When Paul and Chuck Mooty saw Faribault Woolen Mill for the first time three years ago, it was as though time had stopped after the place was shut down.
The roof was punctured with holes. Kettles of dye were flooded. "And upstairs there was a little spookiness to the place," said Paul Mooty, the company's chief financial officer. "People had set cups of coffee down, dropped their pens on the table. And they were still there."
Undeterred, the cousins bought the wool blanket factory and set about restoring and building a brand with deep Minnesota roots. Faribault, founded in 1865, is the only full-process wool textile mill left in the United States. "I guess I fell in love with the story," Paul Mooty said. "If we can set this on to another 150-year journey, that would be wonderful."
After two years and millions of dollars spent on equipment and repairs, the former blanket supplier to the U.S. Army, Navy and national department stores is cranking again with new leadership, rising sales and high hopes for aggressive growth. Today, its high-end blankets once again sell for $100 to $475 each.
"We are approaching $10 million in sales and expect to comfortably roll past that in the next 12 to 18 months," said new CEO Tom Irvine, who replaced Chuck Mooty as CEO in November after Chuck became the CEO of Jostens Inc. "We now have 70 workers. I think we will be pretty close to 100 by year-end."
Recently Faribault won a full year of repeat orders from furniture store West Elm, Beams Department Stores in Japan, retailer Steve Allen, and clothing and home goods store Garnet Hill. It also retained Jack Daniel's, which uses Faribault's wool cloth to filter its whiskey. The mill is also seeking partnerships in which to co-brand its blankets.
To ensure the revived brand continues its trajectory, Paul Mooty brought in new partners. In addition to Irvine, he hired Bruce Bildsten, the former Fallon ad agency executive who helped resuscitate Cadillac. Bildsten became Faribault's chief marketing officer in November.
Since joining, Bildsten scored company features in magazines such as Martha Stewart, GQ and Collective Quarterly. He and his sales team also hit trade shows nationwide for luxury hotels, boutiques, gift catalog firms and upscale home decor companies.
'Kicking into high gear'
Now orders are pouring in from The W Hotel, the AMC Channel, Target Co., Crate and Barrel's CB2 division, Dillard's Department Store, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and even actor George Clooney. (Clooney ordered the company's military West Point blanket for the cast and crew of "The Monuments Men," which he directed.)
"We are in our prime selling season where retailers and hotels and others are all buying for [next] winter," Bildsten said. "The plant will be kicking into high gear next month as we go to fill all these new orders."
Gears are already in motion.
In the basement, workers recently tore into a mountain of raw wool. Employee Dan Smith grabbed armfuls of the fluffy balls until he had 350 pounds to send to dye kettles down the hall.
Others fed what looked like cotton candy through centrifuges, dryers, and finally into a room full of carts carrying wool of every color. "It does have that Willy Wonka look in here," Paul Mooty said while taking visitors through the factory's "new" 1892 addition.
Upstairs, rows of rumbling carding machines pounded and combed wool into endless strands. Whizzing modern-day spinning wheels twisted miles of strands until they became yarn ready for 12 looms on the other side of the factory. The looms transform yarn into blankets, throws and scarves.
Inspector Patty Sexton carefully ran her hands along the long swaths of plaids, stripes and patterns, checking for knots and loose threads. "I love it here," said Sexton, who joined Faribault two years ago after leaving a hardware job in Owatonna. She now makes more than $10 an hour and said, "I don't have to leave town anymore. I'm from here."
Faribault Mayor John Jasinski watched mill employment zoom to 80 and then plummet to 50 last year after J.C. Penney pulled a major order. "Now it's neat to see them grow again. Everybody is excited about it."
At one time Faribault products were sold in department and specialty stores nationwide. At its peak, the company produced half the woolen blankets made in the United States.
But like many U.S. textile manufacturers, the business had a tough time competing against low-cost foreign textile mills. An ill-advised investment in a South Carolina textile mill by a previous owner proved to be a major cash drain, forcing the shutdown in 2009.
The new owners have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying four automated looms and two computerized machines that shrink 16-foot blankets into thick snuggly sheets half that size. The investments quickened production.
Now Faribault can add products such as baby blankets and patterned throw pillows. While diversifying, "We deliberately are not making clothing right now," Bildsten said. But that's not stopping others.
Last year, the hip New York-based Engineered Garments special-ordered one of Faribault's archival Native American designs — Salmon People. It used the artful red and black wool fabric to make peacoats that sold for $850 in the U.S. and Japan. It also made Salmon People vests and a $400 "over" shirt from Faribault's West Point military blanket line. The products sold so well "that we came back and asked them to make their Fair Isle Nordic [design] for us for fall/winter 2014," said Engineered Garments manager Angelo Urrutia. "We really love what they do."
Other partners include Duluth-based Duluth Pack, which has turned Faribault's blankets into backpacks, duffel bags and tote bags. Oak Street Boots in Chicago used the blankets to make boots. Faribault even turned its scraps into iPod covers and cup cozies for Caribou Coffee. "We are doing dozens and dozens of these joint ventures ... so it's been an impressive year of growth," Bildsten said.
He hopes the momentum will continue.
"We feel a deep connection to this community and mill and want to add more people. We want to make this place continue to hum."