Hand Built with Love for Father’s Day

My first job as a teenager was at a dress manufacturing company in a fabric mill in Lowell, Massachusetts. At the urging of my father, I worked in this factory all summer performing tasks like sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and bagging dresses for delivery. I owe my father for encouraging me to take that summer job. It left me with a deep respect for American craftsmanship after witnessing the skills and talents of the people working in this mill.

I marveled at the skills and talents of the people working in this mill and it left me with a deep respect for American craftsmanship and an even deeper understanding of the power of the local worker to create high-quality luxury goods in the United States.

Most people forget or don’t even realize that mills and manufacturing jobs were once the most compelling reason that immigrants came to America, and many specifically trekked to Lowell, MA, and the surrounding areas. It was one version of the American dream, and I got to witness it firsthand.

The mills started at the south end of Massachusetts, in New Bedford, where there were close to 40 different manufacturing mills built between 1890 and 1910, many of which employed Greek-American immigrants. And at the northern end of the state, where my family lived, there were even more mills and factories built along the Merrimack River that employed the majority of our community. Even today, despite the disappearance of the manufacturing industry from the region, there are still approximately 100,000 Greek-Americans that live in the Boston-Worchester-Manchester area, which shows the profound impact mills and manufacturing had on the region even over 100 years later.

Sadly as we know, most of these manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas beginning in the early 1980s as the global economy became more competitive. This state of affairs was not only felt in mill towns, but across the country in cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit where manufacturing business once dominated. When these jobs were outsourced overseas it resulted in layoffs and cutbacks and ultimately a sharp decline in American manufacturing.

Fast-forward to 40 years later when I read an ad for a new American manufacturing company and a brand called Shinola. The ad spoke deeply and directly to me. I was fascinated with the company and its mission – to create a profitable business of meaningful size that is predicated on creating world-class manufacturing jobs – in America and specifically in Detroit.

About a year later I went out and bought a Shinola watch. When I bought it, I was surprised to engage in a sincere and authentic discussion with the sales associate about Shinola’s mission and its people. We discussed how the company was training and employing Detroit-area workers and encouraging them to be a next generation craftsmen. It was evident that the sales associate was truly in love with the company, its quality manufacturing, and the creation of good-paying and high-quality jobs in Detroit. I then noticed the packaging of the watches was deeply personal too and celebrated the individuals who had worked in the factory and made each watch.

I sent the ad and packaging around to my partners at Revolution Growth, Steve Case and Donn Davis. I noted that I thought this company had a unique mission and an authentic brand. It was producing products that could be considered a gateway to luxury for the new generation that cares so deeply about the source of their goods and food. They want to have an honest connection to the things they wear and eat. A sense of place – especially here in America – is of more significance to young people, and I also believed this could be a great growth company and a very successful business.

I noted that the watch was effortlessly cool, of high-quality, and had a great value compared to similar products on the market, but that didn’t tell the same story. It hadn’t taken long; I had fallen in love with Shinola and started to follow it on its journey.

In May of 2014, Steve Case was in Detroit kicking off his first Rise of the Rest Road Trip when I asked him to meet with the people from Shinola while in town, and they graciously agreed. Following the meeting, Steve introduced me and Donn Davis to its founder, Tom Kartsotis, and leaders, which launched us into a new relationship between us and the company and its people.

A little later, we also visited Filson, another American company also owned by Bedrock Manufacturing with similar ideals to Shinola. Filson was founded in 1897 and is headquartered in Seattle. I have long been a fan of Filson bags as well as its wax leather coats and Filson bags, which I use as my laptop and iPad bag and carryon luggage.

During our learning and discovery process Steve, Donn, and I spent a full day in Detroit. We toured the factory and met the craftsmen who hand make the products, a workforce that is now over 400 people strong. The company’s motto, “Where American is Made” can be felt and seen everywhere within the Shinola factory. We’ve also been visiting many of the retail outlets, a few of which are located in classic cities including Detroit and Minneapolis. There are also locations in the Tribeca neighborhood in New York City, London, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Each store has a unique personality that is intended to connect personally to the history of the city, its current pulse, and its residents.

During this time, Tom and I became friends. It started by each of us sending references to things we thought the other would be interested in. The daily conversation evolved into a full-scale dialogue about business ideas surrounding the strategy of creating American manufacturing jobs across multiple product categories while making incredible stuff with fun and humor.

Shinola was in a place where the brand had quickly captured the attention of many segments of society. Their watch and leather businesses were quickly gaining scale and were on their way to profitability. Tom was telling me about ways that his team had imagined expanding the brand, and we bonded over one particular initiative that we believe will be exciting (more to come!).

In the process, we figured out that we have several mutual friends and business acquaintances and the common thread is that none of us are what I would call, “traditional.” Over time we learned that we each share a respect for many of the same things and this led to me, Steve, Donn, and Tom rounding up a group of ‘family and friends’ financing, which will enable Bedrock Manufacturing to aggressively expand initiatives into multiple new product categories.

I am proud to say that we are now officially involved with Bedrock, Shinola, Filson, Tom, and its mission. In May, Revolution Growth made its largest investment to date in Bedrock Manufacturing, and Donn Davis and I will join the company’s board, as invited by Tom. The company embodies our belief that investing in people and ideas that can change the world.

In honor of this Father’s Day, on a day when we can celebrate family, I encourage you to think about how your family started in America. My family is proud to support not only a brand we love, but a brand that supports American manufacturing and reminds me of a piece of my history from that summer I spent in a clothing mill in Lowell, MA.

And as the website denotes, “Hand-Built and Delivered with Love for Father’s Day.” Explore more about Shinola and Filson.


Ted Leonsis

Ted Leonsis is a nationally renowned entrepreneur, investor, and business-builder. He sits on the board of directors of several leading companies ranging from American Express to Groupon.

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