I met Founder and CEO of LightHeart Gear (LHG) Judy Gross at her manufacturing facility in Fletcher, NC in late February, pre-COVID days. LHG had just been named the "2019 Small Business of the Year" by Business North Carolina and I saw her picture, along with the headline “Sew so good” on the front of their trade publication. I knew immediately I had to reach out to learn more about her and her company’s story. I found a phone number on their Facebook page and when I called, Judy answered the phone! She was gracious and agreed to meet me, give me a tour of the facility, and share her story.
Judy joined the Air Force out of high school. She received an ROTC scholarship and used it to get first her undergraduate degree and then her master’s degree in nursing. After 20 years as a nurse and 10 years as a family nurse practitioner, she decided to hang up her nurse’s uniform and go to design school. “I started wrapping fabric around Barbie dolls at 5 and continued sewing through my nursing years,” Judy stated. “I even made my own scrubs.”
Judy had another love, which was the outdoors. She has been an avid hiker since her childhood. In fact, it was an incident on the Appalachian Trail hike that lead to her current career of tent making. While camped next to a guy that had a “palace of a tent” that weighed next-to-nothing and packed up small, she knew she had to make her own tent. Skipping ahead a few years, she and her husband moved to Fletcher, NC. It was then she decided to combine her sewing skills, love of design, and the outdoors to design and manufacture lightweight tents.
She started with seven tents, took them to a hiker festival, and sold three the first day. She decided to build a website and went into business. Word spread quickly about her tents and business took off. At first, she worked out of her basement. Then as the business grew, she leased a 2400 sq. foot building, which she also soon outgrew. In 2018, LHG bought land and built a 7,500 sq. ft. building in Fletcher where the company now resides.
Today, LHG not only make ultralight tents, and rain gear, but has a full line of functional women’s outdoor wear with great pockets. The company also uses excess capacity of their facility for contract sewing for other small businesses to keep their products made in the USA.
I asked Judy what advice she would give to entrepreneurs that are just starting out. Here’s what she said:
- Have the right people around you. People who you trust and can go to for help.
- Invest in what you know. Judy knows backpacking and she knows sewing. According to Judy, “You need to be passionate about it, but you also have to know your product.”
- Find and utilize resources around you. Judy used Mountain Bizworks, Advantage West, and Outdoor Gear Builders (OGB), a trade association that provides education to member businesses.
- Know your customers and focus your marketing efforts on where they are. With tent samples in hand, Judy attends hiking enthusiasts’ conferences and outdoor events.
COVID-19 and “shelter in place” happened a couple of weeks after our interview and before we published the story. From the beginning of March, before we knew how bad it was going to be, Judy and LHG stepped up. It was Judy’s connections that started the change in manufacturing from tents to personal protective equipment (PPE).
The change happened quickly. An old customer of LHG who happens to be the Chief of EMS at a local Fire Department called and ask her if she could make waterproof gowns out of tent fabric.
“Do you have a sample?” Judy asked. He brought over a paper gown.
“Give me an hour,” she said. And within the hour, she had a made the sample. He asked if they could get a dozen. He had a dozen gowns the next day. And from there it grew to where she started receiving calls from other front-line organizations in other counties, and eventually other states.
Today LHG has shipped over 400 gowns. She also started getting requests for masks after one of her suppliers ask her if LHG could make them. Well, yes, we can Judy said and again, the word spread. To this day if an order comes in for masks or gowns, that order takes precedence over all other business.
Meet Judy Gross when she joins the "Livable at Lunch" program from noon to 12:30 pm on June 15. This free virtual event gives you a chance to ask your questions and can be viewed at: www.facebook.com/aarpnc
Learn how three other small-business owners adapted the during the pandemic.