Close to Home: Nutmeg Mills. Part 2

Without help from Edelman (VF Corporation’s PR firm), I searched Nutmeg Mills on LinkedIn and one of the results was for Sandy Savitz. According to his profile, he had worked at Nutmeg during the early 90s, and now was working for an apparel company called Alstyle Apparel. He quickly got back to me, and he seemed eager to talk. When I got him on the phone, I didn’t really know where to start.

“I help run a company that turns people’s old shirts into t-shirt quilts and we see so many old Nutmeg shirts.” I started clumsily…

“ I wanted to know the story and couldn’t find that much on the internet, so I’m just trying to piece the story together..” Before I could finish, he interjected

“Here’s the story with Nutmeg…

I was about to get the story that Wikipedia was not providing. It’s an interesting exercise in internet research when the first result for search is not Wikepedia. We have grown so accustomed to finding basic information on Wikipedia, and then digging further into news articles, which connects us to more names that we can pursue.

Bu there was nothing under “Nutmeg Mills” for Wikipedia.

It’s strange there was no entry for a company of this size. It was almost as if their internet footprint had been wiped away. The only mention on the entire Wikipedia database was under the term Throwbacks.

“Throwbacks were introduced in the NFL in 1991 at retail through the NFL Throwbacks Collection.The rights to produce the vintage apparel was limited to six apparel licensees, including Tiedman & Company Sportswear (exclusive to jerseys), Riddell (helmets), Starter (caps), Nutmeg Mills (sweatshirts), and DeLong (jackets).”

From the Lakeland Ledger piece in 1987, the only background on the company given was that two brothers from Massachusetts started it. Mr. Savitz started to fill in the pieces for me.

The company was started in the early 1980s by two brothers from East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Springfield. East Longmeadow for many years was home to the Milton Bradley Company, which was later bought by Hasbro, yet to this day more than 1700 employees make board games at an East Longmeadow factory. The factory makes games such as Monopoly, Battleship and Connect Four ( a Rajon Rondo favorite).

Toy Factory in E. Longmeadow via Boston Globe

A hundred years earlier, James Naismath had created a game with a ball and basket at Springfield College, where only one basket was scored the entire game. Luckily for everyone, the game evolved.

According to Savitz, the Jacobson brothers were always entrepreneurial. As teenagers, they would drive the 70 miles down to New Haven, and sell pennants at Yale Football games. When they moved down to Tampa, they started to see a demand for college rugby shirts, and then started to make the uniforms for the University of Florida Girls Volleyball Team. When they needed a name, they thought back to their entrepreneurial start, and named the company Nutmeg, after Connecticut, which is called the ‘Nutmeg state.” By the late 1980s, they had developed licensing deals with the NBA, NHL, NFL, and the MLB.

How did you find out about Nutmeg?” I asked Sandy

“On a golfcourse in Syracuse, NY. I met Todd Jacobson, the son of Marty. He told me he worked for a sports company called Nutmeg. I was like, what? the kitchen spice?”

A few weeks later, Sandy was on a plane down to Tampa. By the time Sandy arrived at Nutmeg headquarters, the Jacobson brothers had built a sports apparel juggernaut. They had seen tremendous success across the major sports leagues, college football, and were about to enter the NASCAR market. When they signed a deal with NASCAR, they saw sales increase exponentially. In addition, they reached a deal to license Muhammad Ali products as well.

While Sandy was telling these stories, I couldn’t shake off one burning question:

“How were these two brothers able to make so many connections and business partnerships?”

I had spent the past three years trying to partner with College campuses, T-Shirt companies, and Sports teams for Project Repat. Yes, we are not just selling t-shirts but it seemed easy enough. A college campus passes out t-shirts like candy. Watch a college sporting event, and most of the fan base is wearing almost an identical t-shirt. If you go to an NBA playoff game, most fans are welcomed to the game by a t-shirt on their seat. At Celtics games this season, the entire Garden only stands up for two things: the Community Heroes presentation and the T-Shirt Toss. I’ve never seen so many grown men and women jump and down for the chance of winning a free t-shirt (made in the far east for pennies).

Future t-shirts in Project Repat t-shirt quilts

We have tried to partner with places like Life is Good, Out of Print Tees, Threadless and Homage. We will make a t-shirt quilt as a sample, and then try to do a revenue split, and the can’t figure out a way for both of us to make money. My assumption has always been that t-shirt companies want to work with us because if people send us their old shirts, they have more space in their closets to buy more. This has not been the case. I finally heard from one company who thankfully gave me an honest answer: “ We’ll have to pass on the collab at this point — to be candid, some of the folks on the team aren’t keen on the idea of “destroying” our t-shirts to make quilts out of them.”

It seems crazy to not consider the end of the life cycle of these shirts when you think about the 2 billion t-shirts that are sold and distributed in the US every year, but that answer seems to be the prevailing sentiment. Our business has grown without any busines partnerships to speak of, and to think that Jacobson brothers were able to do it so quickly and effectively is simply amazing.

“Well Marty Jacobson was the ultimate schmoozer. He was so personable..” Sandy explained. “He went to UMass….

I had graduated from UMass in May 2006 with a History degree and a few weeks later joined Americorps and moved down to New Orleans. At UMass, I never stepped inside the business school. Like most college students, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and could never imagine running a business, let alone a business that revolved around upcycling t-shirts.

I did enjoy the Labor Studies courses.

During my sophomore year, I took a class with Professor Bruce Laurie. Each one of his lectures was emotionally draining. By the end of class, his face was red with anger as he discussed how our country had turned its back on the working man ( it had never really supported the working woman). We read about the rise of the auto manufacturer unions, which unfortunately was a much shorter chapter than the one on their demise. Organized labor today only makes up a tiny fraction of the private sector.

There was a concept that I learned in Professor Laurie’s class that stuck with me when I moved to New Orleans and saw crumbling neighborhoods that were deteriorating long before a majority of the city flooded. It was deindustrialization, which is a term used when a region loses its manufacturing base, and in most cases, is only replaced by service sector jobs. As one of the dock workers in season two of The Wire laments- “we used to make things in this country.”

When I think of deindustrialization now I think about the communities we have worked in to make our blankets for the past few years that once had thriving textile industries in Massachusetts. They are places like Lowell, Lawrence and Fall River. While Lowell has improved, Lawrence and Fall River are still reeling from the textile jobs that moved down south a little less than a Century ago. When the cost of labor became too high in New England, many of the mills migrated south to North Carolina, where labor was cheaper and regulations were softer. After NAFTA, the t-shirt makers moved a lot of their production across the border, and then overseas, at the same time demand went up.

In the 20th and 21st Century, Americans have wanted their peers to know where they spent the years between their 18 and 23rd birthday. This is also known to others as college or university, but when did people start consuming so many t-shirts with their college name? When did it become popular to pass out t-shirts for every event? It may be a stretch, but I see a place like Nutmeg Mills as a harbinger of this trend. It also was due to the fact that t-shirts became such a cheaper commodity as labor costs sunk. But it does seem like part of that trend can be traced back to the popularity of Nutmeg Mills college athletic t-shirts.

Marty Jacobson in the middle

When I looked up Marty Jacobson on google, it was clear he was doing well for himself, because the first link was a recent article about him donating $2.5 million to the UMass athletics office. The donation helps underwrite the costs of a $34.5 million dollar enhancement project for the UMass football stadium, and the press box will now be called the Martin and Richard Jacobson Football Press and Skybox. Marty had graduated in 1968 and had been a longtime supporter of the school. The article spends one paragraph on how the Jacobson had the ability to write these kind of checks.

“The Jacobsons found success working together as businessmen. Their sports apparel company, Nutmeg Industries Inc., created upscale sportswear with licensing agreements that included the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, the NCAA and major colleges and universities.”

It’s a story that hits close to home.

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