There’s always a demand for work gloves. If the only trick to selling them is to make sure they’re well-made, then Green Mountain Glove Company should be doing OK. But time and change have taken their toll on the Randolph manufacturer.
It's a business set in its ways — what many would consider old ways. And after nearly a century as a family-run company, it has run out of generations interested in taking it over.
There are nearly 20 old but perfectly-functional sewing machines set up on tables that run the length of the high-ceilinged workroom at Green Mountain Glove Company. But only one of them is in use.
“Most of them are sitting idle, waiting for the big day to come. It’s pretty sad,” says owner Kurt Haupt.
Just to be clear: Haupt is not holding his breath for "the big day."
When it started in 1920, the company made embroidered silk women’s gloves, but for most of its history it has specialized in gloves used by utility line workers, leather protector gloves that fit over rubber gloves, driving gloves and heavy-duty work gloves.
Haupt’s grandfather started the company. His father ran it until he was 90.
Back in the 1960s, Haupt says, a couple of dozen people worked here. Now there are four, including him.
“When they opened up free trade, it kind of kicked us. Things started to go downhill from there,” Haupt says.
He’s not sure that even a change in trade agreements would alter the company’s fortunes at this point.
Haupt says lower cost and — and often lower-quality — imported gloves hurt sales. But there are other reasons the company has reached a precarious place.
Consolidation in the utility business has led to fewer and bigger companies that Haupt says aren’t interested in paying an average of $50 for a pair of gloves. They can get them for less, even if they’re not as good.
“We were always told ours were the best in the country,” he says.
He pulls out some gloves made by competitors to show how his are different: better leather, stronger stitching and more reinforcing.
Haupt says his gloves last longer than two or three pairs of the cheaper ones.
Workers like them, but “the pencil pusher doesn’t see it that way. It’s the price, [regardless] of how long it lasts, or how comfortable it is,” he says.
In the cellar, Daphne Herwig stands next to a stack of goatskins used to make the gloves. A cookie cutter-like die she places under a machine stamps out each of the eight or so pieces that make up a single glove.
The entire glove-making process is painstaking, time-consuming and labor intensive.
For example, because of the way they’re stitched, the gloves end up inside-out. So finger by finger, Haupt uses a steel rod to turn each glove outside-in. Then he pulls each one onto a heated hand-shaped steel form that helps soften the leather.
Nowadays, the company might turn out 20 dozen pairs of gloves a month — far fewer than in the past.
“We’re hanging on. That’s about all that we’re doing,” says the soft-spoken Haupt.
He’s nearing 70, and there isn’t a younger generation willing to take over the business, as he did from his father. Nor is there a buyer on the horizon.
The driver’s gloves made for utility workers have caught on with some gardeners, but they can’t be ordered online. Customers have to call the company or order through the mail. Then it takes some time to make the gloves and ship them out.
“We do have email now,” says Haupt. The company also has a website and a minimalist Facebook page.
Talking with Haupt, you can’t help but circle back to his stoicism about the company’s future – and make suggestions.
Why doesn’t he make a cheaper glove? “It’s not worth the aggravation,” he says.
How about marketing to gardeners? Tried it, he says. Didn’t work.
What about selling through retail outlets? They don’t want to carry gloves that cost as much as his do.
Haupt says Green Mountain Glove Company will continue to fill orders as long as there are enough to keep the lights on.
How long that will be is anybody’s guess. Haupt pulls out a newspaper article from 25 years ago that describes the company as "hanging by a thread." Yet it’s still here.