When we were courting supporters for our “Fabric of America” tour, we had a company in mind that fit our idea of what a supporter should be. And this company is Tom Bihn. Started by a hungry and creative entrepreneur, the company had grown over the years to become a decent-sized small business with a rabid following. Everything they produce is also made in the U.S.A., which made them an even better fit for our jaunt.
So, off we went with our words and reasons why we wanted them on board for our U.S. adventure. An enthusiastic reply followed, and they were on board as our bag and luggage sponsor. Of course, it wasn’t that easy, but it felt like it was after pulling teeth with so many other companies in other sectors. (You can read about their support of our project right here.)
Our original itinerary didn’t include Seattle. Why? I don’t know. You can’t see it all, and we figured we wouldn’t make it up there. Now that Tom Bihn was on board, along with another Washington-based company, we wanted to swing through Washington and meet those who have been so kind to team up with us.
We don’t really make plans. Plans lead to headaches and time crunches and setups for disappointment. So, we went into Seattle with nothing on our plate other than visiting Tom Bihn and the slim possibly of seeing a couple friends and acquaintances who live there.
We actually had a bit of trouble getting a hold of our contact at Tom Bihn. Busy busy, rush rush, lots to do. So, called them up and told them we were popping in. Not to meet the company’s namesake or do anything special.
We merely wanted to see the place whose people were kind enough to link up with us. They also have a small factory showroom that sells to the public, so it wasn’t like we needed a meeting or anything.
Driving from our hotel, through downtown, past the massive Starbucks headquarters that keeps it real by being based in a former railroad and Sears building from 1912, under overpasses and by the port, all while dodging semi trucks along the way.
We eventually ended up at rows and rows of industrial buildings and warehouses and zigzagged our way through the subdued but multicolored boxes to land at the base of operations for Tom Bihn.
The factory showroom is tiny, but provides a space where the general public can come and get its fix of Tom Bihn gear while being able to visit the place where the magic happens.
A small, open corner allows one to see the factory floor itself, but tours and photography are forbidden due to the need for these guys to protect their processes and what they’ve worked so hard to maintain.
Chatting with the girl in the shop, we told her about our relationship with the company and that we were sad we couldn’t get in touch with our contact, if only to say hi and thanks for the support. The girl then asked if we wanted to meet Tom. What?
Apparently, the whole gang was in for the day for meetings, and she’d go get him so we could chat for a minute. As unexpected as it was, we were thrilled at this prospect. Not like giddy schoolchildren – probably – but because we had no idea we’d get to meet anybody, especially not the founder and brains behind the whole shebang.
So then, meet Tom Bihn.
As the legend goes, Tom’s parents wouldn’t give him money for outdoor equipment when he was a young lad. They told him to get a job, or learn to make it himself. So, he chose the latter. I like to think this was because Tom knew at a young age that he didn’t want any part of working for The Man. To this day, he’s always coming up with new designs, sometimes drawing and sewing spec samples in the middle of the night.
He didn’t tell us the very earliest part of his story, but it does make for a good one and sits prominently on the company’s about page.
With us, Tom’s story starts later down the line, when he owned a small outdoor-equipment shop in Santa Cruz, California. He carried other brands, but he also had a U.S. contractor make products for his own brand. He’d send them spec samples he made himself, and they’d send him perfect replicas, amazing him with the skill they had to produce his designs.
Eventually, he grew his namesake with all sorts of outdoor products, custom-made by a contractor in the U.S. At one point, a rival in the industry was flailing in quality to save a buck and sales because of it, and it looked like this company was going to crash and burn.
Tom made a deal that he’d take their entire team off the company’s hands as it sunk.
And that’s how Tom found himself with a team of sewers and a production crew that had already worked together for years, knowing the ins and outs of both the business and how they worked as a team.
Now in Seattle, Tom was proud to have kept so many people employed, and overjoyed at the prospect of working with them to continue his legacy with his own, in-house factory.
That was several years ago, and most of those people still work here. One or two have retired, and I honestly can’t remember if any of them quit. Why would they? They are all part of what amounts to a family.
This family has not only helped the company be more efficient and less volatile, but it’s helped grow the brand through the idea that they’re all an equal part of what makes Tom Bihn products so great. This is in your face on their website, where each employee has his or her own profile. Even the pets!
Everyone counts, and everyone matters just as much as the guy or girl next to, or above, or below him or her.
As a whole, I’d like to believe one of the traits that best serves Tom is his ability to listen. To have an open mind. Sure, he’s a visionary, a creative mind, a successful product designer, an entrepreneur, and an outdoorist.
He knows what he wants to do and that can be seen in his innovative product line. But, he also asks questions. And answers them thoughtfully. He’s not a bully of a CEO with an outsized ego and an unwillingness to see a person as his peer.
That’s what I see, anyway.
I see that because Tom supposedly only had a few minutes to talk. And we chatted for over an hour. About what we do, about what he and the company do, about travel, about personal preferences when it comes to shaving your head (ha!), and about old black-and-white films.
He listened to our thoughts on his products we use, what we like and don’t like, and our suggestions. (Every product can be improved upon, according to us.)
Tom then asked us to send him an email when we got around to testing something with his bags. (More on that in another post.)
Sure, there could be a hint of ‘yeah sure, yeah, yeah’ in there. Though, I just didn’t see it. He truly seemed genuinely interested in what we thought about his products, even though we’re nobody and we really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
And even though they probably field some ridiculous and some important suggestions every day from customers all over the world. And that was appreciated.
And as mentioned way up there somewhere, this is appreciated by the customers. This is why the company has a loyal following that can’t be beat by most, if not all, of Tom Bihn’s competitors.
The company urges people to share their stories, to participate in their forums, to review their products, to post pictures, and to be part of the extended family. Louis always wants to share his story, as he can’t ever keep himself from jumping into our Aeronaut bags.
This cultivation of a brand-customer relationship keeps current customers and adds new ones every day. People know they can rely on the company to take ownership of its products, with all the good and any of the bad that might come along.
It’s something that 99.9% of other brands out there in the world could learn from, and it’s something we value as brand owners ourselves, even more so after dealing with so many faceless entities while preparing for our “Fabric of America” tour.
And all of this is what makes Tom Bihn – the person and the brand – an honest to goodness part of the “Fabric of America.”
Tom Bihn is located here:
4750A Ohio Ave. South
Seattle, WA 98134
Tel: +1 (206) 652-4123
Any thoughts about Tom Bihn or anything we discussed? Have you ever been to the factory or seen the products? Do you own any Tom Bihn gear? Any other thoughts? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!