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In Stitches

The only remaining sock manufacturer in Vermont is doing quite well

by Rosalyn Graham

Ric Cabot is co-owner and executive vice president of Cabot Hosiery Mills in Northfield, the company his father, Marc, launched in 1978, following in the footsteps of his father, who had worked in the sock business in New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Brown eyes may run in families, — or big feet, or straight teeth — but socks?

Socks do run in Ric Cabot’s family. He is proud of being the third generation in the sock business — and when he talks about Cabot Hosiery Mills Inc., he looks forward to a fourth generation in the business — even though his son, Benjamin, is just over 3 years old.

That’s the kind of vision and passion Cabot has for the Northfield business that he owns with his father, Marc, who started making socks in Vermont in 1978. Marc was following in the footsteps of his father, who had been in the sock business in New Hampshire and North Carolina.

“There were always socks around the house,” Cabot remembers. “From a young age, I always had socks in my head.”

The family lived in New York City, and Marc was repping New Hampshire mills when he decided to put his eye for detail and passion for design into his own business.

At the time, says Cabot, there were mills in Vermont and New Hampshire, so, with a partner, Marc opened Cabot Hosiery in an old sock mill about a mile down the road from the company’s current location. One of their early products was a turtleneck body suit knitted using hosiery technology, a popular item with the national hosiery and lingerie companies with whom he had a long relationship. As styles and the market changed, the business evolved to specialize in socks for national companies. Referring to an industry metaphor for cheap socks, Marc says, “We never have knit white socks or black socks.”

Marc had followed an improbable path from graduating with a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to owning a hosiery mill. Cabot followed the same route, studying journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, working on the college paper, earning a degree in journalism and marketing. He worked for a publisher in New York for several years before joining his father in the expanding hosiery business in 1989. “We both felt that a knitting machine could provide the same creative values as a typewriter,” Marc says.

“I always knew in the back of my mind this is what I wanted to do,” Cabot says. “I loved the product; the fashion business interests me; the outdoors interests me; the lifestyle interests me — so I followed my interests, used my ability to communicate and applied it to product.”

Cabot started on the factory floor, learning how to knit socks, load yarn and check quality — all the basics — from the people who were part of the production team. Many of them are still with the company.

“I owe a lot to the people who trained me,” says Cabot. “Then when my father thought I had a good base of knowledge, I began calling on customers.” He was on the road visiting the customer base, showing samples, growing the business and evolving the product line, and working with his father and the management team on technical advances.

“I enjoyed having him work with me,” says Marc. Together they moved the production from the traditional mechanical knitting machines to the state-of-the-art computer-controlled machines.

photoBesides its private brands, Cabot & Sons Vermont and Darn Tough Vermont, the company makes private-label socks for companies such as L.L. Bean, Orvis and Bass. Pictured, from left, are Steve Kelley, chief financial officer; Tony Harris, IT manager and facilities manager; Rick Carey, human resources manager; Vivian Dudley, Darn Tough customer service; Jenn Lagerstedt, inventory specialist; Laura Ducas, invoice specialist; and Marilyn Messier, in samples.

Making a wider range of socks for their own Cabot & Sons brand and for their private-label customers, which include Bass Shoes, L.L. Bean and Orvis, meant more equipment and an expanded work force. The old mill building could not support the growth and the new equipment, and it was obvious that a larger building — on one floor instead of the three floors of the old building — was in order. “The state got behind us,” Cabot says. “It was a big deal in 1995 when Gov. Dean came to cut the ribbon on the new building on Whetstone Drive.”

It was also a time of commitment to being a manufacturing business in Vermont, says Marc. “We did say we were not going to be about price.”

“People come to us for flexibility, design and quality,” says Cabot. “I design socks; my father designs socks; our plant manager designs socks; and we meet with customers and meet with their designers to hear about what they are doing with their tops and bottoms in the next season so we can coordinate the socks we make for them. Some years it’s rugby stripes and some years it’s bright patterns. We don’t design in a vacuum; it’s a very custom operation.”

The company still produces socks that are sold under its own Cabot & Sons name and the newest addition to the product line, Darn Tough Vermont. The wall of the production manager’s office is arrayed with socks in spectacular jacquard patterns, lively color combinations, cashmeres, Aran knits, heavy outdoor socks and fine trouser socks for women.

Cabot’s eyes really light up when he talks about Darn Tough, the premium, all-weather performance sock with the wonderfully Vermont name. Cabot is proud of the name (his creation), and the concept and the response of the sock-buying public in the two years they have been marketing Darn Tough. The socks are knitted of 100 percent merino wool, Lycra, nylon and elastic to meet the needs of the outdoors person. He says that various designs and combinations of length, cushioning and material make socks suitable for skiers, boarders, bikers, hikers, hunters, runners and everyone who wants a comfortable, warm, unbulky sock that wicks moisture and promises durability. It comes with a lifetime, money-back guarantee, and Cabot says the fan mail has been unbelievable. “People say they’ve tried good socks before, but these are at a different level.”

photoHanifa Palic, a seamer, closes the toes on the socks. She is one of the company’s 70 full-time employees. That number jumps to as high as 100 during the busiest season.

“We developed the Darn Tough brand to steer the company in a different direction,” says Marc. “We researched the marketplace and found what it needs. There was nobody with a premium performance sock. We focused on a better sock, and it’s been extremely successful.”

Cabot adds, “Darn Tough has been a fantastic product for the company all over the United States and Canada. It’s our brand and it will propel the company into the fourth generation. It’s the most sustainable thing we do. We have wonderful private-brand customers, but the most important thing is to produce our own brand.”

Cabot credits hands-on, personal involvement with making the difference. “Other companies are marketing socks but have never been in a plant. We know every step, every process.”

As executive vice president, Cabot is responsible for working with private-label customers and still travels quite a lot to maintain those connections. He has also taken a more direct role in the running of the company. “I’ve taken on more of a chief operating officer role,” he says. “We have a plant manager, a CFO, personnel manager, supervisors, production manager, a whole experienced team to manage the daily operation. My role is to be sure we’re ready, that we’re meeting our branded objectives and our private-label objectives.

“I’m steering more because right now the company needs to be steered. A few years ago, we looked at the long-range plan and we made a decision that we wanted to stay here in Vermont. We chose the more difficult route of doing it domestically, locally. We made that decision because we have such good experience on our team, such talented technicians, and we’re leveraging all that experience.

“Everyone agrees it’s the direction we need to move in,” he continues. “The employees, supervisors, managers agree it makes sense. They see what’s going on in the world around, and we are sure the best years are ahead of us. I’m setting the vision and guiding.”

Marc is still actively involved in the business, though he was able to make his 35th annual fishing trip to the Miramichi River in New Brunswick in October. “He still takes care of his customers,” Cabot says. “He’s an excellent salesman, terrific with the product, and he has long relationships with the presidents of a lot of retailers. He trusts me and the management team, and he supports my efforts and my vision for the brand and where the company should go.”

The future prospects of the company, and what Cabot calls “the fourth-generation thing” are obviously a priority for him. He divides his time between the hosiery mill, on the hill above Vermont 12 outside of Northfield, and his home in Stowe, where he and his wife, Alison, live with their two children, Benjamin and Eliza, age 1. “It’s quite a scene,” he says.

Alison has her own business, Country Village Rentals and Real Estate, a vacation home rental and sales business she has operated for many years. Cabot is excited about the prospect of getting Benjamin on skis this winter, so much so, he will even switch to skis from the snowboard that has been his preferred snow sport for 17 years to take his son skiing.

Cabot says he sees signs that Benjamin has entrepreneurship in his genes. “He always wants to make a deal. He’s always saying, ‘That’s a good deal.’ We hope he’ll be in the business.

“We’re the only sock company left in the Northeast; nobody does socks in Vermont,” Cabot says. “I sort of like that challenge. One day I hope to look back on this and say, ‘I told you so. We did it.’”

Besides the challenge, he says, “it’s important to keep the people employed.” The company has a work force that ranges from 70 to 100 depending on the season.

There is a friendly atmosphere on the plant floor as Cabot walks down the ranks of knitting machines with their cones of colorful yarn, and through the washing, dyeing, drying, boarding and packaging rooms. There are jokes and good-natured nicknames.

“People are proud of what they do, and at the end of the day they know they’ve produced something — they’ve taken an idea and made a product. It’s not a service industry or a phone center. It’s making something tangible and they feel good about it, and so do I.” •