On Wednesday, July 7, the Boone company Tsuga was visited by federal officials as part of a tour of Western North Carolina businesses.
Participating in the tour was Gayle Manchin, the Federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which works to develop and sustain the economy in Appalachia. Leading it was Tsuga founder Jimi Combs, who described how the company operates as both an outdoor gear manufacturer and as a design firm for other manufacturers.
“We have our brand, which is small, but we’re trying to grow it and that takes a lot of capital to grow a brand,” Combs said. “So we grow that as we go. We also do design, research and development, and that’s where we really want to be.”
Combs said that alongside their own brand’s manufacturing and design, the company will work as a design firm for other companies, priding themselves in rapid prototyping along with years of design knowledge. Combs said that the two operations of the company collaborate together, and while they may not be always be manufacturing the designs for their own use, they can still be the ones creating the product after a design is selected.
“Once (another company) signs off on a design, we raise our hand again to the manufacturer and we quote them on if we can be cost-effective, and be more competitive than their other manufacturers that they have around the country,” Combs said.
Combs added that while Tsuga can and does make a variety of accessories and equipment, they stay out of the apparel industry. However, he noted that if a company comes to them for apparel, they will turn them down but use it as an opportunity to pitch an item such as a bag.
He noted that a majority of Tsuga’s team are current or recently-graduated Appalachian State University students who want to put their degrees in the textile industry to use while also wanting to stay in the High Country.
As part of the Carolina Textile District — an enterprise run by the Industrial Commons in Morganton — and the Outdoor Gear Builders association, Tsuga has been able to build connections as both designers and manufacturers for other companies in Western N.C.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Tsuga and the 59 other CTD companies shifted their focus to making masks and medical-grade gowns. The project and swift change in direction was backed by the ARC, who supplied a $300,000 grant to the Industrial Commons in spring 2020.
“We use this phrase ‘co-opetition’ within the Carolina Textile District,” TIC Co-Executive Director Sara Chester said. “So you’re both cooperating and competing … with companies that are sometimes going after the same work. Oftentimes, they’ll call each other and say, ‘Hey, I know that this company is talking to you, they’re also talking to me.’ They have a real kind of closeness.”
Chester said that when the pandemic came and the shift to masks and gowns was beginning, members of the CTD worked together on designs and manufacturing processes.
“They shared best practices and videos,” Chester said. “They would make a video of ‘Hey, we figured this out on the mask,’ and send it to each other. I think it’s just nice to see, especially with smaller companies. I think there’s a need to pull together like that if we’re going to pull off these big projects.”
While walking through the company’s headquarters and observing their processes, Manchin noted the importance of the work done by Tsuga and the other CTD members. She added that it was important to support businesses like Tsuga that do 100 percent of its operations in America and are key components in the local economy.
“The global media has helped us understand why things are cheaper from China,” Manchin said. “I think most of us have a conscience and a heart and we’re starting to say, ‘Why do we want to buy things made with child labor, slave labor or concentration camp labor?’ We’ve got American-made things still being done the way it’s supposed to be done.”