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Mission Critical

Nichole Holroyd takes a team approach at Spiritus Systems.

Features, Perspective | October 1, 2022 | By: Darcy Maulsby

Call it a business founded on frustration and driven by inspiration. Spiritus Systems, which supplies nylon tactical gear for law enforcement, military personnel and other customers, started as an idea that took root on the side of a mountain in the Hindu Kush range in Afghanistan, where reliable gear is essential to survival.

“My husband, Adam, and his friend Zane Vogel served in the U.S. Army, and both experienced equipment failure during their military service,” says Nichole Holroyd, chief operating officer and co-owner of North Carolina-based Spiritus Systems. “They saw an opportunity to make higher-quality gear.”

The young men discovered that their gear (including chest rigs and duffle bags) wasn’t always up to the rigorous standards their dangerous jobs demanded. The lifelong friends, who had met in grade school when they were growing up in South Dakota, knew they could–and would–do better.

“You can’t afford to have catastrophic equipment failure when you’re in a tough environment,” Holroyd says.

After the men were deployed in Afghanistan in 2014, they brainstormed the concept for Spiritus Systems when they returned to their “B Huts” (Barracks huts commonly seen on U.S. military installations in Afghanistan) after missions. They also scribbled ideas into notebooks illuminated by their headlamps during multiple combat deployments.

Once the men left active duty in 2016, Adam Holroyd bought a sewing machine off Craig’s List, taught himself to sew and tried making some of the budding entrepreneurs’ ideas a reality. The best friends also began looking for a place to start their new company. While they contemplated going back to South Dakota, they also evaluated a number of other states. They chose Aberdeen, N.C., due to its proximity to Fort Bragg and the state’s thriving textile industry.

Neither the Holroyds nor Vogel had any experience in the textile world. Holroyd, who grew up in Rapid City, S.D., earned her master’s degree in public health and worked in a virology lab. She was willing to combine her organizational/managerial skills and desire to help people with Vogel’s background in fabrication and her husband’s military experience. All this gave the team the skills to produce plate carriers (fabric vests) to pouches for medical supplies and more. “We build gear to carry things,” she says.

Since this gear grew out of the company founders’ military experience, it made sense for the business name to reflect this, she adds.

“Spiritus is Latin for ‘ghost,’ and Adam was a sniper in the Army with the Ghost 3 team. Spiritus Systems’ design philosophy draws on Adam’s and Zane’s military service, as well as feedback from our customers. We’re proud to use advanced manufacturing techniques here in America to supply high-quality gear.”

American designed, made and assembled

Spiritus Systems is much more than a name; it’s a system based on modularity. A famous example of modularity is LEGO toys, which can easily be assembled and reused to create customized products. The same is true of Spiritus Systems’ products. “Our modular systems mean one thing can do lots of things,” Holroyd says.

Consider the company’s plate carriers, which can hold body armor. The components of these fabric vests are fully interchangeable, as are the company’s variety of cummerbunds, side straps and accessories. This ability to mix and match is a huge plus for users who need unique solutions for their specific needs. The adaptability of each component also allows for a great degree of versatility if the mission changes.

While Spiritus Systems’ products are known for being lightweight, don’t be fooled. The company invests in high-quality materials that are strong, comfortable, easy to clean and odor resistant. The company sources all its fabric domestically from various vendors. Each item the company produces is American designed, made and assembled. 

“The thread, fabric and nearly everything we use are produced in the U.S., and we source from the highest quality mills,” Holroyd says. “We try to bring everything in-house, including design, cutting, sewing, assembly, marketing, fulfillment and distribution.”

Exceptional craftsmanship defines Spiritus Systems’ products, which include useful enhancements and hidden features, from loops to extra pockets. Its products are also designed for durability, comfort and a sturdy, non-shifting fit. The plate carriers’ inner mesh keeps users cool, for example, while the outer fabric sheds moisture and adds another layer of comfort. “Every detail of our products is thought through carefully,” Holroyd says.

Spiritus Systems invests heavily in online marketing, including YouTube videos and Instagram updates, to connect with customers and prospects. Customers frequently praise the company’s products online, saying they can’t find a better combination of quality, modularity, innovative features and reasonable prices anywhere. “Our customers aren’t just customers; they’re fans,” says Holroyd, who adds that the company offers T-shirts, sweatshirts and other Spiritus Systems-branded merchandise.

Keep an open mind and keep learning

Modern machines and new technologies help Spiritus Systems’ team produce high-quality items. The company has played a key role in developing some of these technologies. When Vogel thought he had a better idea for a system to install zippers on the gear they produced, he reached out to various companies, including YKK, which manufactures zippers and machines to install zippers.

“Zane had adapted a machine so the time needed to sew zippers dropped from 40 hours a week to eight hours a week,” Holroyd says. “While YKK thought the idea was crazy at first, Zane doesn’t take no for an answer. Now YKK builds that machine.”

Keeping an open mind and being willing to learn are the keys to capitalizing on new opportunities in this business, notes Holroyd, who is excited about the future of Spiritus Systems. “‘Advance freedom’ is our mission statement. There’s nothing better than getting a note from a customer that our equipment was there for them and performed well when they needed it.” 

Darcy Maulsby is a freelance writer and a fifth-generation farmer based in Iowa.

SIDEBAR: The Micro Fight Chest Rig

While Spiritus Systems has become known for high-quality, nylon tactical gear of all kinds, one of its best sellers is the Micro Fight Chest Rig. This completely modular system can be adjusted for right or left-hand users, with or without body armor underneath. “We’re on our fifth generation of this best-selling product,” Holroyd says.

Traditionally, chest rigs are sewn so each pouch only holds one piece of equipment, plus the rigs are large. Spiritus Systems went the other way. “People like our rigs, because they offer better fit and flexibility,” she says. “We’re known for having the most user-configurable modular system on the market.”

The Micro Fight Chest Rig is designed to be extremely efficient and lightweight. “The Micro Fight features soft-loop Velcro in both pockets, for example, so you can put mission-essential items where you want them,” Holroyd says.

The rig also works seamlessly with the company’s accessories suite, which offers nearly endless configurations.

Military and law enforcement personnel aren’t the only ones who use Spiritus Systems’ versatile, customizable gear. “Civilians also use our products for personal protection and for outdoor activities like hunting and fishing,” she says.

SIDEBAR: How do you attract and retain talent?

When Spiritus Systems started in 2016, the company consisted of Adam and Nichole Holroyd and their friend Zane Vogel. By 2017, they hired their first employee. Today, the company has 70 employees and is poised for expansion.

“We’re growing fast,” says Nichole Holroyd, who notes that the company doubled the size of its Aberdeen facility in 2018. “We plan to have 120 to 150 employees in the next couple years.”

Spiritus Systems’ team members come from diverse backgrounds, from chemical engineers to fashion designers. How does the company find and retain skilled employees? In some cases, ATA connections have been the key.

When Holroyd attended an ATA Women in Textiles Summit, she visited with one of the speakers, who was an instructor at North Carolina State University. “She said she had a student who might be interested in working for our company,” Holroyd says. “Now that former student is one of our lead designers.”

The company also works hard to empower their managers and other team members, adds Holroyd, who notes that a number of Spiritus Systems’ first employees still work for the company. “We’re grateful for our employees and want to help them use their talents.”

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