When Baker bought into Icebox Knitting Mill a decade ago, the company was a one-pony show.
It had a good footprint, "but," says Baker, "one big national company we worked with comprised about 55 percent of our business, and that troubled me."
Diversifying into mom-and-pop outdoor shops alleviated those initial fears. The company has since grown to encompass two house brands, DOHM Headwear and XOB Upcycled, and works with a number of companies through its contract arm, Icebox Manufacturing.
DOHM's trademark offering is a fleece-lined wool beanie. "We were all snowboarders back in the day, and we wanted a high-quality wool hat that covered our ears and necks," says Baker. The brand has since grown to include neckwarmers and glomitts.
The products are made from Merino wool yarn imported from a century-old company in Italy, but that's only the beginning of the story. "What makes DOHM unique," Baker says, "is that we're using antique knitting machines that enhance the wool." The company owns five machines made circa 1950; it takes about three minutes to turn a cone of yarn into a hat.
The anachronism is enchanting, but Baker says, "We're looking at putting in automated machines to drive down the price and accommodate bigger orders."
By 2010, Baker had quadrupled the size of his company, adding a dozen full-time employees plus a few part-time workers, and expanding beyond outdoor specialty markets into lifestyle stores. "Helmets were coming to the scene around that time," Baker recalls. "Lifestyle and ready-wear became our focus, and we grew in those markets and the boutique market -- even arts and crafts," Baker explains.
"And then of course the impact from the recession hit us," he continues. Icebox Knitting has been "up and down for the past six years," as Baker puts it.
Baker responded by targeting international retailers and launching the Icebox Manufacturing private-label service in 2012. "If we can cut and sew it, we'll do it," Baker says, citing a list of products he'll make: backpacks, chalk bags for a Boulder-based company, Pilates straps, even dog accessories, including a snowsuit for a labradoodle.
"We've worked with companies that have complete prototypes and drawings, and others that have great ideas but no samples," Baker says, adding, "Some companies are established, others are still in the Kickstarter phase." Icebox Manufacturing also makes a private-label version of its beanies for clients.
The company has made hats for Orvis, for example, as the scheme proved profitable. At first private-label business accounted for 5 percent of Icebox Knitting's sales. "Last year," Baker says, "it made up about 20 percent of our company."
Baker's pet project has been Icebox Knitting's second imprint, XOB -- that's box spelled backwards -- Upcycled. He launched the line during his first year with the company while relocating his mill. "I happened to be in the loft at the new factory, and there were all of these swatches with retro colors," Baker says. He and his former partner began tossing around ideas for how to use the overabundance of four-by-six-inch samples. "We decided to turn them into headbands," says Baker. He took a few hundred to a trade show in Denver, and buyers from Arapahoe Basin and Loveland snagged them.
"We went back and made $7,000 worth of headbands," Baker says. From there, he started turning bigger swatches into scarves and hats, which also sold like hotcakes. "I took off to the thrift shop, and started buying every wool sweater I could find," continues Baker. "The colors were all over the place," he says.
After REI picked up DOHM Headwear, Baker approached its buyers with XOB, but the erratic colors were problematic until he began sorting them into color families, and selling headbands in three-packs. "That helped us pioneer how we'd market to other companies and online," says Baker.
Challenges: Marketing is an ongoing challenge. "We're kind of a no-name brand, and these other companies that are building offshore get product at a good price and have more dollars per unit to use for marketing," explains Baker. "We're paying higher wages, and more for raw materials, rent and taxes," he adds, leading the company to miss out on some marketing opportunities.
Opportunities: "Proving that what we're doing is worth doing," says Baker. He's looking for the right strategic partners to help with marketing, organizational efforts, and outreach to build higher-level relationships with buyers.
Needs: Icebox Knitting's busy summer production season is approaching, and the company needs skilled people to tackle seasonal spikes. "Last year between June and October 1, we had 17 employees working 100-plus hours every two weeks. We were even hiring out home sewers," Baker says.