History, Heart and Humility

with Bob Jacquart, CEO, Stormy Kromer/Jacquart Fabric Products

Denis and Bob discuss Bob’s beginnings in the sewing business, growing a company that’s been a cornerstone of its community, and continuing the legacy of the iconic Stormy Kromer brand—all while staying humble and keeping a focus on the people you serve. Located in Ironwood, Michigan, Jacquart Fabric Products has been offering custom, commercial sewing since 1958. It’s also the parent company of Stormy Kromer, creator of the world-famous Stormy Kromer cap and outdoor gear.

7:06

Denis: Bob Jacquart, welcome to Coffee and CEOs.
Bob: Denis, it’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Denis: I’ve heard bits and pieces of your story as we’ve gotten to know each other, and it’s very interesting. Tell us a little background about your business, and we’ll just kick it off there.
Bob: Well, it’s been many years, and it’s been a lifetime of passion and love for the sewing business. My dad started sewing in the basement of my home when I was a kid. He was a 24-hour-shift fireman, so on his days off, he kind of putzed in the basement and sewed things and made things. And he tried making a business of it, and hired one employee named Evelyn, and continued being a full-time fireman for the city of Ironwood making the business work. I didn’t want anything to do with it. It wasn’t cool for a guy to sew, and it wasn’t cool to work for your dad and all that stuff.
Denis: Oh, right. Right.
Bob: Until it came that I took a timeout from college, and while I was taking that one semester off to figure out what I wanted to do, I went to work there and discovered that I was a craftsman who loved to make things out of fabric. And so that’s how my journey began.

My dad was a nice business man, but I think the skill of making things was given to me a little stronger than to my lovely, wonderful father. So I started making boat covers, and if you think about Ironwood, Michigan, there’s a great amount of boats that are harbored 40 miles south of Ironwood. I became the boat cover maker for those folks. And it was just a wonderful time for us, it was just great, I was “Bob the boat cover maker,” you know.

Denis: Yeah.
Bob: And so my skills kept being tested and tried, because somebody would go back to the office and Mr. So-and-so-businessman, I’d make his boat cover, but then he’d go back to his company in Milwaukee or Madison or Minneapolis and have a fabric problem at the business, and I would get asked to do that. They would say, “Who could make this?” And he says, “Well, there’s Bob up my cabin that made a boat cover. I wonder if he could make this.” So I started doing a small amount of production work.

In 2001, I had the wonderful opportunity to buy Stormy Kromer. The local dealer called in an order and they said, they told him they stopped making them. And he found me in a restaurant that afternoon and said, “They quit making Stormy Kromer hats. You better do something about it.” And I smiled and said, “Get me their number, I’ll buy the company.”

Denis: There you go.
Bob: And that’s kind of how it happened. It started in 1903, we bought it at 98 years old. And what I didn’t know was all the stories that had been formed outside of me. A lady that ran the 4-H program in town takes out a picture and it looks like a pet grave marker. “This is the grave marker for my husband’s hat. It’s buried on Isle Royale. Ten days after the funeral, his fishing buddies came and asked for his hat and they took it out in a ceremony and buried his hat on Isle Royale, and here’s a picture of the marker.”
Denis: Wow.
Bob: Yeah, and then Bobo Krznarich, he comes up to me and said, “1947, the world was dark and drab and nobody wore colorful clothes, and it was just a tough time. And I owned a black and a red Stormy Kromer cap. And I decided to wear the red hat to a dance. And I went to the Ironwood Memorial Building and four girls spotted me and wanted to meet the daring man with the red Stormy Kromer hat. And here’s a picture of the woman I met and married and had three children with.” And he says, “If it wasn’t for my red Stormy Kromer hat, I would not have met Zelda—” her name is Zelda.
Denis: It’s an iconic brand.
Bob: Yeah.
Denis: You started helping your dad out. You’re this self-proclaimed craftsman, never really wanted to be a businessman. You’ve evolved it to over 150 employees, two locations, you’ve got this iconic brand that you’ve got a strategic plan. How did this all evolve?
Bob: I hate to say it, but it’s going to be 48 years in September that I’ve been doing this. If you do something passionately for 48 years and still feel young and healthy and things like that, it really does kind of evolve. I’ve watched successful leaders and I’ve made it a real habit to really watch them, find the good and the bad from them and take—you know, people talk about who is your best role model … I think it’s bits and pieces of people.
Denis: I would agree with that.
Bob: I think it’s a bit of that person and a bit of this person. And it’s just the weirdest thing what’s happened to me, because I—you know, I mean Ironwood is, right now we’re, I think we’re under five thousand people. I live four hours from Green Bay, four hours from Minneapolis, five hours from Madison. You know, I don’t live close to anything. But I’ve done some amazing things, and I’ve met some amazing people. I’m surrounded by people that are much more successful than I am. I’m just—they’re everywhere. I’m in the sewing business trying to make it work, and I’ve got lots to learn, and I love that. I mean, there’s something about that, you know, “one of these days I’m going to get there,” kind of with the carrot out in front of you. It feels good. And I’m fortunate that I’m still loving it.
Denis: Well, when you can go to work for 47, 48 years and every day you’re excited to get up and go, and you’re looking about what’s next and who’s the next person I can gain something from, that says a lot about how you’ve been able to build what you’re building.
Bob: I’ve read something about great leaders and the point that most of them don’t get to is leaving a legacy in the business. Some people are proud that the business falls flat on its butt after they leave because it proves how important he was or she was, and that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
Denis: No, no.
Bob: I want those people. I care about the people that are out on the floor. In fact, yesterday, you talk about little town, we’re getting two new interviews with people that sew, and it’s a lady that’s retiring young—I guess right on time, now that I think of it—but she wants to keep working, so she’s going to come and sew for us for five or six years. You know, that’s the kind of thing that happens, and I love to be that guy. She’s so excited because she wants to make a little more money and she wants to keep busy, and the other company’s asking her to leave when she’s a certain age and she needs some place to go. And she’s heard how nice it is to work there, and she wants to be part of Stormy Kromer. So, I want to keep doing that.
Denis: Good for you.
Bob: I want my company to keep doing that.
Denis: Good for you. Thanks for coming.
Bob: Oh, you’re welcome.
Denis: That was really, really cool.

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