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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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