By Colby Wegter
When sitting down to write a story you often think, “How does it start?” It’s a pretty simple question. History would say start at the beginning. When talking about Duluth Pack, one of the brands that us Minnesotans may argue is as valuable to the North as Starbucks is to Seattle or Guinness is to Ireland, it would start in 1882, when the first official Duluth Pack was created (it was called the Poirier Pack back then).
Some stories start with the present and if that’s the case, we’d be talking about how Duluth Pack ships to all seven continents—yes even Antarctica—and how it’s still all sourced in the USA, handcrafted in the USA and shipped right from Duluth.
Some stories don’t even start with a moment in time, but feed off a feeling. An inspiration. Something that causes people to find out more, to take photos, to sit down and write about it and to tell others about it.
What’s clear when you walk into the Duluth Pack production facility on Superior Street is that it doesn’t matter where, how or why the story actually began—it’s that it’s still going. It’s a living, breathing and beautiful tale and when you really sit back to admire the work and craftsmanship that takes place in every rivet, every motion of the sewing needle, and all the other intricacies that make a Duluth Pack product, you feel a wave of pride just seeing it being made.
Renowned for its superior durability and quality, Duluth Pack products have stuck in families for decades and most repair requests are second generation from what President Tom Sega tells me.
So like any other story, someone has sat down to write about it. But it’s not a Made in America story. It’s not a Tom Sega story. It’s not even necessarily a Duluth Pack story. It’s a story about people. People who do amazing work that lasts generations. People who still believe in the meaning of handcrafted as hard work and not just a novelty term. People who dive in, smile from ear to ear, provide for their families and supply a rich heritage to the city of Duluth and state of Minnesota in a way that no one else can.
On a rainy September day, Kara Larson and I met with Tom Sega, President of Duluth Pack for the last 10 years. It was a first for us both. It’s not everyday that you get to talk with the head of an operation for a company that’s represented in the farthest-reaching parts of the globe. The meeting spot was the production facility that’s been standing since 1911. The awning out front still says, “Duluth Tent & Awning” and much of the facility’s framework is largely unchanged.
There are three levels. Offices on the top, sewing and riveting on the main floor and material cutting and quality control hang out in the basement. The stairs creak with each step, “And no your eyes don’t deceive you,” Tom says as we move from one floor to another, “These stairs are slanted.”
I ask Tom, “Is the Superior Street place just as much about the legacy of the physical location as it is the integrity of the brand?”
“It really is,” he replies. “When we were outgrowing the place [Superior Street] people were saying, ‘Just build a new factory’ but there’s an aura around this place.”
Eighty percent of the cost that goes into any Duluth Pack product is the labor and these same people have approached Tom on numerous occasions with the conventional wisdom to move the operation overseas to save money.
It’s a contentious point not only for Tom but everyone in the company. “People who bring that up usually get a face to face from me,” Tom says with forced grin, implying that they’re in for it when they do. “How can you make Duluth Pack anywhere besides Duluth, Minnesota?”
It’s the only time Tom actually mentions himself when it comes to Duluth Pack. In every other situation, unless Kara or I ask him directly about his personal experience, he references Duluth Pack as “we” and it’s subtle but noticeable.
“Listen,” he says. “We keep the story simple. Business is tough enough. Especially small business. Duluth Pack is not about me or Mark, my business partner. At the end of the day, it’s about the employees and more importantly the customer. We’ll be fine and we’re very comfortable knowing that we make nothing you need. You can live your life not needing a Duluth Pack. We’d prefer that you would, but you can live just fine not having one. Knowing that you’re OK with that puts you in a different mindset of how you’re going to run a company and how you’re going to grow. You stick to those same, simple core values and you just push harder everyday.”
As Tom lists the core values you get that sense of pride as a Minnesotan, knowing that something so wholesome and important is made right here. So ask anyone at Duluth Pack what the core values are and they’ll talk about quality of their premium products, the gratification of being made in America, and of course, the lifetime guarantee.
“So when someone tells me that sending our work overseas will see our profit margins go through the roof, my response is ‘Really? I have to get up and look at myself in the mirror every morning.’ We have to be a company of integrity. The bottom line is that about 80% of all the cost in our products is labor, but we don’t apologize for it. Your friends, your family, your neighbors are the ones we hire here. Our core values will never change even though we evolve—in that there were 100 products 10 years ago and now we have around 300 products that we make in 13 colors of canvas and 5 leather options and about 5 wool options—it doesn’t matter. We’re still not going to change. Every prototype meeting starts with the quality of [the proposed item]. Not ‘Is this fitting a market?’ because we can’t be everything to everyone nor do we try to be everything to everyone. We tell people no a lot if it doesn’t fit into our core values and who we are.”
It’s a refreshing statement that is becoming less and less prevalent in business today. “So it’s really not about the money?” I ask.
“It’ can’t be!” says Tom leaning forward in his chair. “This brand is everything. Right there is the gold,” as he points to the Duluth Pack logo on a nearby bag. “Once you start compromising the brand, what do you have? You don’t have anything.”
It’s that initial quality that attracted Tom to Duluth Pack in the first place. Before becoming President, Tom claims he was a “road warrior” traveling over 30 weeks out of the year for a previous job. This lifestyle afforded him a continuous problem with malfunctioning bags, simply from the wear and tear of constant travel.
His conversion story to Duluth Pack is one that I imagine many others have felt. Running through the Detroit airport trying to catch a flight some twenty odd years ago, Tom saw his briefcase handle snap off, sending papers and a laptop flying. “So I got on the flight and then said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to that Duluth Pack store because I hear they build good stuff.’ The briefcase I bought from Duluth Pack back then is still used everyday and looks awesome! It’s so battle scarred. It’s seen a lot of turf. The story behind my bag is that it’s seen 1.5 million airline miles and a plane crash. People hear that and they’re like, ‘What?!’
“So I just fell in love with the product. My ‘aha’ moment was being in the Detroit airport and getting sick and tired of replacing stuff all the time. So the day I walked into the door here [as President], I think I owned 11 Duluth Pack items. I just love the stuff.”
It’s a sentiment that you encounter with each Duluth Pack employee. Touring through the production facility, you get first hand love, unprompted passion, from the workers as they demonstrate sewing a handbag, cutting materials or pounding rivets by hand. Each of them just starts talking about their favorite bag, sweater or hunting gear from their employer.
Meeting these people, the inspired individuals working behind the scene, is where the real thrill comes from. They’re humans just like you and I. The Matts cutting canvas, the Annas in sewing and the Tracies in repairs are just a sample size of a larger group that believes in delivering the absolute best. At the end of the day, you see the excitement in them that your average customer might feel.
We wrapped up our Duluth Pack tour at the busy retail store in Canal Park to see smiling faces of people about to purchase items that they know were made by hand and will last a lifetime. Over their heads, hanging on the walls, are some of the very first Duluth Packs ever created, still capable of hauling whatever gear you’d need to and it’s hard to not see the significance of quality once again.
When it comes to a story, it’s not exactly the beginning that matters most. Duluth Pack began on the backbone of quality, integrity and a lot of hard work, and for over 100 years, they have delivered quality goods because they hire quality people. People who care about the integrity of not only a brand, but a city. It’s their determination that will keep Duluth Pack in our hands and our hearts for generations to come.