Darn That Dream
A daughter's entrepreneurial vision to take her parents' sock business in a new direcrion is part of the family's plan to keep its enterprise on solid footing in today's challenging economy.
Terry and Regina Locklear started a sock business in a textile mill in their hometown of Fort Payne, Ala., in 1991. They named their company Emi-G Knitting, after their daughters, Emily and Gina. Emi-G makes white sport socks for volume customers that in the company's heyday included Russell Athletic. Regina, 68, does the accounting, and Terry, 71, runs the rest of the operation.
Both daughters had worked and played in the mill as children, and Terry and Regina always hoped that one or both would take an interest in the business. Terry even included a third office when he and Regina remodeled the mill in 1996. But Emily, now 33, was busy raising a family in Nashville, Tenn. Gina, who lived with her lawyer husband in Birmingham, Ala., an hour and a half away, had gotten her real estate license at age 25 and was selling homes.
"I was interested in working at Emi-G when I graduated from college in 2002, but the business was dying, to be honest," says Gina, 36. There was nothing there for me." Although the hosiery industry has been a major employer in DeKalb County, Ala., where Fort Payne is the county seat, other local sock businesses, overtaken by foreign competition, gave up.
In 2008, as Terry and Regina were struggling through the financial crisis, Gina approached them with a radical idea: She wanted to manufacture a different kind of sock at the mill. While her parents continued with Emi-G, she would produce small batches of trendy, organic cotton socks in a variety of patterns and colors.
"After witnessing all the mills closing around us due to outsourcing and not knowing what the future held for my family's business, I thought I could help," Gina says. "It's been a roller coaster for the last 15 or 16 years. I knew a lot of people who lost their jobs." Gina had been following an organic and "green" lifestyle for years, and organic cotton socks were a natural next step. She was inspired to start her own brand. If it was successful, her family wouldn't have to worry about the possibility of clients they'd had for years outsourcing. "I also wanted to be able to tell the story of our family business, and also what once was Fort Payne's sock story, through our socks," she adds.
"I went to my father first," Gina says. "He's the idea person, and if I was to get anyone excited about this, it would be him. Organic cotton in a textile was a fairly new idea back then, and not many people were doing it—and still aren't. I also had to convince my parents that it made sense to start our own brand rather than only make socks for other people." She saw it as the future of the company.
Gina's college degree is in business and she had worked in retail at Banana Republic in college and at a ski shop afterward, even doing some buying. But was that experience enough to dive into this new venture with confidence? "I was pretty skeptical at first," Terry says. "Gina had introduced us to organic eating several years ago, but I knew this would be a big commitment on her part." Both he and Regina were interested, however. "It was something we wanted to look at, and if it was worth pursuing, we were all about it," he notes.
His daughter won him over. "Gina's really smart; I thought she could do it," says Terry. In 2009, after a year of planning, she started Zkano. The name comes from a Native American word that loosely translates as "a state of being good," Gina says. The brand's slogan, "Be Good. Feel Good," relates to the name.
"I couldn't believe how much research she did on organic cotton that year," her mother remembers. "She spent hours and hours learning about it." The entrepreneur trademarked her Zkano logo and was off and running.
Zkano operates under (or "Does Business As") the name Emi-G Knitting, which has made the administrative side of the operation easier. While Gina refers to Zkano and Little River Sock Mill, another sock company she started, as her babies, she also says her parents are very much a part of her two brands. Her mother handles Zkano's books and prints the shipping labels for online orders; her father takes shipments to UPS daily.
Being able to piggyback on Emi-G's infrastructure has helped Gina. "Three years after we started Zkano we got a few new milling machines with different needle counts for the new socks, and we spent a little on marketing," she says, "but we really haven't had to make a huge investment."
After starting out online with Zkano, Gina wanted to shoot for a few boutiques, so in 2013 she launched Little River Sock Mill. "I named this company for the Little River Canyon Preserve that's in our backyard, and we liked 'Sock Mill' because it screams, 'Hey, we make our own socks,' which makes us different," Gina says.
Little River offers more sophisticated—and slightly more subdued—designs than Zkano's bright stripes and colors. Prices for both brands range from $13 to $30.
The three Locklears do most of the work themselves. The three sock companies share a staff that numbers between 25 and 30, depending on how busy Emi-G is, and rely heavily on the plant manager, who had to learn about making organic socks along with the Locklears. Most of the manufacturing process is automated but, understandably, making colorful socks with patterns and stripes is far different from making all-white ones.
Three days a week Gina stays at her parents' house; the other two she works from home in Birmingham. Gina says she doesn't mind staying in her old bedroom; in fact, she reports that she likes it. "A lot of people think it's weird, but it's not," she says.
Gina never lived at home after college, and her mother redid her room when she left, so it's not as if the décor is frozen in time from high school. During the companies' fall busy season, she doesn't get home until 7 or 8 p.m. many nights.
The businesswoman finds that exercise helps reduce the stress of entrepreneurship. In addition to yoga, cardio exercises and strength training, she'll wind down after work with a half-hour swim in her parents' backyard pool if the weather permits.
Zkano and Little River have turned "a small profit," which is not enough to carry the mill, Gina says. When sales increase significantly, she and her parents will need a formal financial arrangement, she acknowledges.
Starting on the right foot
Revenue may indeed balloon. After editors from Martha Stewart Living magazine saw Little River socks at a trade show, in 2015 the magazine presented her with a Made in America award for that brand. "I still get goosebumps when I think about it," Gina says.
Three years ago, Gina partnered with men's fashion designer Billy Reid, also a native Alabaman. "That was another happy moment," she says. In addition, an actor on the TV show Veep wears Zkano socks, and in April Gina was featured on the front page of the New York Times' "Thursday Styles" section. After that article appeared, "I had the biggest jump in sales ever on the website," she says. "People also wrote just to say 'good luck,' and I was overwhelmed by the support." She had been answering emails herself up to that point, but that month she hired an assistant to handle customer service and business inquiries.
Emi-G also received a lot of interest after the Times profiled Gina, though many of those inquiries were irrelevant. "A lot of people don't understand we're high-volume," Terry says.
Talk to the three Locklears, and it's obvious that their solid relationship is a major factor in the smooth operation of the new ventures. Some family business members freely admit that tempers fly at work, and that boisterous disagreements are not uncommon. But Gina says there is none of that at her family's mill. "The most that happens is that if things get crazy, once in a while we might snap at each other. I not only love my parents, I like them, too. My dad's my mentor," she explains.
Terry says he taught his daughter how to calculate costs and margins, as well as how to manage people, and Gina has learned more than a few things on her own. "I knew when we started we needed to go to trade shows, but I didn't know which ones," she says. "That's how Zkano ended up being an online business. With Little River, we worked with a showroom in Los Angeles and sales reps who go to trade shows for us."
Regina advises family business leaders to take next-generation members' entrepreneurial visions seriously. "The young generation has bright ideas; try to approach them on their level," she says.
"Gina keeps us pumped up; we're having fun every day," Terry says. "It's really interesting to have a new twist on something we've been doing; she keeps us hopping."
Regina says she and Terry don't plan on retiring as long as their health is good. And they're confident that when they do step down, the sock business will be in good hands with their daughter.
Patricia Olsen is a freelance business writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Continental, Harvard Business Review online and other publications.
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