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How Ric Cabot breathed new life into his failing company

Ric Cabot at his company’s factory in Northfield.

STORY : robert kiener P H O T O G R A P H S : gordon miller

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Marc Cabot, Cabot Hosiery Mills founder, and Ric Cabot, Darn Tough
Vermont president, CEO, and founder. Socks, socks, and more socks
make up the Darn Tough brand.

s Cabot talks, it’s clear he is deeply passionate about

A everything that goes into the making of what he, and

many others, call the best performance outdoor sock
in the world. There’s the high stitch count that’s used
in every Darn Tough sock—approximately 1,441
stitches per square inch. “That helps the sock form to
the foot,” he explains. “It also gives us density without bulk.”
And there’s the mill’s seamless technology, thanks to its 236 high-
tech, computer controlled, Italian-made 168-needle knitting
machines, which does away with that uncomfortable ridge at the toe
of the sock. Every one to five minutes, depending on size and com-
plexity, a machine spits out a finished sock. And the high-quality
Merino wool makes for a super soft, durable, and long-lasting sock.
How long-lasting? Cabot tosses me a package of Darn Tough socks
and points to the guarantee on the label. “We guarantee every pair of
Darn Tough socks for life,” he explains. “No strings. No conditions. If
our socks are not the most comfortable, durable, and best-fitting socks
you have ever owned, return them for another pair.”
There’s a reason other sock makers are reluctant to offer this
kind of unconditional guarantee, says Cabot. “It’s because while
they may claim their socks are designed in the USA, they are out-
sourced and made abroad, often in China or Vietnam. The quality
just isn’t there and they can’t afford to guarantee them. Ours are
made right here, in the U.S.A.”
Returns are minimal. According to Cabot only 0.03 percent of
the mills’ socks are sent back. “And we inspect every sock that we
get back to see if we can learn anything that will improve it,” he
says. Holes are rare. Recently a user sent the firm a note explaining
that his dog had eaten one of his Darn Tough socks and included a
picture to prove it. The picture was of a half-digested Darn Tough
sock in the Golden Retriever’s poop.
Cabot laughed. “We sent him a new pair.”
Other users write in simply to praise the socks, which over
time have achieved something like cult status among sockaholics.
One fan wrote, “I used to think the best thing about Vermont was
Bernie Sanders. But now I have your John Henry Boot socks. …

rom the moment you walk into the Northfield, Vt., headquarters of Darn Bernie is a national treasure, but he never made my feet feel
Tough socks, the company whose riches-to-rags-to-riches business saga has like this.”
been covered by everyone from the Wall Street Journal to Inc. Magazine to From another: “These socks (if socks can be called blissful) are
The New York Times, the secrets of its success are in plain view. Literally. freakin’ blissful.” Another claimed, “Last weekend, I fell through
A sign in the reception area entitled “Our Values” reads: “We are direct, the ice on the shoreline of Lake Michigan …The skin on my legs
straightforward and truthful. We value honesty and a hard day’s work ... We are was numb and red but my feet were perfectly fine. Darn Tough
authentic.” It ends with, “We have yet to produce our best sock.” On another socks had insulated them so well …Without your socks, I might
wall is the slogan, coined by the firm’s third generation sock maker and present- have fewer toes.”
day president and CEO of Cabot Hosiery Mills Ric Cabot, “Nobody ever out- Cabot smiles as he explains how often Darn Tough sock lovers
sourced anything for quality.” have written him, praising his product and thanking him. “We are
And, best of all, there’s Ric Cabot himself, the energetic—he’s been dubbed very lucky to have such faithful, enthusiastic customers.”
“evangelist-in-chief”—54-year-old mastermind behind what the Boston Globe Letters are nice but it’s the company’s skyrocketing sales figures
has called “one of U.S. manufacturing’s rare success stories.” that really tell the Darn Tough story. Ever since the brand was
“Hey,” says the five-foot-ten Cabot as he shakes my hand, “Welcome to launched in 2004, annual sales have grown steadily. By 2010 the
Northfield, the sock capital of the world!” company was selling more than four million pairs of socks annual-
“The world?” ly. Cabot expects to sell more than six million pairs of socks this
“Well,” he answers with a broad smile as he leads us into the conference room, “We’re the ‘self- year. “Over the last five years sales have grown 20 to 25 percent
proclaimed’ sock capital of the world.” He pauses. “For us it’s not about size, it’s about quality.” annually,” he says.
With that, Cabot is on a roll and begins giving me a crash course in his favorite topic: socks, socks, The company’s sales figures are impressive, but, as Ric Cabot is
and more socks. quick to point out, “This wasn’t always the case. Far from it.”

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t was 1989, just two years after he graduated from the University of Colorado with a jour- think we made our first display racks out of tree

I nalism degree that Ric Cabot moved with his wife Alison to Stowe and joined his father
Marc’s hosiery mill in Northfield. For just over a decade Cabot Hosiery had been a suc-
cessful company, producing private label socks for retail companies such as Banana
Republic, Gap, Eddie Bauer, Brooks Brothers, and others. Ric pitched in with sales and
learned the sock business from the factory floor up. Times were good.
But during the late 1990s and early 2000s the business changed. One after another Cabot’s cus-
twigs. Then someone walked in the sport shop’s
front door and asked if we needed a sales rep
for our new socks. I hired him on the spot.”
Cabot also donated 3,500 pairs of Darn
Tough 1488s to runners taking part in the 2004
Vermont City Marathon in Burlington.
tomers came to Marc and Ric with a warning: Lower your prices or we’ll have to take our business “Runners loved the socks and they flooded our
to China. “It was the start of that giant sucking sound you hear about all the time today; losing jobs new website with great reviews. People went
to China and elsewhere, jobs going overshore,” says Cabot. “There was no way we could compete crazy for the socks,” he remembers. “That’s
with companies in Asia that were paying their workers $15—or less—a month.” how all of this started.”
The Cabots lost customer after customer, which forced layoffs. Both took massive pay cuts and Cabot was almost evangelical about telling
trimmed production from five days a week to three. They dropped their health insurance and said the Darn Tough story. He “pulled the curtain
goodbye to their 401k plans. Both took out second mortgages on their homes to keep the banks, who back” and invited retailers and wholesalers into
were worried about millions of dollars in loans, at bay. the mill, to see first hand what went into the
But sales kept freefalling. Cabot Hosiery was forced to default on its loans and sank deeper into making of his new socks. “No one was talking
debt. Ric and Alison had a baby, their first, on the way. “Those were,” says Cabot without a hint of a then about stitching, needles, microns, and
smile, “darn tough times.” machinery. But I did. I also wanted them to
experience Vermont and see where we devel-
oped and tested our new socks and why we
called them darn tough,” he says.
Sales grew as the socks caught on and word
spread. Darn Tough’s unconditional guarantee,
plus its Vermont-based narrative (akin to Ben
& Jerry’s) helped it gain attention. Even bet-
ter, the U.S military eventually placed several
huge orders and Cabot Hosiery was able to
pay off its debts. Distribution deals with retail
giants such as REI and L.L. Bean followed.
“We were off and running,” says Cabot.
Today the once nearly-bankrupt Cabot
Hosiery Mills is a $60 million business. More
than 2,000 retail outlets now carry Darn Tough
socks and demand shows no sign of slowing
down. Cabot Hosiery Mills employs close to
300 people (compared to 35 in 2004) and runs
around the clock, 24 hours a day, five days a
week with three shifts. Each day the mill pro-
duces some 27,000 pairs of Darn Tough socks.
No wonder Vermont’s Times-Argus newspaper
headlined a story about Cabot’s company,
“Darn Tough is getting darn big.”

oday, as he relaxes on his couch in

his comfortable Stowe home on a

Then, as if this were a Hollywood movie script, Ric Cabot had his “Aha!” moment. “One day it
T blustery Saturday afternoon in late
April, Cabot seems far removed
from the stressful days that were
filled with cancelled orders, mas-
sive debts, and layoffs. While he is proud of
just dawned on me. My grandfather, my father, and I have made great socks for three generations. the work that his father, employees, and he
We have the know-how; socks are in our blood. We have great employees, some of the world’s have done to turn around a company in an
best sockmakers, working for us here in Northfield. If we cannot make the world’s best sock, industry that’s been so battered and beaten, he
nobody can.” looks back on those “lean, old times” as both
Emboldened, and perhaps a bit scared by the prospect of having to declare Chapter 11, Cabot “scary and challenging.”
designed a sock that would appeal to outdoor enthusiasts. He recognized that there was a need for a However, as Cabot often tells people who
durable, comfortable, well-fitting outdoor sock. He christened his new brand, the firm’s first, “Darn have asked him what he’s learned by going
Tough.” Explains Cabot, “The brand name worked on many levels. It described the times we were through such a baptism of fire, there’s a plus
facing, the durability of the sock itself, and its Vermont heritage.” side. “I often say everybody should almost go
The Cabots begged for another loan from their long-suffering bankers, added a third mortgage to out of business,” he says. “Nothing concen-
both their homes and got to work. The Darn Tough 1488 running sock was born. Ric Cabot began trates the mind, makes you focus on what’s
filling his car trunk with the new socks and schlepping them to retailers, trying to convince them to possible, teaches you how to survive, like
take on the comparatively high-priced ($20) socks. He remembers visiting his first potential cus- that does. It reminds me of the old saying:
tomer, Onion River Sports in Montpelier, with an armful of socks. “They had so little room for them ‘From the hottest of fires comes the strongest
that I laid them out on the floor and gave my sales pitch. They took them. We were so broke that I of steels’.” n
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