Editor's note: "Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations" is the classic curse of an entrepreneurial family, meaning that wealth rarely survives much past the founding generation. These families plan on defying the odds.
Since 1996, an office had sat vacant in Terry and Regina Locklear's sock mill in Fort Payne, Alabama. The couple were hoping that someday one of their daughters, Gina or Emily, would occupy the room they'd built for the second-generation leader of Emi-G Knitting, which was named for the two.
Emi-G made sports socks. Color: white. Styles: crew and athletic. "Knit them, put a toe in them, and out the door in 300-pound cases," says Terry. For 12 years, Russell Athletic was the company's only customer.
But by the mid-2000s, Fort Payne's hosiery industry--once booming, according to Gina, with more than 120 mills employing roughly half the area's population--had been decimated by a mass exodus to Central America. More than 100 mills had closed, and in 2007, Russell decided to terminate its business with Emi-G. Over the next seven months, the Locklears let go of their entire staff, except for their longtime plant manager, Vance Veal, who kept the machines running while they scrounged for work. "They were afraid that if they closed even one day, they would never open back up," says Gina.
In 2008, Gina, then 28, was living in Birmingham, working as a real estate agent. Years before, when she was employed at a ski shop, she had observed that specialty ski socks sold for $20 a pair. She'd also recently begun to buy organic--food, cleaning products, personal care--but had trouble finding apparel made from organic cotton.
Gina pitched her parents what to them seemed like a radical idea: an organic cotton sock brand for the eco-chic set. "I didn't understand about organic anything, let alone socks," says Terry. "And I knew it would be very expensive to start a brand." Terry's main sticking point was that organic cotton costs several times as much as standard cotton. Gina spent a year making the business case, pointing to the higher price tag and margin on a premium fashion product. She finally persuaded her parents--who were also out of options--to fund the venture with $100,000 from Emi-G's coffers.
Gina hatched what would become two new brands, Zkano and--later--Little River Sock Mill, by combining her sensibility with Emi-G's established relationships and machinery. To find organic cotton--which was typically sold only in large quantities--she contacted one of Emi-G's longtime yarn vendors, which sourced it from Turkey. She found a maker of heavy-metal-free dyes in North Carolina, and worked with her parents' plant manager to reconfigure Emi-G's machines to produce small batches of patterned, multicolored socks.
A local marketing firm was so moved by Gina's made-in-Alabama mission that it gave her a discounted rate. She sent samples to bloggers, who helped direct traffic to Zkano's
e-commerce site, built by a relative. Trade shows were prohibitively expensive, so Gina built buzz at farmers' markets and local events for the socks, which cost as much as $30 a pair.
In 2010, Whole Foods picked up Zkano; then, five years later, Martha Stewart selected Little River Sock Mill--Gina's second line, specifically for specialty boutiques--for an American Made award. Today, Zkano sells primarily online, while Little River has accounts with some 200 retailers.
With new revenue coming in, Gina's parents were able to slowly rebuild Emi-G by doing smaller, limited runs for clients such as a medical company that sells socks to hospitals. Zkano and Little River now account for roughly half of Emi-G's revenue, which is approaching $3 million.
Gina still lives, with her husband, in Birmingham, about 100 miles from Fort Payne. She commutes three days a week, working the rest of the time remotely. And she now has a permanent home base at the mill--that spare office, which for years was used as a storeroom. "I'm in it," says Gina.