April 11, 2019

Jim Vinoski

Tom Sega is a longtime salesman and big believer in American manufacturing. He’s put his money where his mouth is not just once, but twice, in bringing struggling U.S. manufacturers back from the brink. This is the first of those stories. You can see the second one here.

In late 1882, a French-Canadian immigrant named Camille Poirier designed and patented a customized backpack for the trappers, traders and loggers who frequented his little shoe store in Duluth, Minnesota. The “C. Poirier Pack Sack” marked the beginning of Duluth Pack, and both the pack – now known as the #2 Original Pack – and the company are still around.

Duluth Pack occupies the same building it’s been in for over a century there in Duluth, on the shores of Lake Superior. It’s a thriving business with its head office, factory, warehouse and retail store all in the same town. “We’re the oldest canvas and leather pack maker in the U.S.,” said Andrea Johnson, the company’s marketing manager. They’ve grown from 21 employees a dozen years ago to over 100 today. They handcraft 350 styles of packs in 16 different canvas colors. They’ve achieved some remarkable successes recently, including having their products featured in the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie and on this morning’s edition of “The Today Show.”

But it wasn’t always that successful. The business grew through the 20th century, particularly with the post-WWII boom in flights around the world, which the company took advantage of in launching duffels and a backpack. But things began to slow down as competition increased. The company was struggling after a century in business early in the new century.

That’s when Tom Sega, a “road warrior” who’d had a 22 year career in engineering and sales in pulp and paper manufacturing, had his briefcase fall to pieces while he was running through the Detroit airport. A friend urged him to buy a Duluth Pack replacement, which he did (he bought their Builder’s Briefcase, and still brings it to work with him every day). Its quality convinced him he had to buy the company. He and his partner, Mark Oestreich, took over in 2007, right as the economy tanked and the business got even more difficult.

People urged Sega to outsource production to China, which he “thought about for about three seconds.” He was convinced he could use his business experience to turn things around and keep production right there in Duluth. “We put good business practices, processes, and protocols in place,” he said. The rest is history.

The company represents manufacturing as it originally began: mass production of handcrafted products. “Duluth Pack does not do line work,” said Johnson. The cutting of canvas and leather is all done by hand. The most automated pieces of equipment on the manufacturing floor are sewing machines and a foot-pedal riveter. “We may not be the fastest, but we aim to be the best,” Johnson added.

She gave one of her favorite examples of the quality their handcrafting produces. “A gentleman came in with a fourth generation Canoe Pack,” she explained. “He said it had been around the world, and we could tell from its style it was over 100 years old. It just needed one rivet fixed!”

That quality comes with a high price point. “We don’t apologize for our price,” said Johnson. “All our items are made in the U.S.A. and have a lifetime guarantee. When people compare us to imports, we have to do the job of educating them on made-in-America quality, fair pay, and our excellent employee treatment.”

It seems to be working. Duluth Pack has an 18 to 24 month rolling new product launch plan. Last month they introduced two new canvas colors. They also had a recent Sunbrella fabric launch with new colors and prints. This fall they’re partnering with a well-known brand on footwear, and they also have a new duffle and some travel accessories in the works.

Johnson believes the handmade cachet will continue to be a selling point. “Every bag we make has a tag inside with the handcrafter’s name. Customers can come and take our free factory tour and actually get to know the person who made their bag. Or they can go on our website and ‘meet’ them there.”

Sega agrees, and sees U.S. manufacturing as an additional strength. “Made in America is a real passion of mine, and so is the quality of the product,” he said. “If you have that, you can fix the business and go out and sell.”

Finally, they see their location up north as another piece of their brand authenticity. “We’re known as the original Boundary Waters Canoe Area canoe pack,” Johnson pointed out, referring to a popular Minnesota wilderness area. “We’re the oldest – we’re the original.”