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Transitioning to new leadership for the family business

Features, Perspective | June 1, 2017 | By:

Photos by Scott Dickerson

Kate Mitchell transitions her diverse fabrics business on the Alaskan frontier to her children- who value a courageous past and anticipate a bright future. 

We didn’t homestead like the Kilcher family from Discovery Channel’s ‘Alaska: The Last Frontier,’ but we were here before the roads were paved,” says Kate Mitchell, founder and co-owner of NOMAR in Homer, Alaska. “This is a business we built from scratch on the new frontier, and now we’re in the fun, and sometimes challenging, process of transitioning management from me to my kids.”

Kate began her sewing career in Ketchikan, Alaska, in 1976 when her husband Ben was in the U.S. Coast Guard. When someone in Ben’s division wanted a boat top and asked Ben to take a shot at it, he said no. “My husband didn’t sew, but my mother had taught me when I was a child. We needed the money for Christmas presents, so I went to the marina to buy materials and figured out how to make a boat top,” Kate says. “The owners of the marina asked me to buy the boat top portion of their business, and before I knew it we were moving the machine and materials to the kitchen table—and that’s where the business started.”

Making it

In 1978, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the family to Homer, and Kate opened the business as Mitchell’s Marine Canvas & Upholstery. At that time, Homer’s population was less than 2,000 people and Alaska had been a state for less than 20 years. “Alaska—all eight million square miles—only had a population of 300,000,” Kate says. “Though we were not really pioneers, our reasons for making Alaska home were based on personal freedoms and great fishing more than anything else.”

With a workshop housed in a converted GMC school bus on the outskirts of town, a barrel stove for heat and one commercial sewing machine, Kate began repairing boat tops—and whatever other fabric items people brought to her. “There were less than 100 boats in the harbor and very few recreational boats; most boats were commercial fishing boats,” Kate says. “There was this homestead mentality where you make do or do without, so I sewed up a lot of really old beat-up stuff. But I kept hoping to someday make something new.”

Opportunity knocks

The first real turning point for the business came in 1983 when three things happened—a fortuitous phone call, a fishing problem that needed a solution and a trip to the lower 48.

First, a call came from the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). “By this time we had moved the business into a Quonset hut with a dirt floor. There was plywood on the portion of the floor where the sewing machine and table fit, but we still heated with a coal stove and had an outhouse out back,” Kate says. “I don’t know how the heck IFAI found me but they did, and I joined. I started getting the magazine and reading stories of how other people ran and grew their businesses. All those articles were a huge help over the years.”

The next break came when two fishermen walked into the shop and said: “We have a problem we’re hoping you can help us with.” At that time salmon fishermen used seine web to lift salmon to deliver to the processors. Unfortunately the web that came in contact with the fish badly marked them, reducing their value. “They called the marked fish ‘Number Twos,’” Kate says. “They wanted me to make a smooth-sided bag. And we were able to design a product that has become the way to transport salmon. If you deliver salmon, you deliver it in a NOMAR Brailer bag.” (NOMAR—which became the name of the company—stands for No Marka the Fish.)

Soon after, Kate attended her first IFAI Expo, where she gathered more ideas, found suppliers and met other small business manufacturers—one of whom gave her advice that she’s glad she followed. She knew meeting the orders for Brailer bags was beyond her company’s capacity at that time and she was considering subcontracting the work out. “There was this one kind soul at the show who was there in work clothes, just like me,” Kate says. “He told me: ‘Don’t sub out your work. If you want the profits, you want to be in control. You’re just going to have to set up and manufacture it yourself.’

“We were lucky enough to have a nest egg from the sale of our home in Ketchikan so we could get that first run of material and a couple of sewing machines to meet the contract,” Kate continues. “It was a slow build from there.”

Coming home

Richard and Jennifer Mitchell both grew up working in the family business, but each left Alaska after graduating from high school—Richard in 1988 and Jennifer in 1991. “The business was still so small and although they had worked side-by-side in the business, there were no jobs for them,” Kate says. “We didn’t have the money to send them to college either, so they basically got one-way tickets to ‘America.’”

Jennifer worked at different jobs during her time in the lower 48, including working at a sewing shop in Colorado, and Richard’s experience included doing interior finishings and mechanical and electrical work on boats in Bellingham, Wash. “I also worked on the green chain at sawmills—anything to stay alive,” Richard says. “You take something from every job though—how to work for people and how to work with people.”

“Working at that sew shop planted a seed for me,” Jennifer says. “I realized maybe I was interested in working in the family business after all.”

Richard eventually returned to Homer to work in the family business, working in the company’s boatyard as he had before he left. “We had a full-on marina going on in the back of the business,” Richard says. “I went back to picking up blocks, moving boats, backing trailers and winterizing boats—as
I had all of my youth.”

Two years later, Jennifer returned, sewing handles for Brailer bags. “I sewed Brailer handles until they were coming out of my ears,” she says. “I was the ‘handle girl.’”

In 1995 the boatyard was sold, and Kate and Ben purchased a building in town. The building had 10,000 square feet for production, space for a beautiful retail store and room for growth—and the transition to come from one generation to the next.

New leadership, core in place

Richard and Jennifer worked their way up from those entry-level jobs, and now Richard is in charge of design and production, and Jennifer is the office manager. The leadership transition began in 2007. “They were both in good, stable situations,” Kate says. “By that time it was clear that they were ‘in.’ So we set up a 10-year plan for the transition.”

Kate, Richard and Jennifer consulted a lawyer and drafted a plan that included gifting 10 shares of stock each to Richard and Jennifer for all their years of hard work at little pay. “From the profit they made off of that they started to buy more shares,” Kate says. “Now they each have
31 and could overrule me at any time. So
I wouldn’t have to be here much anymore, but I still have fun at it, so here I am.”

Richard and Jennifer’s plans for the company include continued slow growth and the hope that they can minimize the amount of diversity the company has needed to include, and focus more on fewer markets. “Diversity has worked for us, but it’s also been a frustration,” Richard says. “With a stronger marketing plan, an awesome crew, a fresh website and 40 years of brick-and-mortar, our core is in place. We’re just looking for the next market. Quality products made in America.”

Disaster Ready

When an oil spill occurs, there’s no time to lose in trying to contain the damage and begin cleanup. And in the resource-rich Cook Inlet region that stretches from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage, response crews not only need containment booms (temporary floating barriers) and a way to deploy them on the ready, they
also need protection for them when they’re not in use.

In 2014, Cook Inlet Spill Prevention & Response Inc. hired NOMAR to fabricate covers for its boom reels, which store, transport and deploy oil containment booms. “The reels are loaded with boom and are standing by, ready to be delivered to boats in the area in the case of an oil spill,” says NOMAR co-owner Richard Mitchell. “The covers keep the snow and sun
off the booms so they are always ready for an oil spill disaster.”

The NOMAR crew built a total of 12 covers for the project, using 18-ounce vinyl-coated nylon. Richard says the Autometrix PatternSmith software and automated table made design and cutting multiples a breeze. “Still …” he adds, “that’s a lot of material to push through the sewing machines.”

From Kate:

1. Make sure your children are committed to taking over the business.

2. Step back gradually.

3. Encourage all partners to bring questions to the table and work them out together.

From Jennifer and Richard:

4. Listen to the stories and take notes.

5. Pay attention to what worked and what didn’t work.

6. Be open to doing things a different way—but also be open to doing things the same way.

What’s changed at NOMAR since the transition of leadership began?

Kate: I’ve always done things the old-fashioned way. In the past I was the one who designed projects, sewed them, wrote the invoices, wrote the checks and then ran back to feed my kids. Now, what a nice division: Richard doing one-half the work and Jennifer doing the other. Their strengths really complement each other.

What changes do you hope to make at NOMAR?

Richard: I think we’re on the cusp of a breakthrough. Right now we make tarps and covers to the North Slope, right down to polar socks and everything in between. I think we’ll soon be able to narrow the diversity of our products. Diversity is what has been required to live here at the end
of the road, but now may be the right time to change that.

How do you stay current on new products and practices?

Jennifer: Even with the access to information online, I read the articles in the Review and Marine Fabricator magazines. They really open up the road about fabric innovation. Otherwise I would never know about some of the new fabrics coming out, or other advances. I read the magazines, get interested in some new thing and then go online to find out more about it.

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