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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

NC trend: Catawba County business is rebounding in the sock market

Hugh Gaither started Hickory-based Feetures 22 years ago by selling high-performance socks to runners. The company, which reported $45 million in revenue last year, is now hustling after new customers who enjoy different active pursuits, including golfers, cyclists, hikers and tennis players.

“The running market is a small market in the big world, but Feetures is becoming a better known brand,” says Gaither, 73. He now runs the business with his two sons, John, 45, who took over as CEO in January, and son Joe, 37, the chief marketing officer. Joe came up with the Feetures name when he was a student at Newton-Conover High School.

The company sold more than 5 million pairs of socks last year, with a retail price averaging about $18, and it has doubled its workforce and sales in the past three years. The business has grown every single year, aided by steady growth of retail customers, such as REI, which started selling Feetures in 2021. It has “relentlessly focused” on gaining market share at Dick’s Sporting Goods and other key retailers, and increasing business
in international markets, Joe Gaither adds. The brand sells in 50 countries and about 10,000 stores, including specialty running shops such as Carrboro-based Fleet Feet.

Feetures will remain rooted in Catawba County, though leaders Hugh Gaither and his sons, CEO John Gaither (left) and Chief Marketing Officer Joe Gaither (seated), are now based in Charlotte.

Sock veterans

The Gaither family are longtime Catawba County business owners. Hugh Gaither’s great-grandfather, Joseph Albert Gaither, started Ridgeview, a hosiery and sock manufacturing business in Newton, in 1912. Hugh Gaither went to work for Ridgeview in 1975 after earning an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill and completing his service in the U.S. Army. He recalls turning down a job from Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh at twice the Ridgeview salary level to join the family business.

“Ridgeview was a terrific company in many ways, including starting one of the very first on-site day care centers, (and) supporting an innovative way for parents to meet with their children’s teachers for monthly reviews on site without loss of pay,” he says.

When Ridgeview closed in 2000, it had annual sales of around $100 million but struggled to make a profit, says Hugh Gaither. Using debt for two acquisitions, extending its resources and changes at the bank that financed the company combined to force its closure after almost 90 years, says Gaither, who was CEO at the time.

Still, he learned about the sport sock market at Ridgeview, with some of those lessons now evident at Feetures. “I noticed that sport socks hadn’t changed much, and thought we could make a performance sock,” he says. The company is considering launching a line of performance shirts next year.

Overcoming obstacles

Direct-to-customer online sales soared during the pandemic, going from about 15% of Feetures sales to 30% in 2020. “Due to the shutdown of gyms and other activities, a lot of people turned to running, walking and hiking as their primary form of exercise,” Joe Gaither says. Many active lifestyle brands flourished during the pandemic, but when the world “returned to normal,” Feetures found its retail business stronger than ever and revenue outpacing projections in all channels, he says.

COVID presented unique challenges, including an eight-week factory shutdown by Feetures’ primary supplier in Vietnam. It could have been devastating, but Feetures had added new U.S. suppliers and was able to partner with other factories in Asia. “All of this allowed us to find capacity” and keep up with customer demands, Joe Gaither says. “We did depend heavily on air freight at the time, which was extremely expensive, but we felt necessary.”

North Carolina factories in High Point and Burlington make about 25% of the company’s socks, with the rest coming from plants in Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan.

So what distinguishes an $18 Feetures sock and white tube socks besides the splash of colors? Feetures socks “hug the foot,” says Hugh Gaither. Targeted compression keeps the sock in place and prevents friction that can lead to blisters. Feetures socks are anatomically designed, meaning just like shoes there’s a “right” sock and a “left” sock, marked with a “L” and an “R.”

“You don’t want to have to think about your socks, so we sell to active people who don’t want to worry about their socks,” he says.

Rooted in Catawba

The company employs about 55 workers, including 30 in its 40,000-square-foot customer service and distribution center in Hickory. The rest, including the three Gaithers, work at a Charlotte office that opened with four people in 2014. The Queen City group grew as Feetures recruited talent for marketing and planning teams, Many staffers preferred not to commute 50 miles to Hickory. Parents Hugh and wife, Julie, moved to Charlotte in 2016, and work at the Charlotte office. It didn’t hurt that the move put them closer to their grandchildren.

“It was a hard decision for my dad to break up our workforce, but ultimately he came around to the idea as well,” Joe Gaither says.

But Feetures will remain rooted in Catawba County, they say. Next fall, it plans to move into an expanded distribution and customer service center. It will be a 60,000-square-foot building under construction by Hickory-based contractor David E. Looper and designed by Holland and Hamrick Architects of Shelby.
The site has a Newton mailing address, although it’s in the Hickory city limits.

Feetures is leasing the building from Winston-Salem-based Southeastern Industrial Solutions, which is also developing an adjacent 40,000-square-foot spec building.

Pending continued growth, Feetures expects to add 25 workers to its distribution and customer service center in the next five years, Joe Gaither says. The building’s high ceilings give Feetures twice the actual warehouse space, and it will offer technological advantages in filling orders as the company transitions to selling to larger stores and adding more direct sales to customers.

The Gaithers say they recognize each other’s strengths, which has helped achieve positive results at Feetures. “Our differences do sometimes lead to spirited debate which can be challenging, but in the end we respect each other enough to get through it and find compromise and ultimately consensus, which has been critical,” Joe Gaither says.

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