Friday, April 12, 2024

Weaverville-made patches show up at Masters, outer space and most everywhere else

A-B Emblem’s patches have been to the deepest heart of the ocean, through dangerous combat missions, in the Oval Office and on the green-jacketed suits of Masters golf champions. They’ve been whizzing through outer space, sliding into home base during Little League games, on the lapels of proud kids at the Boy Scout Jamboree — even on the back of singer Bruno Mars’ jacket during his latest tour. The Weaverville company has been making embroidered insignias for companies and events around the world since 1941.

E. Henry Conrad, who emigrated from Germany in 1929, founded the company with $4.68 in his pocket. After operating an embroidery business for many years in New Jersey, he created a second business called A-B Emblem. Conrad moved A-B Emblem’s headquarters to Weaverville, about 10 miles north of Asheville, in 1963.

Family-owned for three generations, the company’s name stems from a combination of the names of Henry Conrad’s daughter, Annerose, and his son, Bernhard, who would later help his father run the facility. Bernhard’s son, Paul Conrad, and his son-in-law, Andrew Nagle, joined A-B Emblem in 1991 and now serve as co-CEOs.

“We want to keep handing the business down to the family,” Conrad says. “We want to leave the company even better than we found it.”

Since its humble 26,000-square-foot beginnings, the Weaverville facility has grown to more than 120,000 square feet. Last year, Conrad and Nagle say A-B Emblem sold 70 million emblems and had revenue of $18 million. The company has expanded to 300 employees, including 100 at the Weaverville plant, and at factories in Puebla, Mexico, and Shandong Province, China. The co-CEOs say that A-B Emblem is one of the three largest patch-makers in the world.

Some of the company’s biggest clients include the U.S. Army and the Department of Homeland Security; outdoor-gear retailers L.L. Bean and REI; police departments; and Universal Studios, which sells embroidered key rings and luggage tags at its gift shops. Every emblem is inspected at least four times before it leaves the factory.

“We have a slogan: Bring back the patch,” Nagle says. “For a while, people didn’t know what to do with a patch. People are collecting patches again.”

Sticking to his grandfather’s original principles has kept the company successful, Conrad says. When Henry Conrad was first looking for a location for the A-B Emblem facility in the South, several towns offered incentives to attract the business.

“When they got to Weaverville, the town didn’t offer them anything,” he says. “My grandfather really liked that. His philosophy was that he never wanted to owe anyone anything. That philosophy has been our baseline motto in the way we conduct business. We want to be a good supplier, a good manufacturer. We want to pay everyone on time.”

A-B Emblem’s big break came from the “Meatball” patch — the iconic original NASA patch insignia made in the 1960s. The company became the sole supplier to the astronauts starting on Feb. 24, 1970, and is the only supplier since Apollo 13 to make mission patches that astronauts buy, wear and take with them into space. Paul Conrad still keeps a humbling reminder of the company’s origins in his office: an original NASA Meatball patch signed by the Mercury Seven astronauts.

“It’s sitting behind my desk,” Conrad says. “The Smithsonian has one, too.”

Photography by Mike Belleme


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