Sewing up success

Fat Eddy's has found its niche

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— The year 2001 promises to be a pivotal year in the history of a constantly evolving company in Steamboat Springs known as Fat Eddy's Threadworks.

Edward Watson, Jerry Baxter and John Cardillo believe their company is poised to become one of the if not the leading manufacturers of high-quality accessories for whitewater enthusiasts.

FOUNDED: 1992 in a garage in Nashville, Tenn. PRINCIPLES Edward Watson, Jerry Baxter, John Cardillo CONTRACT SEWERS: 10 people in Routt County sewing on a piece-work basis 2000 SALES: $250,000 (apprx.) PROJECTED 2001 SALES: $500,000 TOP-SELLING PRODUCTS: Two-Timer kayak bags, Fat Eddy's watchbands and Townie Tote courier bags Sales reps: 10 covering most of the United States and Ontario.

The three men work in a prosperous-looking industrial building on Downhill Drive on Steamboat's west side. The walls are decorated with magazine endorsements of their products, a kayak hangs from the ceiling and a 25-disc CD changer pumps out the tunes.

If everything goes as planned, the three young entrepreneurs will see their annual sales double from about $250,000 last year to $500,000, and they'll be on the way to their ultimate goal of selling the company and reverting to a more nomadic and adventurous lifestyle.

Watson has a rare gift for designing outdoor products, primarily those that can be cut out of durable fabrics and stitched together. He began by designing and creating his own rock-climbing accessories chalk bags and webbing harnesses because he didn't want to pay retail prices for them. Gradually, he began to sell his creations to other climbers.

"I was broke and I didn't want to buy the stuff," Watson said. "It was more like a hobby to fuel my climbing and traveling."

Still, Watson, who was sewing in his parents' garage in Nashville, Tenn., was paying close attention.

"I studied stitching patterns and went to manufacturing facilities in the South to gain knowledge," he said.

For years, Watson, 32, worked as a sole proprietor. But when he met Baxter, 34, and Cardillo, 30, in Steamboat Springs in 1998, the three men began to see how combining their talents could help them take Fat Eddy's to a new level. Although they describe themselves as partners, the business is now organized as an S-corp., Cardillo said. He is the director of marketing for the company and Baxter is the chief financial officer. Together, they dream of creating a solid niche for their company in the booming outdoor equipment market. That niche will be based upon innovative products such as heavy-duty gear bags, stuff sacks for campers and watchbands made out of premium materials. The company's primary focus, however, is on whitewater sports.

"We saw an opening in paddling," Baxter said. "I don't think there are any real strong companies making paddling accessories. We saw the door was open."

Already, Fat Eddy's is making strong inroads into paddling.

"The Two-Timer cockpit bag is the hottest product we have," Baxter said.

The cockpit bag is a means to stow wet kayaking gear in the opening of the boat during the return trip home from the river. It has the advantage of keeping clammy neoprene out of the interior of the car and stowing it instead in the kayak while clamped into its roof rack. The kayaker's gear is zippered into a large pouch; then the entire bag is snapped over the rim of the cockpit with a quarter-inch shock cord.

The bag wholesales for $34 and is meant to retail for $60.

Other products in Fat Eddy's lineup for paddlers include rescue throw bags and a beautifully designed tether that allows one paddler to tow another touring kayak in the event that it sustains a broken rudder or some other breakdown.

If everything goes as planned, Watson will be off to a new career as an interior decorator within five years.

"Our object is to sell it, grab the cash and move on," he said.

Baxter tempered those remarks somewhat:

"I think we've laid the groundwork," he said. "It's going to be an important year. Growing slowly has lots of benefits. Now we're ready for it; it's time to step it up.

"Who knows what happens? We have a great interest in Fat Eddy's reputation for quality. We want to make sure the integrity of the company we built won't be lost."



HOMEWORK PAYS OFF

Of all the products Fat Eddy's sold last year, 95 percent were sewn in the Yampa Valley by independent contract sewers. And no matter how large it grows, the company's principles say they will remain committed to having as many of their products as possible sewn locally. The balance was stitched in commercial "sew shops" on the Front Range.

Amy Schmidt of Oak Creek has been sewing for Fat Eddy's for three years. She got her start in commercial sewing for a now-defunct parachute factory in Oak Creek.

Schmidt said doing piecework in her Oak Creek home allows her to avoid commuting to a job in Steamboat Springs. She is available when her 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter need to be transported to after-school sports, and she doesn't have to miss their games.

"I can set my own hours," Schmidt said. "I pretty much totally don't worry about how fast I can get stuff done."

On a typical day, Schmidt might produce a dozen courier bags, or a similar number of Fat Eddy's gear bags meant to fit into the cockpit of kayaks. She will often work from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., interrupting the work for errands when necessary. The piece rate works out to between $8 and $10 an hour, she said. She said that may not sound like a lot of money, but she saves on transportation costs by not working in Steamboat. Her husband, Kenton, does make the daily commute to Steamboat and shuttles finished products and raw materials back and forth between Fat Eddy's and their home. Schmidt also sews for an Oak Creek company, Homegrown Gators.

"Between the two of them, they keep me busy," she said.

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