Thursday, April 18, 2024

Small Business of the Year: Outdoor gearmaker attracts happy campers

Operations foreman Joshua Gross, CEO Judy Gross, and CFO Marc Penansky

Photos by Mike Belleme

If Judy Gross’ office was a book, the walls would be the chapters of her life. A certificate from her nearly 30 years as an active nurse, including 10 as a nurse practitioner, hangs next to two more that declare her service in the Air Force and the Army Reserve. In a far corner, dozens of medals from races around the country — Detroit, Utah’s Zion National Park and Mount Rushmore, to name a few — hang from a sign that proclaims, “Run Like a Girl.” Her goal is to notch a half marathon in every state; by the end of this year, she’ll have checked 12 off the list.

The avid hiker took up running a few years ago as a way to train for her long-distance treks through some of the country’s most treacherous trails. Earlier this year, she hiked more than 500 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast over 31 days.

“[Growing up,] my mother was always taking me outside, teaching me about nature and plants, and we would go on walks,” Gross, 62, says. “I just grew up in the outdoors.”

To put it simply, the Staten Island, N.Y., native is a passionate adventurer, which is exactly what led her to her latest venture: Fletcher-based outdoor-equipment manufacturer LightHeart Gear. A trio of judges selected the company as Business North Carolina’s 2019 Small Business of the Year for its innovative product offerings, above-and-beyond customer service and fast growth in recent years.

Last December, the company relocated to a larger factory, tripling the size of its production area. In the last six months, Gross doubled her payroll to 10 full-time employees. While not disclosing specifics, she says revenue at LightHeart and parent company Excelsior Sewing LLC increased more than 50% in the year ending July 31 compared with a year earlier.

Her vision for the business started in 2006, when she made an attempt to hike the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. About a thousand miles into the trail, she was injured and had to end her trek early. But something she saw on the last day in the woods caught her attention: a homemade tent.

“It was a palace,” Gross says. “It didn’t weigh anything and it packed up very small. The tent I was carrying around was a big-box brand that weighed 4.5 pounds and was much smaller than his. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to go home and make a tent.’”

Gross, who has a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, attended design school at Houston Community College after retiring and has been sewing since she was “knee high.” She purchased a homemade tent from a fellow hiker, studied the layout of the material, and came up with her own design in 2008. Gross and her husband, Marc Penansky, were retired and had recently moved from Texas to Asheville after falling in love with the mountain town as tourists.

Penansky, a former chemical engineer who serves as the company’s chief financial officer, says Judy is “the kind of person who says, ‘I know I can do this differently and that differently, and I can do this better and I can do that better.’” She designed a tent that utilized hiking poles for support — to lighten the load of long-distance hikers — and used a special fabric as strong and waterproof as traditional nylon.

“At first, I was just going to make a tent for myself,” Gross says. “A friend of mine said, ‘Oh, you could make kits and sell them, because hikers like to make their own gear.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I can just make the whole tent and sell it.’”

Gross sold her first few tents at a hiker gathering in Franklin and was soon getting requests for more. She initially worked out of her house, but increased demand prompted her to lease a building in Arden where the couple started Excelsior Sewing in 2012, offering contract-sewing services for other small businesses. Its niche is handling requests for smaller orders rather than requiring clients to order in bulk, the standard practice of overseas textile and apparel companies. Her son, Joshua Gross, is operations foreman.

“The way we’re set up, we are so nimble that we can switch projects in two minutes and there’s no downtime for us,” Gross says. “I try to get everyone trained to do all tasks, so I can just say, ‘Here, stop what you’re doing. Work on this right now.’ So I turn around things very quickly, often within a week or less.”

Some of LightHeart’s growth stems from expanding its outdoor gear offerings to include four different types of tents — including the SoLong 6, which “is so long, it fits the six-footers” — rain gear, lightweight bags, trekking poles and a line of women’s clothing.

The company is part of a wave of N.C. businesses catering to outdoor enthusiasts, which has led to the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC trade group. LightHeart is one of the organization’s “most active and collaborative members, often working with other members to develop and produce custom products and components and fill key links in the regional outdoor gear supply chain,” says Noah Wilson, program director of Growing Outdoors and Mountain BizWorks in Asheville.

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LightHeart’s ability to overcome labor shortages impressed Scott Daugherty, who helped judge the Small Business of the Year contest. He is state director of the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center.

“Challenged with finding local, experienced sewing-machine operators, the firm has [also] helped form [a regional training program] to overcome negative stereotypes of sewing operators and meet [their] need for a growing textile base in the region,” he says.

Wilson credits western North Carolina as one of the “country’s biggest outdoor-brand hubs” and says LightHeart is one of many local companies that support both startups and longstanding businesses.

“[It’s] a small company that started as a personal passion project in a garage, expanded into a rented warehouse, and now has a brand-new building of its own and national recognition. That kind of trajectory, over the course of just a few years, is really made possible by having a great community that’s here to help you grow and evolve.”

Laura Jenson, who purchased LightHeart’s $275, one-person FireFly tent, wrote in a Facebook review that the company goes the extra mile. She had sought help to set up her tent at a hiking event near the Appalachian Trail at Amicalola Falls, Ga., when she received support from an unexpected source. “Here’s where customer service really met the road. Judy [Gross] … set up my tent, teaching me. I don’t know any other companies that care so much about customers. I’m proud to show off my tent and pass the word. I slept in my tent last night after a rainstorm passed earlier in the day. It is flawless. I couldn’t be happier. [LightHeart Gear] and tents will not disappoint.”

Another satisfied customer wrote that Penansky “drove an hour and a half (one way)” from Asheville to Erwin, Tenn., to provide a through-hiker a new tent after his temporary abode sprung a leak.

“They know their core customers very well, and they continue to actually live the kinds of experiences they make gear for — year-round hiking and trail running, ultralight long-distance backpacking,” Wilson says.

Online sales make up most of LightHeart’s revenue. In addition to several distributors across the U.S., LightHeart also has reps in Germany and Sweden.

Gross retains the same business philosophy as the day it started: See a need, fill a need. “I design from a problem-solving basis,” Gross says. “So the problem is, you’re wearing a backpack and it’s difficult to go to the bathroom or somebody wants to wear a skirt or women’s things have no pockets. … So I designed to solve all these problems. … I take [them] all into consideration when I design something.”

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