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Chapter 5

Wiggy’s, Inc.: My Life in Business Continues in Grand Junction, CO

The order from the Forest Service had grown from 14,000 sleeping bags to 39,200, but within the first week of production in South Carolina I was already a truckload behind in my delivery. As I mentioned, I had serious problems with my workers. Almost none of them worked forty hours a week, and I knew there was some drinking and drug use going on. I had to deal with an assault during one of the shifts. When I discovered that my secretary and her boyfriend were dealing drugs right out of my factory and that was the last straw. I did not participate in the profits.

After weighing the options, I decided I needed to get out of South Carolina. This was daunting to think about. I’d have to move all my equipment and re-hire an entire workforce, all while trying to fulfill a huge contract. I would have to find a new factory space, and somehow get out of my existing lease, which still had seven years on it. I’d have to sell our house, find and buy a new house, and develop new friends. Susanna was just becoming established in the Columbia art community, and she would have to start all over with that. I wasn’t happy about it, but it had to be done. With the workers I had, I was falling ever farther behind on my production. Rather than finishing so I could move, I had to move so I could finish!

I soon narrowed my search to Colorado. I had gone there often when I worked with the skiwear companies, and Susanna had gone to school in Denver and was comfortable there. Though it was a little bit remote, I investigated Grand Junction, because I knew that it was home to Marmot Mountain Works. I figured if Marmot could do their sewing operations out of Grand Junction, I could find a reliable workforce there to do mine.

The clincher for me was financial incentive from the city itself. In the mid 1980s, western Colorado was desperate to attract new business. In the decade following the 1973 oil crisis, there was a flurry of activity in the oil-shale basins east and north of Grand Junction, and almost every major oil company had experimental projects there. It had brought in a lot of workers and really boosted the economy, with promise of even more revenue once the operations came fully on line. A lot of other businesses—not just drilling-supply-type businesses but all kinds of people in the service industries—were counting on that all coming to fruition.

Unfortunately, just as it was ready to happen, oil prices began to plummet, dropping to less than a third of their peak value in only a few years. Just like that, oil shale was no longer economically viable. In 1982, Exxon pulled the plug on its $5 billion oil-shale project, lying off over 2,000 workers. Other companies also pulled out, leaving the Grand Junction area in a serious recession and looking for ways to restore and grow its economy.

A few meeting with local bankers helped me understand my opportunities. The president of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce suggested that I ask the city for an “economic development” grant to help me move my business there, something I had never even considered. I asked for $30,000, and to my delight, the city agreed. That was 29 years ago and I’ve been in Grand Junction ever since, bringing in millions of dollars of revenue. I’d say they got their money’s worth, but I’m very grateful nonetheless.

I’d secured the grant, and had set a move date of December of 1988, but I had one serious problem: I was stuck in my lease on the Columbia facility. I explained my dilemma to the real estate company, but they were completely unsympathetic. The firm was owned by a family of 27 people or something like that, with a domineering matriarch in charge. They were quite unpleasant to deal with, and default became a more and more attractive way to handle them.

Rather than postpone my move, I decided to expedite it. I was having so many problems with production that I told my new Grand Junction realtor I would move in early, in September, if he would halve the rent for the first three months. Of course he couldn’t rent the place to anyone else for those three months, so after a short negotiation he agreed.

Everything moved pretty quickly after that. I loaded up seven semi trucks with all of Laminal’ s physical assets and sent them off to Colorado. We got a moving company to take our furniture and household things. Susanna headed out in her Mazda XR7 and I drove the VW Vanagon. She outpaced me, but I got stopped for speeding somewhere in Alabama, which is hard to do in a Vanagon. It was probably 100 degrees out, 90 percent humidity, but the officer wanted to chat. I’m sure I could have talked myself out of the ticket, but I kept the windows rolled up and the AC on because I had three of our cats onboard, so he just wrote me the ticket—which I never paid.

Two days later I met Susanna at her uncle’s place in Durango, Colorado. We continued on to Grand Junction, and set about unpacking, both our personal effects and the business’s.

I had simply walked out on my lease in Columbia, and the realtor decided to sue me. Fortunately for me but less so for them, after a few months the head of the agency died of a heart attack and that was it. I went out and had a drink.

That was the end of Laminal. I dissolved the business then and there. When I drove out of Columbia, Laminal essentially ceased to exist, and when I opened back up in Grand Junction, Colorado, I was Wiggy’s.

Grand Junction delivered not just some much-needed capital for the move, but also a much-needed partner in the enterprise: a production manager. Hiring him was kind of an inside job. As I was planning the move to Colorado, I called up Larry Houghton, longtime president of Marmot, who had just recently left that company to become Executive VP for Perception Kayaks. I think he left the Marmot over a disagreement about whether or not they should fulfill a military contract they had been awarded and (Larry had gone after it, but one chief shareholder was strongly against working for the military). Anyway, I questioned Larry on various aspects of Grand Junction, his experiences with workers, and finally about any leads he might have for a production manager. He gave me the phone number of Kok Bou, a key member of Marmot’s team who, in Larry’s estimation, was vastly underappreciated. “You’ll have a hard time understanding what he’s saying,” Larry said, “but he’ll understand you.” Kok was of Chinese descent, born in Cambodia, and quiet by nature, but I would understand perfectly that he was the man I was looking for.

I got in contact with Kok the summer before the move, had him fly out to South Carolina for an interview, and showed him what I was doing. I told him I wanted someone to oversee everything in a new factory I was opening in his town. Right away, I had full confidence in him, hired him on the spot, and never gave it a second thought. Kok has proven beyond question to be as competent a factory manager as you could find anyplace in the world.

Kok hired the 35 workers I needed to make the 25,000 sleeping bags remaining in the Forest Service order. The first workers hired were there by the time the semis showed up, and went to work cleaning the place and unloading the trucks. The place had been unoccupied for seven years, so the clean-up was quite a task. I quickly discovered that, despite my realtor’s promises, the building did not have the three-phase power I needed to run my heavier machines, so I called the power company and a local electrician to get that major upgrade accomplished. All this took just about a week. We were up and running right after Labor Day of 1988. Wiggy’s is now in its 30th year. I have purchased the building and we are still in the same shop, and I’ve never looked back.

We set to work immediately, of course, since we had pressing production commitments for our Forest Service sleeping bag order. We were subcontractors at this point for the Tennessee company that held the actual USFS contract, but the government inspectors had to come in to certify the new factory. No problems there—Kok ran a tight ship from the first day on. The inspection was a bit of a joke, since the inspectors really didn’t know anything about how sleeping bags should be made. At one point, one of the inspectors, George, asked Susanna how many stitches per inch a certain machine was making. She could tell he was just making conversation, trying to justify his job, but she told him, “Just step on that pedal and when the machine starts stitching, start counting.” It was a bar-tack machine, which sews very fast.

We finished the sleeping-bag contract in less than a year, making all our deliveries on time. After that, the workload plummeted, but we had some money in the bank to work with. We sent the extra sewing machines back to Tennessee, trimmed the workforce to 10, and settled down to the business of building the Wiggy’s brand.

My first employees at Wiggy’s were mostly Caucasian women, many of them recruited from Marmot. They have all now retired or drifted away, and have been replaced by Mexican Americans. There are a lot of opinions out there about Hispanics in the workforce, and about illegal immigration, but my experience has been very positive. It really bothers me when I have to get rid of a good worker who proves not to have legal documentation, but that seldom happens. I feel now that my workforce is as good as you can get. They come to work every day, put in full workweeks, and are honest and skilled. I give Kok an all of credit for how smoothly things run. I’ve had managers from large sewing operations come in and be astounded at the productivity, and by how quiet and clean the shop is. We don’t have seconds. The only time I have a second at Wiggy’s is if someone cuts a piece of fabric with a flaw that nobody sees, and it goes through production and gets to inspection before someone notices that flaw. In terms of faulty sewing of any type, it just does not exist.

I mentioned that, in 1986 on a ski trip in the Smoky Mountains, I had claimed to a former friend that in five years I would be the largest sleeping-bag manufacturer in the US. I really hadn’t had much basis to make that claim, other than faith in the laminated CFF technology, but in 1991 I discovered that this goal had been realized.

I learned this by talking to Bob Stadshauge, then the vice president of REI, during one of our many conversations I had with him trying to get his company to carry my products. Even back in the 1980s, REI was already the country’s largest outdoor retail chain. Bob was a nice guy, and though we never made a deal, he did share some of REI’s sales numbers with me. I learned that not only was I making more bags than any one company, but better bags, too. My higher-priced synthetic bags were even outselling the cheap car-camping bags they carried.

During the 1990’s business in general grew in the mail order area. I sold a few retailers that were originally Olam accounts and went to the outdoor retailer trade show where I was successful in not opening any new retail shops. Of course the companies selling pricy sleeping bags were now getting their bags from Chinese factories. Made in America was still in its infancy with American consumers.

Because of my quality and particularly because of the Lamilite always re-lofting I had an edge over the competition whenY2K came about. People all over the country were so concerned that they were buying supplies and one item was a sleeping bag. I did benefit big time.

I was also from 1989 on selling sleeping bags to the military via a few GSA contract holders. The other companies did not care to deal with the military, so I was it. Best thing to happen to me and the military. In 1993 I received a call from a Marine Corp Major whom I had some dealings with asking for a two bag system for summer time to -20 use. He further told me he visited at the outdoor retailer trade show with every company that sold sleeping bags to make something for this type of system. Not one company had an interest. I told him I would see what I could do and report back to him. Within one week Kok and I had the two bag system; the Ultra-Light FTRSS (Flexible Temperature Range Sleep System). He ordered 12 sight unseen. Unfortunately for the Marines and Army and us taxpayers they at Natick Labs bastardized what I made and have had to remake it several times over the years, and whatever they did was a failure. The only good that came out of this exercise was the fact that the military changed from chopped staple fiberfill to continuous filament fiber (Climashield) ever since for their insulation.

Shortly after I made the 12 bags for the Major I received a call from a Chief located in San Diego at the SEAL base. I had been supplying the SEAL base in Virginia Beach. He wanted what turned out to be a two bag system. I told him what I developed for the Marines and said he needed -40 degree bag system since his men were training in Alaska. This system became the Super-Light FTRSS (the most popular system sold to both civilians and military).

Since the inception of my system in May 1993 the failure rate has been zero and actually the systems have performed lower than what I have rated them for. I am sorry to say the military version has been a most successful failure, as in 100 percent. Today they will allow laminated constructed (Lamilite is now acceptable) bags to be offered when they put out contracts. So I guess I have succeeded with regard to how the bags could be made.

Over the years as my reputation has grown as a producer of the best sleeping bags ever made (I am very proud to make that statement) I started receiving calls from retailers, and I would ask why they are calling; to carry Wiggy’s bags. No problem, just eliminate all other brands in the store. They get angry because of my attitude; I do not need them now, as Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank says; “you’re dead to me”. What I now know is that Wiggy’s is larger than all of the rest of the industry when it comes to selling sleeping bags that retail over about $125.00; combined.

I have made an effort to add products slowly to the Wiggy’s mix of products as I learn how well a product will perform. With all of my background in the textile industry I know that I do not know everything so as I learn I add a new product one at a time. The last item to add to the mix has been the Ducksback line of products. I have hung around long enough to come across a fabric that does what several companies can only dream there fabric or process does.

I started hunting big game in 1995 during 3rd season, November here in Colorado. Spending time with experienced hunters educated me about the best clothing that should be worn and sleeping bags used. The experience has been a joy. It had been a long time since I last rode a horse and riding up to 12,500 feet was an incredible experience. I hunted that way for 10 years. Getting up in the middle of the night for a nature call gave me the opportunity to see the night sky from altitude. You think you can just pick the stars. The Milky Way is magnificent. When Rudy passed away (the friend who found me when I was lost) my hunting basically ceased. If I couldn’t get on a horse to hunt it lost its appeal. In all those years after I had a couple of kills it really did not matter to me if I got a kill as the experience of being there was what matters as far as I am concerned. It never got old and it still doesn’t when I go into the high country.

As for the clothing I realized that these experienced hunters were good hunting but when came clothing they were way off of the mark. What I offer today is far superior to any clothing you can buy in any retail store. What I do not offer are the various camo patterns available. The experience of getting lost confirmed to me that fishnet underwear and Lamilite insulated garments will save your life as they did mine. Just keep in mind my clothing performs equally as well for non-hunters.

My commentary and newsletters suffice for information about products that I manufacture and whatever else is available.

Some ending thoughts; retiring!

I am often asked about retiring, after all at this years end I be celebrating my 76th birthday. I answer that I am retired. When I sailed at age 31 I was retired for 15 months. When I returned to civilization as we know it I was refreshed and prepared to do what I wanted.

When I was in Florida with my folks who were retired I noted what they and other retirees in their 60’s and 70’s were doing, mostly nothing. I thought I would make a small fortune and also be retired at an equal age. I did not make the small fortune so I just kept on going. I realized when I was in my 60’s all I wanted to do was Wiggy’s. I had traveled all of the US, Canada, the UK and Mexico as well as the Bahamas. I have easily over one million sky miles, the bulk of which was when it was a pleasure to fly. I have no particular interest in seeing any more of the world. Besides Cookie does not own a suit case!She has been from Oregon to Massachusetts in my pick up.

On the trip to MA. when I went over the Mississippi River she was sitting up in the passenger seat and I told to turn around to see it, she was looking at me. She just kept looking at me, however when I crossed from the Bronx to Long Island on the Throgsneck Bridge which goes over the western end of Long Island Sound she was fixed on the massive size of the body of water or so it appeared to me. Coming home when I went over the Mississippi I said nothing.

When one retires one needs something to do, so I am retired doing whatever I want to do. Like I said Wiggy’s is what I chose to do and it is by no means a grind and I take great pleasure in knowing that I am providing quality performing products for humanity. I also live on the remnants of an old farm about 9 acres which gives me lots to do to keep physically fit. It also gives Cookie lots of room to chase rabbits.

Now you have a complete history of Wiggy’s business life. I hope that it has been an enjoyable read.

Our Locations  +  Contact

Corporate Office & Factory

To place an order, please contact our corporate office & factory at:

Wiggy’s Inc.
PO Box 2124
Grand Junction, CO 81502

Store Location

2482 Industrial Blvd  •  Grand Junction, CO
(970) 241-6465

+1 (866) 411-6465 f:  (970) 241•5921 e:  

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