These two are literally wrapped up in their work
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Vermont Flannel Co. in East Barre was born in 1991 from a moment of crisis. Mark Baker, the owner of Ad Art America, had to come up with something to sell at a trade show when his star idea was rendered obsolete. Baker and his wife, Linda, have grown their made-in-America brand of flannel clothing into an award-winning manufacturing enterprise.
Mark Baker is an idea man. His parents even predicted that someday he would come up with an idea for an item he would sell a million of.
Mark thought that prediction might be coming true back in 1991, during the Gulf War, when he created a T-shirt for his company, Ad Art America. On the back were listed all the countries in the Middle East, and on the front, the words, “Saddam Hussein’s Middle East Tour.”
“It was like a T-shirt for a band tour,” he says, “and it had a big stamp on it that said, ‘Canceled Due to Desert Storm.’ Everybody loved this T-shirt.”
He booked a double booth at a big national T-shirt show in Atlantic City, hoping to sell the shirt to a slew of large retailers (think Sears Roebuck). “Then a week before the show, they had the nerve to end the war,” he quips. “So there I was with a product that was obsolete and nothing to sell at my show.”
A change of plan was called for.
“In 1990,” says Mark, “I had made a flannel T-shirt and a pair of flannel lounge pants, which I was going to do something with, but I was not quite sure what. They were just hanging on my wall at work.”
With the show fast approaching, Mark spied those flannel pants and T-shirt and, he says, “A bulb went off in my brain! Why don’t we do flannel sportswear?” Until then flannel was used mainly for sleepwear and hunting shirts, and certainly not for something like a golf shirt or a hooded pullover jacket. It worked and led to the creation of Vermont Flannel Co., which Mark and his wife, Linda, operate in East Barre, with stores in Woodstock and Ferrisburgh.
“Everyone looked at me the first day of this show like I had three heads,” he says. “‘Is this sleepwear? Pajamas?’ But after the first day, there were lines of people trying to buy samples, because they wanted to sell them. And that’s my story.”
Of course the story began long before that Atlantic City show, and Mark is a born storyteller. As his parents saw early on, he is also a man of ideas. He was born on Staten Island, N.Y., the son of a New York City Harbor patrolman and a secretary. In 1963, at age 10, he moved with his family to the Boston area.
After graduating from high school in Newton, Mass., Mark entered Newton Junior College to study psychology. Having earned an associate’s degree and fulfilled most of the requirements for his BA, he transferred to the University of Massachusetts.
“I used to do lights for a jazz band from Berklee School of Music in Boston called Zamcheck,” he says. “The band was invited to do the Newport Jazz Festival and asked if I would do the lights. I said, ‘Sure.’” He quit school and went to work for the band.
Zamcheck broke up at some point, he says, and many part-time jobs followed, the most interesting of which were the chance to open the first disco in the state of Florida (“My lighting expertise landed me the job,” he says) and being a steward on a 110-foot private yacht docked in Palm Beach, working for Mrs. Ruth Nash Bliss, heiress to the Nash auto fortune.
In the mid-1970s, Mark went to work for a fellow selling T-shirts for a band, and found he liked it, although logistics were difficult — “He was from Tennessee and I was living in Boston,” says Mark.
He took a job with a T-shirt company in Natick, Mass., called Graphtex, where his talent for ideas eventually earned him the position of marketing director. “I don’t know how to put this politely,” Mark says, “but in those days, most of the T-shirt companies were run by long-haired Hippies doing T-shirts in their garages. What we tried to do at Graphtex was put on suits and ties and call on big corporate accounts with a very professional presentation to explain that T-shirt advertising could be just as valuable as any other form of advertising.”
At Graphtex, Mark put together some successful campaigns. One was creating 300,000 T-shirts for Coca-Cola, which were distributed through Burger King. “We initiated some new ideas about the effect of T-shirt advertising, where the consumer paid for it, in that people had to buy the T-shirts at Burger King,” he says.
Riding the coattails of that campaign, he came up with a design he took to Red Auerbach, then the president of the Boston Celtics, and pitched a fund-raiser. “In about eight weeks, we sold 53,000 T-shirts, with $1 from each one to help muscular dystrophy, and we presented a check on the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon for $53,000.”
In 1983, Linda Faulkner was a recent graduate of Springfield College with a bachelor of science in human services rehabilitation, working as a fund-raising assistant for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. She was sent to Graphtex to talk about a T-shirt order, “as kind of the new pup,” she says. “My boss had said, ‘Let’s send Linda over to see Mark; he will like her.’”
Mark did like her. “When it was time to deliver the shirts, I said, ‘You make sure Linda picks up the T-shirts from now on.’”
A spark was lit. “We were doing the official T-shirt for the America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island,” says Mark, “so I wined and dined my new girlfriend down in Newport and it made it seem better than just a T-shirt guy.”
“We were working some late hours with the new fund-raising event,” says Linda. “Mark was completely cordial and spontaneous and accommodating, which are the attributes that led him to plow forward.”
They married in 1984, and by ’86, she had been promoted to district manager at the MS Society. Mark, who had left Graphtex to start Ad Art America, had been coming to Vermont for years, calling on country stores and ski areas. Linda and her siblings had skied here when they were growing up. Vermont seemed the perfect place to eventually start a family.
“We bought the typical dilapidated old farmhouse on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere,” says Mark. “I made it a full-time job to call on all the country stores and ski areas and shops.” They bought a small building in East Barre where they did screen printing and embroidery for corporations like Rossignol, and for various events.
All three of their children — Scott, 24; Brianna, 22; and Luke, 19 — are Vermont natives, Mark says proudly. Linda helped out from the beginning, and after Scott was born and she had a hard time finding day care, she began working at home, “more part time, doing customer service,” she says.
Following the 1991 trade show in Atlantic City, Vermont Flannel took off with a bang. But there was a problem. “I sent a sample to a representative who said he was from JC Penney, and within 10 weeks, JC Penney had my pants to the exact same specifications except for quality — made in China — in their store.” The Bakers were adamant about keeping the product made in America.
“I went to LL Bean with my samples, and they did love them and purchased enough for me to go from three employees to 63 employees in a short period of time,” says Mark. This won him an award from Gov. Howard Dean as the fastest growing business in the state.
They purchased Hardwick Knitwear Co.’s machinery and rented space in the Wall Street complex in Barre. But LL Bean ordered Vermont Flannel for only six months, then canceled, says Mark, “and went off-shore to have them made.”
The company had nine locations at one time, he says. “Then we had a few bad years, and the banks, they were funny — they wanted me to pay them back all the debt we had acquired. It took us until 2005 to pay off our big debt from our experiences with LL Bean. The bank — which was nice of them — did a 10-year extension, and that kept us in business. We’ve become a smaller, and more experienced company.
They ran into a tough time when they discovered, in 1992, that some of their employees were embezzling from Ad Art America, “so I’m sort of here by default,” says Linda. “I said, ‘There isn’t any possible way I could do any worse in bookkeeping than this.’”
They hired a consultant to teach her what she needed to know about bookwork. “The kids were in day care, but because we were self-employed, I could pick them up from school. But it wasn’t unusual to be at the office until 10 on a Thursday night and 11 on a Tuesday night. And we’re very grateful that Mark made that available to us.”
In the late 1990s, they gave up the leased space and consolidated operations in East Barre.
Linda is listed as the company’s vice president, treasurer, and secretary. “Mark is the creative genius who does sales and marketing,” she says. “I am the bookkeeper, usually anchored in East Barre, where our factory is.” Mark counters that Linda is the one who holds the business together.
They opened the store in Ferrisburgh nine months ago because of the traffic count on U.S. 7. “We had the feeling that the high traffic count would give us great exposure, which might feed into our website,” says Mark. “We’re treating the website as if it is a store with a budget, with the understanding that it’s easier to build a gross through the website than it is through a brick-and-mortar store location.”
Employees now number 20, but that number goes up to as many as 35 during the fall foliage and holiday seasons. The Bakers continue to focus on having their product made in America and have no plan to do otherwise. In 2010, the company was an inaugural recipient of the Made in the USA Hall of Fame, alongside luminaries such as Ford Motor Co. and Boeing.
All three of their children have worked in the business at one time or another. Luke continues to work there, at least for now, says Linda. “All of them want to get out and work for other people, on their own. We don’t want to press them.”
In the meantime, Mark is cooking up an idea for his exit plan. “I think I would trade a nice sailboat on a lake with a small cottage for Vermont Flannel, and we could sail off into the sunset.” •