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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 23-26. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.
Before John Fernsell founded Ibex back in 1997, he’d been wearing a wool suit to work every day during both the winter and the summer.
The fabric turned out to be well suited for the outdoors, and Fernsell helped spur a rift in the love affair the outdoor industry had with polyester. He tells us he always overheated when he wore polyester, often stopping on the trail to take off or put on another layer.
So Fernsell gave up his investment business and founded Ibex, always with the intention that he’d like to have a majority of his products made domestically.
When you founded Ibex in 1997, was it your goal to produce gear and apparel in the United States?
It was always my intention to have the majority of our products made in the U.S. because it felt like it was the right thing to do. I saw what was going on in the food industry. People began to demand more information about the source of what they purchased, and I believed that people would begin to do the same with their clothing. It was also a way to differentiate our brand from the competition — when I started Ibex in 1997, many outdoor apparel companies were in the middle of an exodus to Asia for lower labor costs. I felt that someday people would care where their products are made. I think in the end, the consumer will tell [companies] what is important to them.
How is Ibex coming along on its goal of moving 100 percent of production out of China by 2014?
It has not been overly difficult because we never manufactured very many of our products in China. We did bolster our production staff and we have set up an office in Oakland, Calif. to work closely with our factories in the Bay Area. That being said, we still manufacture a few things in Asia, including several of our gloves that are made in Sri Lanka.
How many jobs have your manufacturing facilities created?
We employ around 60 people. But in reality, it is several times that number when we factor in the business we give to factories we work with. About six months ago, I was visiting one of our important California factories and the woman who owns it came up to me, hugged me and started crying. She said she would be out of business if it were not for Ibex. I left with a new degree of responsibility to the factories with whom we work.
Though much of your wool is still sourced from New Zealand, tell us about your experience with sourcing wool in the U.S. for the Shak Lite line.
We have been working hard towards having several 100 percent USA-made products in our line. We have worked closely with top U.S. wool suppliers, spinners and knitters to accomplish our goals. For example, we found a family-owned and operated sheep ranch in Montana known for its ultra fine wool. It was important for us to visit the ranch and meet with the ranchers directly to ensure their sheep are well cared for and that the wool is up to our high standards.
Is there any expansion of this program planned for the future?
We continue to expand our domestic “Field to Factory” program and are working on another fabric in the future.
What advice do you have for outdoor companies looking to follow your lead in terms of domestic manufacturing?
I am not sure where other apparel companies are on their U.S. manufacturing initiatives, but for us, working with U.S.-based factories is very gratifying. It is more hands-on. You need to be more involved in the process, and it takes more capital investment. It is a real commitment.
What’s the cost of U.S. manufacturing? How much more is the customer willing to pay for “made in the U.S.A” products?
I think “made in the USA” has gained interest from buyers. Although, how much more money they are willing to pay for “made in the USA” products is the question. Sometimes we have to take a lower margin to keep a product competitive. If a manufacturer is looking for the lowest cost, then “made in the USA” is not the answer. For Ibex, I feel it is the right direction to be going in. My belief is the customer base that cares will continue to grow.