“This was more than a move across the country; it was a move to a new business model."
Cycle apparel maker Kitsbow finding mountains of success with move east
Posted November 25, 2020
By John McCurry
A just-right location in the North Carolina mountains provided the boost California-born cycling apparel maker Kitsbow with the momentum it needed to change its business model and bring its supply chain onshore.
And, as has been the case with many apparel and textile companies during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kitsbow broadened its product line in the early spring to produce masks for the public and healthcare workers.
Cycling enthusiast David Billstrom, an investor in and CEO of Kitsbow, discovered he had found the “Goldilocks” location in Old Fort, N.C., when he began recruiting new staff for the fledgling, but well-known firm. The move east last year has proven to be a timely impetus for growth.
“When I got the board’s approval in January of 2019 to move the company, we assumed we would be moving just the manufacturing,” Billstrom said. “But by June, when we were visiting locations, we knew we wanted to move everything, sales, marketing, administration and, most importantly, product development.”
Kitsbow’s approximately 30 production workers live in Old Fort and surrounding areas of McDowell County, an affordable place in which to live. Product development personnel live in nearby Black Mountain or Weaverville.
Billstrom described Kitsbow apparel as made in a “timeless” style. Shorts have a sleek, classic look with not a lot of pockets. The same goes for the shirts, which Billstrom said are not oversized.
“The Icon shirt is a plaid, made with Pendleton wool from Oregon,” he said. “We are in the sixth version of the design for that shirt. It’s been fine-tuned so that it just feels great when you are riding a bike and you can still wear it out to dinner. We want it to look good, we want the person wearing it to feel good.”
The women’s Icon shirt is made from a slightly softer Pendleton wool that drapes well, he said.
“We make sure every detail is right,” he said. “On the front of each shirt is a little piece of cotton on the inside. That’s for cleaning your glasses. Bikers get hot and sweaty and if you are wearing traditional bike clothes, your garments can’t be used to wipe your sunglasses or prescription glasses, because they are synthetic.”
Series mountain bikers put their clothing through considerable punishment. Billstrom said Kitsbow strives to make its products durable. He admitted that the company uses expensive materials and charges a premium price, but the apparel lasts much longer.
“The mountain biking heritage, you might end up in the bushes or crash into a tree, and you pick yourself up and keep riding,” he said. “Ask a biker what happens to their clothes if they crash. They shred, like their skin, so they throw them away. Because of that, we had to make really tough clothes. It’s not unusual for our customers to wear bike shorts for four or five years. And the shirts last forever.”
Billstrom has been a Kitsbow investor and board member since the company’s inception eight years ago. He was invited to serve by company founder Zander Nosler. The two had had a previous business relationship.
“After six years on the board, I agreed to become the CEO from western North Carolina,” Billstrom recalled. “I was living in Black Mountain, where I had lived since 2009, and so I started out running the company from there, and then I moved out to California. Once there, I realized the labor costs were ridiculous and the supply chain was ridiculous. I raised a sum of money for the purpose of growing the company and moving it to somewhere in the Appalachians, where I knew we could have a stable workforce and it would be somewhere affordable.”
The move to North Carolina meant essentially starting over. Kitsbow occupies 23,000 square feet of an old industrial building, a facility Billstrom said will serve its needs for the next five years. The shift to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) production last spring accelerated the company’s growth. For 90 days beginning in early March, all production was PPE. Since late spring, the company has slowly added apparel back to its production.
Pivoting into PPE
The first PPE product made was a face shield. Then, the company addressed the growing need for face masks, transforming in just four hours its factory floor into pods for making fabric masks. Kitsbow subsequently developed a partnership with Wake Forest University’s Baptist Health system to develop a new mask combining designs.
The filter in the original Kitsbow mask is removable. The mask can be worn with or without the filter.
“The FDA says we cannot say how much protection they offer,” Billstrom said. “But the tighter it filters, the more protection it offers.”
Billstrom said he believes mask production will be a part of Kitsbow’s business for the foreseeable future.
Smoother supply chain ride
With the move from California to North Carolina came adjustments in the supply chain. The company previously sourced products from Asia, but Billstrom decided the timeframe was too long. Factory time had to be reserved nine months in advance. The move to North Carolina also brought about a change in the company’s operations.
“This was more than a move across the country; it was a move to a new business model,” Billstrom said. “It meant we had to be able to change styles quickly inside our facility. It meant that we needed to train all our sewers the Toyota way, which, by the way, is at standup stations, not sit-down. You make one perfect garment and then you make another.
“Our makers, whether it’s masks or shirts or shorts, are involved with all the parts and making it, moving from machine to machine. When the garment is done, then they do it again. They do not sit at a table and make 300 left sleeves, which is the way it is done almost everywhere else. We are really making it to order.”
Kitsbow is now sourcing most of its raw materials in the U.S., with much of it coming from companies in the Carolinas.
“As soon as we hit the ground here, we started working on changing to a U.S.-based supply chain,” he said. “We still have a ways to go, but we have made a lot of progress. We have multiple items where 95% of the garment is from U.S. sourced raw material.”
Billstrom said he is proud of Kitsbow’s efforts in sustainability.
“One of the cool things is that we are making a sustainable product,” he said. “The impact on the planet is half, because you can wear it twice as long. Those are the hallmarks of everything we make.”