Glad in Plaid: A Complicated Burlington Businessman Aims to Revive Johnson Woolen Mills | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Glad in Plaid: A Complicated Burlington Businessman Aims to Revive Johnson Woolen Mills 

Published December 13, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated December 20, 2023 at 10:03 a.m.

Gene Richards - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Gene Richards

The business is a small-town Vermont clothing company whose handmade wool pants, shirts and hunting jackets have been passed down through generations. The buyer is a 63-year-old Burlington man with a mixed record running an urban airport, who grows queasy at the thought of a gutted deer.

It's an odd pairing, but after a few difficult years for both Johnson Woolen Mills and Gene Richards, the fit may be just right.

Richards purchased the nearly 200-year-old company from its fourth-generation owner in January, a little over a year after he was fired from his job leading the Burlington International Airport following an investigation that found he ran a toxic workplace.

Richards has since embarked on an uphill crusade to save the struggling business and, perhaps, redeem himself in the process.

Johnson jackets rank up there with maple syrup and Darn Tough socks on the scale of products that bolster Vermont's image as a last source of high-quality, old-fashioned goods that reflect their rural roots. The Woolen Mills has a passionate following as one of the only U.S. manufacturers still producing no-frills, handmade wool clothing. But in a market filled with cheaper, foreign-made goods, the brand's made-in-America tradition has become as much of a liability as a selling point.

The Mills' previous owner, Stacy Manosh, adapted the best she could, rolling out new products and expanding into new markets, including Japan. But the company has found it hard to stay relevant in recent years, and its payroll has dwindled. It was down to just 13 employees when Richards took over, compared to roughly 50 around the turn of the millennium.

click to enlarge Johnson Wollen Mills - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Johnson Wollen Mills

Given these economic realities, Richards concedes that the rational move would have been to shut it down, "go home and let [the clothes] be built in China." Yet he swears he never gave that idea a moment's thought. Instead, he has vowed to turn the company around without changing its identity.

"My mission is to make sure this is a better place to work and a place that makes a great product," he said. "I want to get it ready for the next 100 years."

Richards has attacked the rescue work with a characteristic intensity that borders on the obsessive. He wakes up before 4 a.m., then makes an hourlong commute to Johnson, where he has spent every day since the sale, buzzing around like the Energizer Bunny, clad in plaid.

With the help of his family, he has overhauled the inventory system, revamped the website, debuted new clothing lines and renovated the retail store, which is located next to the sewing factory in downtown Johnson. He even brought in a trio of sheep that live in a pen behind the store.

"There wasn't anything that didn't need to be touched," he said during a tour of the factory one day last month, during which he repeatedly paused to check in with contractors working around the property.

The magnitude of the work — and the company's questionable prognosis — have led even devoted Woolen Mills customers to wonder aloud: Why bother? "I had one guy yesterday, he said to me, 'Maybe you should get your head checked,'" Richards recalled with a chuckle.

"I don't think people understand me, because I live in a different dimension. I live in tomorrow," Richards said. "I know that may sound weird, but I really can see things. I know where I'm going. I know what's happening. I know what it needs, and I can help put things together quickly."

"I have a twisted mind," he added with a shrug. "And I really like broken things."

Dyed in the Wool

click to enlarge Kate Voorhees sewing - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Kate Voorhees sewing

What's now known as Johnson Woolen Mills was founded in the 1830s and originally operated as a fabric manufacturer, one of many such mills across the once sheep-grazed hills of Vermont. Local farmers would bring wool to the mill, then located in a long building that overlooked the Gihon River, and have it woven into cloth.

The Woolen Mills began making clothes around the turn of the 20th century, including its iconic green wool pants, advertised as the "Best Wearing Trousers in America." Twice as hefty as today's "heavyweight" jeans and thicker than molasses in the middle of winter, the pants were a staple among those whose job or hobbies required them to spend long periods in the cold: loggers, sugar makers, hunters.

D.A. Barrows bought the business in 1907, and the next two generations of Barrows men grew up in it. They rolled out new product lines — including the popular Jac Shirt — and opened a retail factory store. The weaving mill closed in the 1960s, prompting the company to purchase its fabrics, mainly from elsewhere in New England. Still, the business continued to thrive, a fact the owners attributed to the consistency of their product line and the superiority of their fibers.

"You can't find anything to compete with wool," Del Barrows, D.A.'s grandson, once told the Burlington Free Press.

But strong economic headwinds were gathering. U.S. textile mills began closing in the 1970s in the face of increased competition abroad. In the following decades, many clothing manufacturers would move all of their production overseas, where they could rely on cheap labor, an abundance of raw materials and the ability to mass produce.

This shift helped keep clothing costs low for consumers. But it hollowed out the many factory towns that relied on these jobs. It has also made it harder for companies that needed American workers to compete.

By the late 1990s, after a dozen straight years of losses, Del Barrows was looking to get out. Few buyers were lining up, and, while his daughter was interested, Barrows was reluctant to hand her the business.

"My dad didn't think women belonged running businesses," Stacy Manosh told the Free Press in 2015.

Having grown up at the Johnson headquarters, Manosh refused to accept her old-fashioned father's decision and eventually changed his mind. In 1998, with the help of her ex-husband, Howard Manosh, she bought the company.

Stacy immediately set out to drum up new business. She designed new products for women, built on her father's attempts to take the brand national and established relationships with Japanese retailers, who would go on to represent roughly half the company's sales.

She also emphasized the company's made-in-America tradition.

"You go to a Walmart or something like that, it's Sri Lanka, Vietnam, the Philippines — that's all they offer," Manosh said in a recent interview. "When you can stand up, even though you're standing alone, and say, 'Here's a product made in Johnson, Vt.,' people love that and will pay more for that."

A typical Woolen Mills men's jacket runs around $260, a price that factors in the wages of the longtime seamstresses who work at the company's sewing factory. That's $100 more than what someone would pay for a similar coat at, say, L.L.Bean, which moved most of its production overseas several years ago after its own New England beginnings.

Devoted customers say the quality of Woolen Mills' clothing is worth paying a premium; an oft-repeated endorsement is that it lasts long enough to get passed down in wills.

That also means shoppers don't have to replace their garments as often. Rather than buy new ones, some sentimental customers will ask the company to fix up decades-old jackets by replacing sleeves or zippers. A boon for the company's reputation, sure, but for the bottom line? Not so much.

Manosh's commitment to American manufacturing appealed to many shoppers. But some of her other convictions created problems for the business. In 2019, Manosh was invited to the White House's third annual Made in America showcase. During the event, then-president Donald Trump ranted about four Progressive congresswomen whom he had recently told to "go back" and fix the "places from which they came." All were women of color, and three were born in the U.S. When a Business Insider reporter emailed Manosh seeking her reaction, she said she wholeheartedly agreed with Trump's comments.

"When people come to this country LEGALLY, they should not bite the hand that is welcoming them," she wrote in the email, which the news outlet published online. "I would have added, 'if you're not happy here, you can leave and we'll help you.'"

Her comments drew rebukes from leaders in Vermont's business community and upset some longtime customers.

They included Nils Daulaire, a retired physician from South Royalton who emailed Manosh to say that her comments made it impossible for him to wear her products without feeling ashamed. He asked for an address to return the branded clothing he had accumulated: two pairs of wool pants and a heavy shirt.

"I am not looking for a refund, I simply want to get them off my hands," he wrote in the email, which he shared with Seven Days. He got no response, so he donated the clothing.

Manosh wouldn't say whether her comments caused the business to suffer financially. But the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic — or the "plandemic," as Manosh calls it — a year later dealt another blow to the company, and by late 2022, she was down to just 13 employees.

Around that time, Manosh asked Richards, whom she met while he still worked at the airport, to perform a review of the business. She then offered to sell it to him.

He initially balked, uninterested in jumping into a difficult industry. But he came around after spending time shadowing her at the factory. "I didn't want to buy it until I saw her passion," he said of Manosh.

After crunching the numbers, he agreed to buy the company for a price neither he nor Manosh would disclose.

The new ownership group includes Richards' wife, Julie; his two sons, Stephen and Eugene, and their partners; and his longtime Burlington business associate, Erin Desautels. All are now involved in the company's day-to-day operations.

A year later, Richards said Manosh deserves credit for standing firm at a time when "all the other mills were cashing out and running for the hills, or switching to international companies and buying things for a third of what they cost us to buy here."

Manosh, meanwhile, had high praise for her successor. "When he falls in love with something, he's committed," she said of Richards. "And he's fallen in love with Johnson Woolen Mills."

An Executive's Downfall

click to enlarge Gene Richards - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Gene Richards

Richards often talks about how his mind works differently than most people's. These snapshots of self-reflection could come across as entrepreneurial bluster, were there not kernels of truth within them.

Growing up in St. Albans and Pittsford, Richards struggled to relate to his peers. He later found out that he had dyslexia. A trusted teacher helped him adapt to his diagnosis, but school would never come easy. One thing he's always understood, though: Hard work pays off.

"I grew up in a very poor family, and I have worked since a very young age," he said, recalling days spent helping out on nearby farms. "I shoveled, I hayed, I milked — I did anything you asked me to do."

"And I loved money," he added.

Working at banks in Burlington after high school offered a new way to understand the almighty dollar. He began as a teller, then worked his way up into the mortgage department at KeyBank. By 1995, he had branched out on his own, founding Spruce Mortgage, a brokerage firm that now does business in Vermont, Florida and North Carolina. He also owns a rental company called Champlain Apartments, which once controlled roughly 20 properties across Burlington; he's since sold many of them.

The lessons Richards learned in the private sector served him well years later, when he was called to public service. After winning election in 2012, Mayor Miro Weinberger needed someone to balance the budget and build up the cash reserves at the ailing Burlington airport. So he turned to Richards, with whom he had served on the airport's volunteer commission. He appointed Richards interim director in 2012 and made the post permanent a year later.

Weinberger would go on to credit Richards for turning around the airport's finances. In 2014, Moody's Investors Service upgraded the airport's bond status from "junk" to "investment grade," allowing it to refinance some of its debt and save on interest.

As he trimmed costs, landed new airlines and began major renovations, Richards earned a reputation as a hands-on manager who took pride in sweating the small stuff. "I've heard stories of him standing there with a stopwatch at the TSA checkpoint, trying to hold them accountable for getting people through," Weinberger told Seven Days in 2016.

But Richards' aggressive approach also proved to be his downfall. In June 2021, just weeks after he was reappointed, the city launched an investigation into Richards after receiving employee complaints about his behavior. The investigation spanned two months and included interviews with nearly a dozen former and current airport staff members.

A report summarizing the findings accused Richards of "regularly" engaging in "humiliating and offensive" behavior toward workers. It characterized him as a power-wielding "big dog," unwilling to listen, and said he called employees "useless and ungrateful to their face."

Nearly three dozen members of the local airport union submitted a petition calling on Weinberger to fire Richards after the report was made public. Weinberger, who expressed shock at the findings, asked Richards to resign. When Richards refused, Weinberger asked the city council to approve firing him.

Richards chalked up the allegations mostly to misunderstandings, pointed to his nine years of dedicated service and asked for a second chance. But the city council upheld Weinberger's decision. Richards sued the city to get his job back and lost.

Two years later, he refers to his time at the airport as the best years of his life and says he hopes to be judged not on how it ended but on what he accomplished. "The airport speaks for itself," he said. "It's beautiful."

But he's also trying to learn from the experience, at least in a small way. Shortly after his firing, one of his sons said he was glad it happened, because for nine years, Richards was rarely around. The comment confused Richards, who thought he had always made a point of spending time with his adult children and their families.

"Yes, you're here," his son replied, "but you're not here." His point: The airport took over Richards' life.

"I am now trying to be better at being where I am," Richards said.

'Say Yes Whenever Possible'

click to enlarge Deb Willey - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Deb Willey

Deb Willey, the Woolen Mills' longtime production manager, kept an open mind when the sale was announced.

She knew why Richards was fired from the airport, but she had also met him years earlier, when the Woolen Mills made jackets for BTV's 100-year anniversary. She'd found him to be quite pleasant.

"Well," she thought to herself when the deal closed, "I guess we'll see."

Richards won her over by showing that he had no interest in slashing and burning his way through the company. Instead, he began investing in it, starting with the people. He gave all the employees raises, took them out to lunch a few times and began tackling a long list of maintenance upgrades, from a new sprinkler system to a full-scale kitchen in the break room.

He also encouraged the workers to "have a little fun," a welcome change of pace from Manosh's tight-run ship, said Susie Audet, 70, who has sewed clothing at the Mills for 38 years. "He's been great with us girls," she said as her sister, who works at a desk across from her, nodded in agreement.

On a tour of the factory last month, Richards stopped to chat with each of the seamstresses, asking about their weekends and what they planned to bring to the upcoming Thanksgiving potluck.

"He actually makes you feel like he cares," Willey, 67, told Seven Days. "Not only about what you're doing for work, but about you personally."

Richards' approach has paid off. The company has hired several part-time seamstresses, increasing the head count to 21, and hopes to bring on more in the coming months.

A stable workforce won't matter, though, if the Woolen Mills isn't profitable in the long term. To get there, Richards has a simple recipe: be more efficient, create new products, and make the Woolen Mills a place that both locals and tourists want to visit.

"I really believe there's something here that will bring people and have them spend their money, and, in return, we will give them a great experience and a great product," he said.

One of the most important upgrades has been an overhaul of the company's inventory system.

Before Richards arrived, he said, rolls of wool fabric and finished clothing were stored in ways that led to wasted time and money. Customers would buy something online only to get a call notifying them that their size was out of stock. Without data to inform its decisions, the company would sometimes make more of an item than needed — a big no-no in manufacturing, Richards said.

"Inventory is the devil in business," he said. "You want enough to sell, but not enough to store."

Now, inventory is cataloged and deposited in a network of storage racks, while an app on Richards' phone keeps up-to-the-minute data that helps inform production decisions.

Efficiency is only part of the equation. The company must also attract new customers — and have something unique to offer old ones — if it hopes to survive.

There's still room to grow in the Japanese market, Richards said, where many fashion-minded shoppers have come to appreciate old-fashioned, high-quality American clothing. Retailers there will often ask for custom-made designs — think funky plaid skirts or vests — that would look silly on a 50-year-old Vermont hunter but seem cool in downtown Tokyo. The company is also in talks to produce branded clothing for other outfitters, including a streetwear company based in New York City.

And it's rolling out some of its own new products. In August, the Woolen Mills debuted the Northwoods X 1842 collection. Produced in collaboration with a Vermont-based group of hunting hobbyists known as the Northwoods Whitetails, the line is another take on the Mills' iconic wool pants and jackets, offering new patterns and slimmer silhouettes. Hunters prefer wool because it insulates even when wet and doesn't make as much noise as other materials when walking or aiming for a shot.

The new line sold well this fall, according to Richards, who declined to provide specific figures but said the company's third-quarter revenues were higher than they've been in at least 10 years.

He takes some of the credit, too, referencing one of his guiding edicts: "Say yes whenever possible."

The backstory: Manosh had declined to work with the Northwoods Whitetails, according to the group. In response, its members planned to launch a competing clothing line that would have rivaled the Woolen Mills'. The group was in the final stages of its business plan when Richards called to say he heard about the idea and wanted to meet.

Agreeing to link up with the Woolen Mills was an easy decision, said Jamie Dragon-Davis, whose husband, Joey Davis, started the hunting group with some of his friends. "We've both been wearing Johnson wool products our whole lives," she said. "We really believe in the company — and, honestly, in Gene."

'Johnson Woolen Mills Is Vermont'

click to enlarge Johnson Wollen Mills - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Johnson Wollen Mills

Located in a clapboard building on Johnson's Main Street, the Woolen Mills factory store is fresh and inviting, with white walls, leather furniture and a bright, spacious showroom that feels plucked from the pages of a glossy magazine. If it weren't for some rustic touches sprinkled throughout — old photos, retired factory tools — customers could easily forget they're browsing the products of a company born before the Civil War.

That's largely by design. Richards wants the Woolen Mills to be a place where people feel something — a place that, he says, "feeds" them and makes them long for more. Compare that to the old factory store, which the New York Times once described as having the "feeling of a ship on which everyone is crowded for a good cause," and it's easy to see why Richards couldn't wait to make changes.

"The younger generation wouldn't run from it," he said of the renovated store.

The same could be said for the upgraded website, where poorly exposed product photos have been replaced with those of a quality one might expect when clicking "buy" on a $240 pair of pants.

"We've just made the whole experience better," Richards said.

In the long term, Richards hopes to make the Woolen Mills a destination, in the manner of the Ben & Jerry's factory or the Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury. He recalled a man from Scotland who flew into Burlington and took a taxi up to Johnson to visit the store this fall, then vowed to return as soon as he could. "I want to be that to people," he said.

It's why he brought in the sheep, which he sometimes walks around the property, and put the "finishing touches" on a project Manosh had started: converting an old garage on the property into an Airbnb. The rental, which overlooks the river, features hardwood floors and various wool accents, from framed swatches on the walls to pillow covers, blankets and an upholstered chair. It's also why he's been fixing up the dilapidated old mill, which he hopes to one day bring back into use, perhaps as a community space.

click to enlarge A sheep at Johnson Woolen Mills - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • A sheep at Johnson Woolen Mills

Richards' efforts have been noticed in Johnson, a small town of 3,500 undergoing its own revitalization effort. Much of that has been driven by Jenna's Promise, a nonprofit founded by the family of Jenna Tatro following the 26-year-old's death from an opioid overdose in 2019. In addition to a recovery house, the nonprofit now owns a coffee shop and a thrift store that employ people in recovery.

Greg Tatro, who runs the nonprofit with his wife, said Richards has clearly made an effort to earn community support.

After Vermont's historic flooding over the summer, the Woolen Mills offered free weekly meals to those in need. Richards has since hung Christmas lights outside the store for the first time in years and installed a deer weighing station this fall in a nod to the company's hunting tradition. Nearly 75 hunters brought fresh kills, including a bear, to be weighed in the factory's parking lot.

"Johnson Woolen Mills is Vermont," Tatro said. "It's great to see somebody putting life back into it."

That feeling is shared inside the factory, where production manager Willey said she'd grown reluctant to tell people that she worked for the Woolen Mills. "I always used to be proud," she said, misty-eyed. "And now that's coming back."

Skeptics might view Richards' new project as the work of an egotistical businessman, attempting to rehab his reputation on the back of an iconic company.

Within 10 minutes of sitting down for an interview at the factory, he offered the following assessment: "I've done here what I've done everywhere else — and you don't know me, but if you knew me, even at the airport — I'm an amazing guy, and I'm very kind to people, and I really pay it forward every day."

But asked the million-dollar question — Why, really, are you doing this? — Richards described a much bigger goal. The Woolen Mills, and the dwindling number of companies like it, are the lifeblood of small towns, he said. And once they're gone, they rarely come back.

"That's why I'm pounding my head against the wall trying to figure it out," he said. "Because there has to be a way."

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About The Author

Colin Flanders

Colin Flanders

Colin Flanders is a political reporter at Seven Days, covering the Statehouse. He previously worked as a reporter at a group of Chittenden County weekly newspapers covering Essex, Milton and Colchester.

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