More than 100 hosiery mills closed in Fort Payne, Alabama. Then Gina Lock­lear had an idea to save her par­ents’ fac­tory

Inc. (USA) - - INNOVATE - BY LEIGH BUCHANAN

SINCE 1996, AN OF­FICE had sat va­cant in Terry and Regina Lock­lear’s sock mill in Fort Payne, Alabama. The cou­ple were hop­ing that some­day one of their daugh­ters, Gina or Emily, would oc­cupy the room they’d built for the sec­ond­gen­er­a­tion leader of Emi- G Knit­ting, which was named for the two. Emi- G made sports socks. Color: white. Styles: crew and ath­letic. “Knit them, put a toe in them, and out the door in 300-pound cases,” says Terry. For 12 years, Rus­sell Ath­letic was the com­pany’s only cus­tomer. But by the mid-2000s, Fort Payne’s hosiery in­dus­try— once boom­ing, ac­cord­ing to Gina, with more than 120 mills em­ploy­ing roughly half the area’s pop­u­la­tion—had been dec­i­mated by a mass ex­o­dus to Central Amer­ica. More than 100 mills had closed, and in 2007, Rus­sell de­cided to ter­mi­nate its busi­ness with Emi- G. Over the next seven months, the Lock­lears let go of their en­tire staff, ex­cept for their long­time plant man­ager, Vance Veal, who kept the ma­chines run­ning while they scrounged for work. “They were afraid that if they closed even one day, they would never open back up,” says Gina.

In 2008, Gina, then 28, was liv­ing in Birm­ing­ham, work­ing as a real es­tate agent. Years be­fore, when she was em­ployed at a ski shop, she had ob­served that spe­cialty ski socks sold for $20 a pair. She’d also re­cently be­gun to buy or­ganic—food, clean­ing prod­ucts, per­sonal care—but had trou­ble find­ing ap­parel made from or­ganic cot­ton.

Gina pitched her par­ents what to them seemed like a rad­i­cal idea: an or­ganic cot­ton sock brand for the eco-chic set. “I didn’t un­der­stand about or­ganic any­thing, let alone socks,” says Terry. “And I knew it would be very ex­pen­sive to start a brand.” Terry’s main stick­ing point was that or­ganic cot­ton costs sev­eral times as much as stan­dard cot­ton. Gina spent a year mak­ing the busi­ness case, point­ing to the higher price tag and mar­gin on a pre­mium fash­ion prod­uct. She fi­nally per­suaded her par­ents—who were also out of op­tions—to fund the ven­ture with $100,000 from Emi- G’s coffers.

Gina hatched what would be­come two new brands, Zkano and—later—Lit­tle River Sock Mill, by com­bin­ing her sen­si­bil­ity with Emi- G’s es­tab­lished re­la­tion­ships and ma­chin­ery. To find or­ganic cot­ton—which was typ­i­cally sold only in large quan­ti­ties—she con­tacted one of Emi- G’s long­time yarn ven­dors, which sourced it from Turkey. She found a maker of heavy-me­tal-free dyes in North Carolina, and worked with her par­ents’ plant man­ager to re­con­fig­ure Emi- G’s ma­chines to pro­duce small batches of pat­terned, mul­ti­col­ored socks.

A lo­cal mar­ket­ing firm was so moved by Gina’s made-in- Alabama mis­sion that it gave her a dis­counted rate. She sent sam­ples to blog­gers, who helped di­rect traf­fic to Zkano’s e-com­merce site, built by a rel­a­tive. Trade shows were pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive, so Gina built buzz at farm­ers’ mar­kets and lo­cal events for the socks, which cost as much as $30 a pair.

In 2010, Whole Foods picked up Zkano; then, five years later, Martha Ste­wart se­lected Lit­tle River Sock Mill— Gina’s sec­ond line, specif­i­cally for spe­cialty bou­tiques—for an Amer­i­can Made award. To­day, Zkano sells pri­mar­ily on­line, while Lit­tle River has ac­counts with some 200 re­tail­ers.

With new rev­enue com­ing in, Gina’s par­ents were able to slowly re­build Emi- G by do­ing smaller, limited runs for clients such as a med­i­cal com­pany that sells socks to hos­pi­tals. Zkano and Lit­tle River now ac­count for roughly half of Emi- G’s rev­enue, which is ap­proach­ing $3 mil­lion.

Gina still lives, with her hus­band, in Birm­ing­ham, about 100 miles from Fort Payne. She com­mutes three days a week, work­ing the rest of the time re­motely. And she now has a per­ma­nent home base at the mill—that spare of­fice, which for years was used as a store­room. “I’m in it,” says Gina.

Terry Lock­lear THE EMI-G CO-FOUNDER HAD TO LAY OFF VIR­TU­ALLY THE EN­TIRE STAFF. Gina Lock­lear THE FOR­MER REAL ES­TATE AGENT PITCHED HER PAR­ENTS A CON­CEPT FOR DE­SIGNER OR­GANIC SOCKS. FEET FIRST Emi-G Knit­ting’s Fort Payne, Alabama, fac­tory—which now pro­duces ba­sic Emi-G socks, along with Zkanos (pic­tured on Gina) and Lit­tle River Sock Mill socks—has been re­sus­ci­tated. Regina Lock­lear THE EMI-G CO-FOUNDER IN­VESTED $100,000 IN HER DAUGH­TER’S IDEA.

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