Written by Melissa Stanz | Photos by Oby Morgan
Goose Kearse believes rock climbing is a wonderful metaphor for life. It’s challenging and rewarding, with the ultimate objective being to get to the top and not get killed. You come to terms with fear; it’s a response that keeps you safe, but it can be debilitating. He says you have to question what’s real and what you can let go of—that’s when you realize how powerful the mind is and how it can push you forward.
Goose is co-owner of Misty Mountain Threadworks, located outside Boone in Valle Crucis. A longtime rock climber, he has applied this metaphor to his life and his business, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
His company is a climbing harness and related climbing equipment manufacturer. The company delivered some 30,000 harnesses last year to customers ranging from the military to zip line companies to operations with climbing walls and challenge towers to dedicated Misty Mountain gear groupies. More than 400 customers reorder regularly and thousands purchase directly from the website mistymountain.com.
Goose is driven and focused in a laid back kind of way; he’s also gracious with his time and enjoys talking with people. A multitasker, he cuts stray threads off harnesses as we chat for this story. The 53-year-old is physically fit and not shy about saying he can still climb at a level 5.10 and lift 300 pounds.
Misty Mountain proudly makes all of its products in the United States from its facility—a rustic converted barn—outside Banner Elk. It’s a “cut and sew” operation; the company buys all the components, like webbing, fabric, foam, and hardware, and then cuts the parts and sews them together.
Woody Keen, an avid climber who created the company in 1985, started by making harnesses in his garage. Woody and Goose were fast friends in high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. Woody, along with three other high school buddies, christened him with the name Goose way back in high school.
“We were driving around one day and one of my buddies, Bubba, commented on my long skinny neck, saying I looked like a goose,” laughed Goose. “Although I dropped that name for a time, when I came back to the area and joined Misty Mountain, the name stuck.”
Woody taught Goose the finer points of rock climbing, an experience he still recalls fondly.
“I had climbed a couple of times when I was 13 or 14 in a summer camp, so when Woody asked me to go climbing at Table Rock I knew it would be exciting, scary, and challenging. I also knew he would keep me safe,” said Goose. “Woody used nuts and hexes wedged into cracks to protect us going up; the next day I wore that tied hex to school, I was on fire to do more!”
When the two friends graduated from high school, Goose headed to UNC Chapel Hill; Woody went to Appalachian State. Goose’s life and career took a different direction, and he went back to his given name, Mark. Majoring in chemistry, (he loves to know how things work and says science is the best way to do that) he continued his education, receiving a MBA from Wake Forest in 1984.
“I had several job offers, and I knew I wanted to go into manufacturing operations because we get to make things,” he said. “In graduate school I learned a lot about manufacturing and had summer jobs in the field.”
Goose/Mark joined the corporate world, working for Kendall, a Colgate-Palmolive company, as a management trainee, working his way up quickly to warehouse manager, supervising manufacturing of disposable packs and gowns. When Colgate purchased a urological catheter company in Malaysia, he jumped at the chance to learn international business and became manufacturing manager there, supervising transportation and food for some 400 employees.
Two years later, he returned to the United States, taking a job as a converting and finishing manager for Lydall, a company that manufactures blood filters.
When his buddy Woody called in 1989, the timing was right.
“I had been working for very large multinational companies, and I wanted to do something smaller, in a company where I could be closer to top management,” he explained. “Being in middle management, wearing a tie—it was a little confining.”
Woody’s first partner had just left the business, and he asked Goose to join the company as a vice president. Goose, still a bachelor at that time, was only too happy to come back to the mountains.
“Just to get to live in these mountains was fantastic. I remembered my time there as idyllic. I jumped back into climbing, fly fishing, and hiking with my dog. Instead of wearing a tie with chemical stains, I wore shorts and t-shirts,” he said.
Bringing substantial manufacturing operations experience with him, Goose implemented a piece works system, rewarding employees for doing more work. A few years later, former employee Mike Grimm returned to Misty Mountain, buying out Woody’s share to become a co-owner with Goose.
The company moved to its current location that same year Mike and Goose became co-owners, an old barn near Valle Crucis and Banner Elk. It’s in a stunning location along a river, a quiet, peaceful setting.
You really have to want to go there; it’s on a winding mountain road, then a hairpin turn onto gravel, crossing a low-water bridge, hoping the water is indeed low! Materials delivered in large trucks don’t attempt this bridge, Goose and company meet them before they cross it and download materials into pickup trucks for delivery to the factory. After crossing the bridge you travel along the river about a mile, arriving in the shady area in front of the barn on the right.
Inside the cavernous, old 7,000-square-foot building, there are tables, miles of harness rigging, gear slings, tethers, chalk bags, packs, and more gear. A design center in the back features a huge cutting table and all kinds of cool, funky materials. There’s also a testing room for breaking prototypes to better understand the strength of all the components.
Upstairs, a dozen or so sewing machines hum along, operated by local craftspeople, many of them former textile workers in the area.
“We have 19 employees now, a combination of people who are very skilled in cut and sew operations, and people who are climbers themselves,” said Goose. “A lot of these people have been here 14 to 15 years.”
As a former employee, co-owner Mike recognized quickly that many changes were needed at Misty Mountain when he returned to the company in 1996. With a degree in furniture design and construction from Appalachian State University, Mike’s sweet spot was production manager.
“This was a great role for me, because all operations require process thinking, and I love to invent new things,” said Mike. “Being a climber myself, a lot of products were created based on what I needed for my personal use. We’ve invented climbing equipment, jibs, fixtures, and testing equipment.”
[quote float=”right”]“That was a low point for us,” said Mike. “Two tractor trailers showed up with stuff from Vietnam, and it was a load of crap. That was when we decided that if we couldn’t make it ourselves, we just wouldn’t do it at all.”[/quote]The partners put new policies in place, moving from part-time employees to full-time employees with standard hours. The design process evolved to focus on three things: usability, producibility, and sellability.
Mike and Goose had many of the same business strengths, so they split areas of responsibility and each took on some new things they needed to learn.
Goose was strong in manufacturing, but Mike’s creativity and process thinking capacity strongly qualified him for manufacturing, product lines, and implementing lean processes along the way. Goose gathered human resources, sales, and marketing under his responsibilities, noting that he always liked human resources because he likes people and they generally like him.
“Regarding sales and marketing, I thought, ‘How hard could it be?’ I decided early on that I don’t really sell things; I build relationships. We sell lifesaving devices. I must have a customer’s trust first because no one is going to risk their lives if they don’t trust us,” explained Goose.
The two owners also learned a hard lesson about outsourcing along the way. At one point, trying to save money and the company, they began overseas production.
“That was a low point for us,” said Mike. “Two tractor trailers showed up with stuff from Vietnam, and it was a load of crap. That was when we decided that if we couldn’t make it ourselves, we just wouldn’t do it at all.”
Building relationships and trust paid off big time five or six years ago when the business was struggling. Recreational and program harness business was declining, and the country was in recession. Goose looked around at his competition and noted they were selling harnesses to the military, but how would he connect to military sources?
At a 30th high school reunion, he ran into an old friend who connected him with some people who directed him to a military advanced planning briefing for industry. At that meeting, he met a guy from NADEC and asked him if he needed harnesses. The answer was a qualified yes, and Goose and Mike put their heads together to create the Milroc harness to specifications for the US Army.
The mountain harness kit was a big success, and the co-owners realized that Special Forces—Green Berets, Seals, and other special ops—also needed reliable, quality harnesses.
“There weren’t that many people in the military who deal with harnesses, and I had to find them,” said Goose. “A special ops guy I knew was doing some training in Western North Carolina, so I invited him and his group to visit us. They now help us spread the love.”
After the visit from the special ops team, Goose traveled to Colorado twice to the Army’s Special Forces Advanced Mountaineering School. The result was a new product, an extremely comfortable, full-featured harness called the Cadillac tactical.
“I designed it, sent a special version to them for testing, and they really tested it. The guys and their superiors gave me feedback and recommended changes, which I made, and now we are in their supply flow.”
[quote float=”right”]“I just thought people in wheelchairs should be able to climb, and there was this kid that was born with no legs so we designed a harness for him,” said Goose. “I never thought we’d make any money doing this, but it was a good thing to do. ”[/quote]Misty Mountain’s military business is substantial, but the company was founded on making recreational and program harnesses. Phil Hoffmann was recently hired as Misty Mountain’s first sales manager to focus exclusively on the recreational side of the business, especially zip lines and climbing gyms. Phil is an avid climber.
“I’ve been climbing 15 years and always used Misty Mountain gear,” said Phil. “ That gear has saved my life many times.”
The company makes more than a dozen different harnesses and they are continuously improving harness design and comfort. They test their designs outdoors, climbing, hanging, falling, and hiking, returning with new ideas for how to make better harnesses and climbing gear, such as gear slings, packs, and chalk bags.
Special harnesses for women include a longer rise and bigger leg loops, and several different colors. Two harnesses, the ARC (adaptive ropes course) and the Easy Seat, were specifically designed for people who are disabled.
“I just thought people in wheelchairs should be able to climb, and there was this kid that was born with no legs so we designed a harness for him,” said Goose. “I never thought we’d make any money doing this, but it was a good thing to do. Now we make a ton of them.”
In 2013 the company connected with Mark Wellman, a paraplegic who made history by becoming the first paraplegic to climb El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Mark now consults with Misty Mountain to improve and develop new designs, focusing on security and support while still allowing for as much personal mobility as possible.
This business is personal to Mike and Goose, and when they are not working or outdoors testing, they are, well, climbing. To Goose, climbing is great for anything, including social and spiritual perspectives.
“I was out climbing recently with some friends, employees, my son who is 16, and his friend, who had never climbed. It’s a great way to do something with my son, and it’s fun and challenging,” he said. “Climbing helps you problem solve, come up with solutions, and keeps you honest.”
Goose notes that climbing is also very focused and meditative in movement and requires him to stay in the present, step-by-step.
Misty Mountain is having a fun run now, and Goose believes their greatest successes are still coming.
“Our growth for the past couple of years averages 55% per year. The success with our military business has reinvigorated me, and I want to repeat that in our other product lines, and reach out to new markets too,” mused Goose. “ I want to be able to hire more people and see it grow. I also want to make sure it continues to be fun.”
Knowing Goose, growth and fun will be no problem—it’s part of his and Misty Mountain’s DNA.
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