Duluth Pack Is Bursting At The Seams

125-year-old company’s traditional manufacturing techniques critical to maintaining its quality and reputation amid expansion.

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) - You might suppose that a 125-year-old company already would have seen its brightest days. But Tom Sega, Duluth Pack's new president, begs to differ.
Duluth Pack rang up almost $5 million in sales last year, but Sega said he believes Duluth Pack has just begun to scratch the surface of the national market for its products. He foresees growing the company's revenues by about 20 percent during Duluth Pack's 125 year of business.
Sega joined Duluth Pack in April with plans to not only lead the company but to take an ownership stake in the business. He joins a couple of silent partners from Fargo, N.D., who acquired the company in 2001, in the name of BKR Investments. At the time, Duluth Pack had slightly more than $1 million in annual sales.
Duluth Pack has had to expand its reach to boost sales. The company continues to operate a conventional bricks-and-mortar store in Duluth's Canal Park neighborhood, but that accounts for 30 percent of sales.
Most of Duluth Pack's orders come from people who never set foot in Duluth. Sega estimates catalog sales generate about 45 percent of Duluth Pack's business, and another 15 percent comes from the company Web site. The remaining 10 percent of Duluth Pack's business is derived from sales of items it produces under contract for private label customers.
Sega sees catalog and online sales playing an increasingly large role in the future growth of the company. This year, Duluth Pack will distribute 1.75 million catalogs—the most it ever has.
He also foresees additional stores potentially opening in other parts of the nation, such as the Twin Cities, Chicago, Seattle and Denver.
Sega said Duluth Pack's operations will remain planted firmly in the town for which it was named.
Duluth Pack, aka Duluth Tent & Awning, traces its history back to Camille Poirier, a French-Canadian who arrived in Duluth in 1870 carrying with him an assortment of tools and a small provision of leather. Poirier opened a cobbler shop but soon branched out beyond footwear.
In 1882, Poirier filed for a patent on a canvas bag he had designed, featuring a buckled flap, shoulder straps, a tumpline, a sternum strap and even an umbrella holder. He called his creation the Poirier Pack, but it came to be commonly known as the Duluth Pack.
In 1911, Poirier sold the business including the rights to his pack to Duluth Tent & Awning. It was the beginning of an association that continues to this day.
The Duluth Pack quickly became the bag of choice for canoe travel, and its popularity has not waned with time.
''The design has had such staying power because it works,'' said Michael Furtman, a veteran canoe tripper, outdoor author and photographer from Duluth.
''The traditional Duluth Pack is designed to ride low in the canoe and low on your shoulders, so you can still portage a canoe while wearing it,'' he explained.
Furtman said the canvas packs hold up well to heavy use, as well. Furtman has reviewed a host of other manufacturers' canoe packs, including several made from newer high-tech materials, such as high-test nylon. While he gave high marks to some of these bags, he concluded they had nothing on the Duluth Packs he grew up using.
''I've never found anything to wear any better,'' he said.
Duluth Pack guarantees all its packs for life.
Duluth Pack still sews all its bags in Duluth, where it employs 50 people.
Workers hand-cut and stitch every piece of canvas and leather that goes into its products. Even riveting operations aren't mechanized, with the company opting instead for experienced craftsmen wielding ball-peen hammers. All this work takes place inside the original storefront Duluth Tent & Awning first occupied at 1610 W. Superior St. in 1911.
Sega said that maintaining Duluth Pack's traditional manufacturing techniques in Duluth is critical to maintaining the quality and reputation of the company's products, even in an age when most needlework has been exported to lower-cost labor markets, often in Asia.
''We can't afford to compromise our quality, our name or our history,'' he said, adding, ''Maybe I've only been here three months, but I'm very protective of that.''
Still, Sega recognizes some imminent changes will be necessary to accommodate growing demand for products.
''We're bursting at the seams,'' he said. ''We'll try to make it through the rest of the year in this building, but we've outgrown it, and we will need a new facility.''
In addition to dealing with increased volume, Duluth Pack has been diversifying its product line, thereby complicating operations. The company now makes more than 100 different items, including book bags, luggage, gun cases and purses.
Sega aims to make Duluth Pack's catalog even fatter in years to come.
Sega said the company is focusing much of its energy on research and development.
''Our goal each quarter will be to have two to three new products or new modifications to introduce that make our existing products even better,'' Sega said.
Patti Kedrowski, a Duluth Pack seamstress for the past six years, is in the process of helping to develop a piece of rolling luggage for the company and said she enjoys the variety of her work.
''It keeps your mind active, working on so many different aspects of the job,'' Kedrowski said.
Renee Bergren, a 10-year employee of the company, said she still looks forward to going to work each day behind her sewing machine, which she has affectionately named Gus.
''These folks are like family to me, and I love what I do,'' she said.
Bergren said workers at Duluth Pack are encouraged to take pride in their work, and each item leaves the plant signed and dated by the person who made it.
Sue Oja, who has worked 16 years at Duluth Pack, never forgets that she's making items that will serve people for a lifetime, sometimes longer.
''It's pretty neat when someone comes in here with a pack their grandpa owned,'' she said. ''Some of these items become like family heirlooms or almost a member of the family. People just won't part with them.''
Sega considers the company's staff perhaps its greatest asset.
''These people are all artists,'' he said, observing, ''One of our most difficult tasks going forward, as we grow, will be to hire industrial sewers of the same caliber.''