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Tom’s of Maine Founder Picks Hanover for New Retail Venture

  • KENNEBUNK, ME - MAY 31: Tom Chappell, who founded Tom's of Maine, and his daughter Eliza are pictured in the production space for Ramblers Way Farm, a business started in 2009 which creates high end wool clothing. Eliza is stepping up to take over leadership of the business. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer)



Valley News Business Writer
Sunday, November 06, 2016

Hanover — What he did for toothpaste, mouthwash and deodorant he now wants to do for dresses, sweaters and underwear.

Tom’s of Maine founder Tom Chappell has selected Hanover as one of the first places to open a chain of retail shops that will sell his line of all-natural clothing from materials sourced and made in the U.S. The store, Ramblers Way, is scheduled to open on Main Street in December in the space formerly occupied by women’s clothing store Rare Essentials, which closed last year.

Chappell launched Ramblers Way in 2009, three years after he sold Tom’s of Maine to personal care products giant Colgate-Palmolive Co. for $100 million. The Kennebunk, Maine-based clothier initially distributed its line of comfortable-and-casual wear to 350 retail stores around the country, but the tough sales environment in the retail industry has forced Ramblers Way to abandon that strategy in favor of owned-and-operated stores in select New England markets, Chappell said in an interview.

Ramblers Way carries Chappell’s model of “ethical entrepreneurship” that he pioneered over 36 years at Tom’s of Maine into the textile industry that is widely criticized for its reliance upon foreign supply chains and abusive labor practices. The Hanover store will be the first of three company stores, along with locations in Portsmouth, N.H., and Portland, Maine, before the company rolls out into other “market-size towns and college towns,” Chappell said.

That will be followed by three more stores in yet-to-be-selected locations for a total of six initially in the Northeast. “We’re going to stay close to New England over the next 18 months,” Chappell said.

The company also has a “concept store” in Kennebunk, in addition to an online business.

“I felt because the apparel industry is the second largest polluter on Earth, not to mention the exploitation of its workers, that we could use our skills as a family in (running) a business as a catalyst for change, make a difference and pioneer American-made, sustainable clothing that would be done ethically,” he said.

The textile business runs in the family’s history. Chappell’s father ran mills for textile manufacture Roger Milliken. “I grew up in woolen mills,” said Chappell, 73. “I love the smell of it. I love the sound of it. I spent Saturdays walking through the mill with my father.”

Ramblers Way’s line of clothing is produced from the wool of Rambouillet sheep, a breed whose coats can be turned into a worsted yarn the width of thread that both absorbs moisture and feels smooth against the skin — so smooth that Ramblers Way uses it in undergarments. At present the sheep can be found only among a handful of ranchers in the West, although Chappell said he hopes eventually to have herds located closer to Maine as part of a goal to source all materials within a 300-mile radius.

Meeting the company’s standards for sourcing, workmanship and labor practices has been challenging, Chappell said. The company’s far-flung supply chain begins where the sheep are raised, in states including Montana and Colorado. The sheared wool is shipped to South Carolina, where it is scoured and spun into yarn, which is then sent to New England to be woven into fabrics, brought to Kennebunk, where it is dyed with organic dyes, and sent out again to places as far away Chicago, where skilled cutters know how to stitch the material into garments. The finished product is then shipped back to Kennebunk, where it is stocked for sale.

Chappell said the company chose Hanover because of the “year-round stable economy and our demographic, which crosses from millennials to boomers. All those groups have a portion of them that care about high quality and community involvement, so you have a very high percentage of our target audience that is going to find our brand appealing,” he said.

Chappell said he is aware of the recent history of retail clothing stores in Hanover — five have closed in recent years and a sixth combined two locations into a single store — but said “we have a very different business. We have a brand, values and a look that will be appealing to the kids in the community. It’s an absolutely great location.”

Ramblers Way has 15 employees, including three members of Chappell’s family who work variously in marketing, e-commerce, women’s design and supply chain management. He said the family has already invested “several million” into the business, and he plans to raise an additional $7 million from private investors he has worked with in the past.

As would be expected from clothing that is produced according to Chappell’s standards on sourcing and production, prices for Ramblers Way clothes run on the high side. For example, a women’s black wool dress on the company’s website lists for $165, and a two-toned men’s wool hoodie goes for $225.

“There is no doubt our garments could be made in Asia, and done very well there, for much less money than done in the U.S.,” Chappell acknowledged. “But we’re paying a livable — not minimum — wage that starts at $14 and then benefits and a 401(k). I’ve learned at Tom’s of Maine that if you take good care of your people, they will take care of you. We don’t want to skimp and take advantage of our people. … We want them to be fully engaged in this mission.”

Most of the company’s online stock is substantially marked down, with the discounted prices reflecting that the company is no longer distributing to retail outlets, which usually mark up wholesale prices 30 to 50 percent.

“We spent six years trying to make made-in-America work with independent retailers,” but the company couldn’t afford to lower the wholesale price enough for stores to meet their margins, Chappell said. “The independent (retailer) is being challenged by the smartphone,” he said, pointing to inroads made into traditional retailing by online shopping. “We couldn’t make the business model work.”

Nonetheless, the performance of the company’s concept store in Kennebunk demonstrated “enough evidence for us to have a significant business opportunity in market-size towns, like Portland and Boston, and college towns.”

Although the cotton that is grown in California and used in Ramblers Way clothing is grown organically, that is not the case with wool. But that will soon change, too.

Chappell said Ramblers Way will soon sourcing “organic wool” for the company’s “next to skin” garments, such as men’s underwear.

“When we talk about something being organic, we’re talking about the very pinnacle of quality and responsible treatment of people, animals and earth,” Chappell said. “We’re very excited.”

John Lippman can be reached at 603-727-3219 or jlippman@vnews.com.