The Morrisville company is in its busiest season right now, shipping 1,400 different hats, neck warmers, balaclavas and a few other items to 1,000 retailers in every U.S. state — even Hawaii — and six countries.
By the end of the summer, those retail items will have reached their destinations, and Turtle Fur’s employees will turn to the business of coming up with a plan to expand. That growth could include making gloves, socks, sleeping bags, slippers, pants and tops, and an array of other items, said Richard Sontag, who bought the company in 2000.
“In five years, we will be a full apparel business,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of our products will be something that is not here now.”
This year has been a time of profound change for Turtle Fur. In April, Sontag sold 68 percent of the business to a private equity group called Camano Capital, which is based in Minneapolis and Seattle. He reasoned that the extra cash and expertise would help Turtle Fur break out of its core product line.
Now managers are doing market research to come up with a detailed three-year plan for launching new products.
“Our goal is to take the wonderful properties of the company and brand and expand them into products that make people feel good and that make them stay outside longer,” Sontag said.
In wintertime, Turtle Fur hats are ubiquitous on Vermonters’ heads and in their mud rooms. The company was started by Millie Merrill, who designed a fleece neck warmer in 1982 in the basement of the Yellow Turtle, a children’s apparel store in Stowe that is still going strong. Then she started making hats. With her husband, John, she expanded the company into an industrial space in Morrisville.
Sontag, 60, is a business veteran who got his start in his family’s silk label business. He’s split his time between Vermont and Long Island while running Turtle Fur for the last two decades.
Woven through Sontag’s path, in business and in life, is the story of his son Jacob, who was born with the rare genetic disorder Canavan disease. While he was running Turtle Fur, Sontag was battling, along with Jacob’s mother, to get his son experimental gene therapy — a fight described in a 1998 New York Times Magazine article. Many times, Sontag said, he was running his business from the side of Jacob’s hospital bed in New York.
Jacob died in 2016 at age 20. A few months later, Sontag said he started to pay more attention than he had in years to what was going on around him. He started listening to employees who had been telling him that Turtle Fur’s designs, fabrics, and office procedures — such as a cumbersome receipt system — were badly out of date.
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“I had my own personal awakening, as did the business,” Sontag said. “It allowed me to step back and hear what people were saying we needed to do.”
What they needed to do, his staff and customers said, was modernize everything, from their hats to their trade show booth.
Turtle Fur was making 2,800 products at the time; nobody could decide which ones to stop producing, said Meghan Ksiazek, Turtle Fur’s head of design. They were trying to please everyone, and pleasing no one. Sales had been dropping since around 2012.
“They were asking us to evolve,” Ksiazek said.
Turtle Fur slimmed its line to 1,000 items, added new fabrics and designs, and started putting more attention into using sustainable products. Sontag said sales have risen each year since 2017. The company has 36 employees and three job openings.
Last year, Sontag started shopping around for someone to buy the company. Through Venture 7 Advisors, a Burlington-based merger and acquisition advisory firm, he met an array of suitors, and reached an agreement with Camano Capital. His stipulation: The new owner had to keep the company in Vermont, and employ his existing team long-term.
“I did get some pushback from my advisors,” he said of those provisos. “I said it was non-negotiable.”
Camano ended up buying only the 68 percent stake, leaving Sontag in place in his office at the Morrisville industrial building — though he now answers to a board.
Turtle Fur is applying to become a certified B corporation — a designation for businesses that meet high standards of accountability in environmental sustainability, transparency and other measures — and it’s working hard to introduce more recycled fabrics into its product line.
The sustainability piece still has a ways to go: most of Turtle Fur’s fabric is made in Asia and then sewn into products at a factory in Mexico before being shipped to Vermont for redistribution to retail and online customers. Wool from Australia and New Zealand is shipped to China to be knit into hats.
Sontag winced when asked about the supply chain. The company does buy some fleece from North Carolina and Italy, and has a small custom sewing operation in Tennessee. It’s difficult to find local workers willing to sew garments in a factory, Ksiazek said.
Clothing manufacturing in general is tough in the U.S., and Vermont just has a few textile companies. Among them is Darn Tough, which imports wool from Italy and weaves its socks in central Vermont; Vermont Flannel, which makes some of its clothes in East Barre; and the South Burlington-based Commando, which makes its underwear in Vermont and other states.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” Ksiazek said. “Unfortunately, the infrastructure as well as the culture of the U.S. is not built in a way that makes that a sustainable practice.”
The two noted that Turtle Fur has made sweeping changes to dramatically cut its cardboard and plastic use. It has a robust charitable giving program, and top managers are enjoying the challenge of looking for other ways to scale the company and reduce its carbon footprint.
Sontag expects Turtle Fur to expand five-fold in the next five years and to become known as an all-season apparel brand.
Ninety days into the new ownership, “it’s going swimmingly,” Sontag said. “Change is coming.”