Eco Entrepreneur

Most fans of natural products are familiar with Tom's of Maine, a venerable brand of personal care items. And yes, there is a real Tom behind these products. Tom Chappell became synonymous with natural products during his 36 years of guiding the fortunes of the company he created. That company got its start with development of a phosphate-free laundry detergent and later became famous for its natural personal care products, including toothpaste and shampoo. Chappell and his wife Kate sold the company in 2006 to Colgate-Palmolive.
But Chappell's entrepreneurial spirit and penchant for all things natural wouldn't let him relax for long. Without any prior experience in the apparel industry, he has created Ramblers Way Farm, a producer of next-to-skin, worsted wool luxury undergarments. He has assembled from scratch a sheep-to-garment pipeline that is producing worsted undergarments using superfine wool. The company, which opened for business in October, brands its products as sustainable, high quality and American-made.
"Finishing an entrepreneurial project like Tom's of Maine leaves you a little empty-handed with an awful lot of energy left," Chappell says. "After a couple of years of reflection, I decided I was missing the opportunity to put a customer together with a product that is unique. I wanted to do something that was both good for American communities with people looking for jobs and good for the environment."
Chappell says his concept is to remain connected to nature while developing a product he says didn't really exist heretofore: a lightweight wool undergarment that is warm, but not scratchy.
"Our products are unique because of their weight and warmth. You also get the fineness of fiber. We work with fibers that are 18 to 18.5 microns in diameter. When I say lightweight, I mean lighter than what you get with a normal wool long john. It can be worn to the office, to go fishing, running or biking. It's quite a versatile weight. We call it indoor-outdoor." After Ramblers Way becomes more established, Chappell plans to extend his product line to outer apparel.
"We thought having a farm and getting some sheep was the right place to start," Chappell says.
"The idea was to keep it on a small farm scale and work with mini industrial equipment, but as we researched it and got into it, we found that to get the end result for the product we required, we needed a very fine fiber and special equipment to spin yarn and knit a fabric that did not exist on a mini industrial scale. So, we moved from a small friendly farm scale into the typical commercial mode I was used to. I didn't have any qualms about going to full commercial scale having built Tom's of Maine."
Chappell says he began to network with people in the wool industry who directed him to the companies that now comprise his unique supply chain. He quickly realized that no one company could do what he envisioned.
Meet the supply chain
Ramblers Way uses only wool from Rambouillet sheep, an American breed known for its superfine fiber. The company sources its wool from Chappell's two small farms in Maine and from ranches in the western United States. Raw wool is made into top at Chargeurs USA in Jamestown, SC, is spun into yarn at Kentwool in Pickens, SC, and is knit into fabric at Alamac American Knits in Lumberton, NC. From there, it is shipped north to Griffin Manufacturing in Fall River, MA, to be cut and sewn into garments. Products are then shipped to a fulfillment center in Pennsylvania for distribution.
"We maintain a direct relationship with the producers who are supplying our greasy wool, working with wool co-ops and wool houses," says Nick Armentrout, the company's wool buyer. "About 99.9 percent of it makes its way to Chargeurs USA in Jamestown, SC, for scouring and carding and combing. The small exception would be if we have small colored lots and then we would use a smaller, more boutique top company."
Kentwool is one of the few remaining manufacturers of wool yarn in the United States. Formerly known as Kent Manufacturing, the company is known for its innovation and can trace its roots back to 1843 when it was founded by Englishman Thomas Kent in Philadelphia.
Alamac American Knits, founded in 1946, was formerly a division of WestPoint Stevens and later, Dyersburg Corp., before it was purchased by a group of company management in 2001 after Dyersburg filed for bankruptcy.
Griffin Manufacturing was founded in 1936 as a dressmaker. It now specializes in sportswear manufacturing.
"We traveled all over the country, from the Carolinas to New England, visiting the vestiges of the old U.S. textile industry and we found my concept was exciting to them." Chappell says. "They were open and willing to help me. Then it was a matter of getting supply. We went out west to the ranchers and told them we would buy their finest fiber and told them we would pay a premium they weren't getting because they were lumping it in with the commodity fiber."
Chappell says he wasn't keen on assembling a national sales force as he had with Tom's of Maine. So, he decided Ramblers Way would be an Internet community selling its products at
"I have had no prior experience in the woolen or garment business," Chappell says. "Most of the woolen business in the U.S. for consumers right now is socks. We are in the apparel business.  We are starting out by investing $1 million in the business for inventory, marketing, advertising and highly competent management and we will see what we get. Because we don't have investors, we can approach it that way."
Ramblers Way products are machine washable, using a patented enzyme treatment process from England rather than the standard Superwash method. Chappell says his environmental values won't allow the use of Superwash.
Chappell says his products target consumers who currently wear either nothing underneath, cotton or silk.
"We are not really focused on what I call the high performance market, but rather the fine clothing market for the person who wants to be warmer from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. as they commute into the city and back." Chappell says. "It's about having the weekend lifestyle and not wanting to wear something too heavy or too scratchy."
Ramblers Way production will be constrained by the limited supply of the high-quality wool it uses.
"Certainly a significant challenge is that there is a finite supply of the quality of wool we need," Armentrout says. "We have been offered very fine wools from outside the country and they are great wools, but we have a commitment to use U.S. wool. We hope with our success we will influence more growers to look at producing fine fiber."

Focus on a carbon-neutral, U.S.-made supply chain
In keeping with the company's commitment to the environment, Chappell contracted with Clean-Air, Cool Planet to perform the company's carbon emissions assessment. Clean-Air, Cool Planet, is a New Hampshire-based firm that advises companies and communities on how to reduce carbon emissions. Maintaining an Internet-only sales approach is also part of the company's environmental strategy.
"One of our values is to be as carbon neutral as we can," Chappell says. "There's no question that shipping small portions of product around the country to wholesalers and retailers and having a sales force flying around the country all add to the burden on the environment. My aim is to have one warehouse and one portal and see if we can't build a business that way."
Chappell says more manufacturers are moving a regionalized approach to their supply chains.
"We have noticed that the supply chain is very hip to this idea. We have noticed that some of the global brands in general, not just textiles, during the past six months have regionalized manufacturing and warehousing to specific parts of the globe. They are trying to move closer to their markets and have a more responsive supply chain than one that requires 15 months lead time. This has been brought on by the cost of moving goods around the globe. Regionalization is on the agendas of many global companies."
Armentrout believes consumers are becoming more conscious about looking for and buying U.S.-made products, if they can find them, on retailers' shelves. He says there is a move toward more responsible consumption.
"There certainly is an evolution of consumer interest in the notion of locally made products. Folks are thinking about where a product is made and where the material comes from."
Chappell says the "crystal ball" question is how much he expects of the company and how fast.
"We know the fabulous position we are in right now," he says. "After just seven weeks of being in business, we had so many testimonials of people's love of this product, echoing back the very features we built into it. Getting the product right is extremely gratifying. Now we can build a foundation on these lightweight and warm garments."
The Tom's of Maine connection to Ramblers Way certainly gives it a cache attached to natural products, but Chappell says he isn't necessarily trying to attract Tom's of Maine fans.
"We are not trying to replicate the customer profile. This is a business that needs to stand on its own and serve a particular set of interests and values among a large customer audience. We are going to go where this takes us. The good news is that we can bring people into a franchise of using American-made, 100 percent natural Rambouillet wool because it is just plain high quality. There is nothing like it."

John W. McCurry is a free-lance writer based in Georgia.
Fast Facts
Founded: October 2009
Location: Kennebunk, Maine
Product: Premium, next-to-skin worsted wool undergarments.
Mission: To serve discerning customers with American-made woolen products in an environmentally responsible way.
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