employees.

“It’s like an extended family,” said Shawn Bradley, 26, who has been at Gerbing for about a year. Bradley used to work in a recycling plant. Now he has mastered several jobs at Gerbing, including soldering fine connections on jackets. He is smiling, but serious when he says, “It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” as he bends over his table to make certain every connection is perfect on a jacket.

“My mom – she has three jackets – she’s always bragging, ‘My son makes these.’”

Credits

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Charlotte, N.C. She contributes to The Washington Post “She the People” blog, TheGrio.com, TheRoot.com, NPR and WCCB News Rising Charlotte. Curtis, a public speaker, is Facilitator with The OpEd Project. She has worked at The New York Times; the Charlotte Observer, as an editor and syndicated columnist; the Baltimore Sun, and Associated Press. More at http://www.maryccurtis.com/

Photography & Videography by Dave Perry

Photography of Gerbing's New Headquarters is Courtesy of John Gessner