Fur & Feathers in Fletcher, NC
The headline on this article is intentionally misleading. Will Gay and John Delaloye never have sold fur and feathers in Fletcher even though the company they own, Diamond Brand, had canvas, fur and feathers in its original business mix some 132 years ago.
Thankfully, while the furs and feathers have flown away, the company has become a major contributor to the local economy and has found a market niche in the specialized manufacturing of outdoor gear, including web gear, canvas products, and tents.
Diamond Brand is all about specialized outdoor design and manufacturing. If you buy their tents you’re in good company, right up there with the United States Army and Marine Corps. Gay and Delaloye will gladly sell you some accessories from their manufacturing line or retails stores to go along with the tent.
“We aim to make a person’s outdoor experience a good one,” Gay says. “That’s why we have so many products from the best manufacturers at the Diamond Brand Outdoor store. Diamond Brand can’t make everything. We recognize that and try to offer the best products in each category at Diamond Brand Outdoors, including our own products. At the Frugal Backpacker we have many discontinued products, some one-time purchases and more economical gear overall.”
“A lot of what we do has been gone from this country for a long time. The skills and equipment we have are hard to keep,” Gay says. “That has forced us to rethink our business, to work with strategic partnerships with designers and fabric manufacturers to come up with products we can use in all three of our entities. We wind up with a lot of good ideas and technology that are beyond what we are able to do alone. This improves us as a company and certainly improves our image.
“The Frugal Backpacker came about because, in 2005, our clients saw high prices on items in our Diamond Brand store and had sticker shock. A lot of them left us and went to Walmart. We realized there was a need for more economical products and that led to the Frugal Backpacker. To a large degree we’ve been successful in bringing those folks back.”
Diamond Brand’s manufacturing strategy is aided by a series of federal laws known as the Berry Amendment (USC, Title 10, Section 2533a). Originally passed in 1941, the Berry Amendment was intended to protect the strategically important domestic industrial base in the time of war.
For nearly 70 years this law was determined to include domestic tent manufacturing including fabrics, buttons, snaps, poles and even ropes. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, however, precipitated a 15-year period of continuing losses in our domestic textile manufacturing capacity including 5 million jobs. This led to a 2009 reinterpretation of the Berry Amendment that for the first time allowed the Department of Defense to source tents and tent fabrics manufactured overseas. Industry associations then pointed out how vulnerable the U.S. would become if something so fundamental as shelters for troops were no longer produced domestically. The associations contended that the purpose of the Berry Amendment was to guarantee the availability of strategically important military equipment during wartime. If DoD allowed something so basic as tent fabric to be outsourced, the intent and purpose of the law would be violated.
As with all political battles it took a while for anything to happen. Promises were made and broken. Congress failed to act in January, 2011 when language in the Ike Skelton Defense Authorization Act, which specifically stated that tent fabrics would be covered by the Berry Amendment, was stripped out of the bill.
Industry associations insisted that the wording be reinserted into the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, permanently amending the Berry statute so that tent components would be required to be produced in the U.S. The language potentially represented thousands of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., including many at Diamond Brand. It passed the Republican House but again was left out of the Senate version of the bill. Eventually, a joint House and Senate committee produced the final document which was signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 31, 2011. The final bill, H.R. 1540, the $662 billion 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, included language that restored the full intent and meaning of the 1941 Berry Amendment.
As a military tent provider since 1985, the political maneuvering in Washington may have saved Diamond Brand’s access to the market, if not its contracts. The difficulties involved in successfully bidding government contracts means the small company’s leadership will have to continue to compete for the business. There are no guarantees, and competition is strong, but Diamond brand has brought in more than $76 million in DoD contracts since Gay arrived in 2000. As long as soldiers need tents and the U.S. needs soldiers and Marines, that business should continue.
Diamond Brand was founded in Philadelphia in 1881. It hasn’t survived 132 years by putting all its eggs in one basket. Thanks to young, flexible leadership, there is every indication that it will keep going.
Gay relates the story of the company’s name in the context of how the business focuses on quality. In 1881 in the canvas industry, a diamond was stamped or branded onto each roll of a company’s top-quality canvas. It wasn’t a big step for the founders to decide that an entire company carrying the Diamond Brand label would indicate top quality to buyers as well.
Today, Diamond Brand outdoor products are used by the military, tens of thousands of campers and hundreds of thousands of Boy Scouts around the world.
Diamond Brand’s manufacturing plant and corporate offices are located in the Cane Creek/Fletcher Industrial Park just off of Runway Drive in Fletcher. The Park was built on the site of the old Asheville-Hendersonville airport and has been a boon to the area in providing manufacturing and office space for a wide variety of companies.
Diamond Brand came to western North Carolina in 1943, at the height of World War II, when then-president Dave Kemp purchased a mill in Naples, NC, and plunged full-tilt into supporting the war effort. After the war, Diamond Brand wound down its military efforts and focused on making tents and backpacks for the Boy Scouts. They also used their production capacity to manufacture for other companies such as Morsans (now known as Campmor). Gay and Delaloye continue that tradition with many products or components sold by other companies.
The Arnold Kemp Years
When David Kemp passed away in 1963, Diamond Brand was fortunate that his son, Arnold, was fully prepared to carry on the family business. Arnold became President in 1966 and relocated the corporate offices from New York City to the site of the mill in Naples. Just two years earlier in 1964, Diamond Brand had also opened a local retail store to meet the needs of walk-in retail customers. These especially included Boy Scouts from all around the region.
The first store, called the Diamond Brand Camping Center, opened in a converted four car garage attached to the mill. Thousands of visitors to the area, including the occasional hiker from the Appalachian Trail and military personnel home on leave, found their way to Naples to shop at the mothership. The store exhibited a keen understanding of its customer needs and was one of the few locations where hikers (and real estate agents) could acquire detailed local topographical maps.
New products introduced specifically for this market included a lightweight, durable backpacking tent known as the “Free Spirit.” The design, with its double A-frame and connecting ridge poles, was extremely popular and spawned an entire series of Free Spirit models that replaced conventional wall tents. In the 1980s the company created an even newer four man tent for the U.S. Army. The “Soldier Crew Tent,” as it is called, went into production in 1989 and helped Diamond Brand become an important supplier of tents to the US Military. During this period Diamond Brand also manufactured backpacks, tents and soft luggage for many well-known outdoor companies including LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, REI and Eastern Mountain Sports.
The 21st Century
Following a 12-year career in the medical device business, Gay saw an opportunity to go into business closer to home. In 2000 he acquired Diamond Brand. In 2004, having nearly doubled the size of the business, Gay decided he wanted a partner to focus on the financial side of the business. In early 2005, John Delaloye became that partner as well as the company’s first Chief Financial Officer. The partners then acquired Stahlsac, a local company with a high-demand line of Scuba luggage and a strong background in international manufacturing.
Marketing Director Sara Merrell says Diamond Brand’s economic impact, “reaches far beyond our nominal level of 100 employees. We can have up to 200 people working counting seasonal jobs in the retail stores. We regularly donate or sponsor more than $100,000 worth of community activities ranging from the Muddy Sneakers Day programs in local schools to ECO, to donations to the Daniel Boone Council of the Boy Scouts. Other beneficiaries include the NC Youth Camp Association, the WNC run for Autism, the NC Arboretum and the YMCA of Western North Carolina.
“We try to be good corporate citizens,” Gay says. “We live here and work here, because we really want to be here. We have a very unique facility over in our manufacturing side with a lot of technology that just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the U.S. We appreciate that and want to make sure it stays here.”
The road ahead is uncertain. Continuing challenges to the U.S. economy could take their toll in employment and the resulting loss in disposable income. The military could be in for significant cuts as politicians focus more on domestic spending and walk away from overseas involvements including the war in Afghanistan and other sources of anti-American aggression. As these scenarios unfold, Gay and Delaloye are determined to maintain Diamond Brand’s flexibility in manufacturing and marketing.
“We’re very proud of what our company does,” Gay says. “We really appreciate the Army and Marine Corps business. It’s an honor to be a provider to our military services. We’ve also made Boy Scout backpacks, wall tents and other gear since 1931. We value all these clients and appreciate the trust they have placed in us for such a long period. We don’t intend to stop working hard every day to continue to earn their trust and confidence.”
It’s a long way from Fletcher to selling fur and feathers in Philadelphia. From the halls of Congress to the Pentagon and the annual Boy Scout Jamborees, Diamond Brand has successfully traveled the path for 132 years. With young new ownership, a solid three-legged business plan and technology that is growing in value, there’s no reason to think they won’t be around another 132 years. Still making tents, for camping on Mars.