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Clarkfield Outdoors defies the odds with Made in USA apparel

CLARKFIELD, Minn. – While politicians talk about bringing American jobs back, this small-town manufacturer has successfully fought to keep them against the odds.

Clarkfield Outdoors continues to produce apparel for outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing, but has also redefined itself to survive in an industry that long ago fled to countries with low labor costs. The American Apparel and Footwear Association reported in 2014 that 97 percent of all clothes sold in the United States are imported.

Clarkfield Outdoors has seen steady growth for six years running now, by expanding from its outdoor clothing focus into the corporate logo and specialty markets. It produces a wide range of high-quality corporate logo items, such as jackets, sporting company emblems and colors. It also produces cushions and curtains to furnish a growing ice fish house industry.

And, it takes on a range of speciality projects. It shipped product to Germany two weeks ago which it had made for Ductcap of Willmar. It has outfitted an entire battalion of the Jordanian army with coveralls.

Company founder and president Berdette Schoep said the company currently employs 26 people, and contracts with 18 others.

Schoep said the company, founded in 1983, almost fell victim to overseas competition. It was riding a boom in outdoor clothing sales in the 1990s. It was doing as much as $800,000 in sales with Cabela’s and $500,000 with L.L. Bean, and had sales with other large outdoor retailers.

But in 2000, Schoep said many of these large merchandisers turned to producers in China and other low-wage countries. The sales disappeared.

“Truly devastating,’’ he said. “Our business went from 96 employees down to 12,’’ he said.

“All the writing was on the wall that it was impossible to survive,’’ he said. “And everybody else like us didn’t survive.’’

The company pared down and did all it could to improve efficiency, but it was the expansion into the new markets that kept it afloat. “Frankly I owed too much money to too many people I knew,’’ Schoep said. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself otherwise, so I had to succeed.’’

While low-wage competition from overseas makes this a very difficult industry, Schoep said American manufacturers such as his still can succeed.

The “Made in the USA” logo remains key. The corporate logo customers are seeking him out because of it, along with the company’s established reputation for quality and on-time delivery, he said.

The company’s location on the Minnesota prairie provides advantages, he said. Overhead is low, and the company enjoys access to a strong work force. “We do have people who want to work,’’ Schoep said.

Technology is critical too. The company is continuously updating with faster, more efficient machinery.

As a result, the company is able to stay very close to foreign competitors on price, and beat them on quality, according to Schoep.

Flexibility matters too. The company was working on eight different projects last week, everything from corporate jackets for Cadillac to seat cushions for a South Dakota-based manufacturer of ice fishing houses.

Schoep is upbeat about the prospects for its outdoor apparel too. It recently inked an agreement with a large, East Coast firearm manufacturer to produce apparel for it.

Schoep and a group of investors from the community originally launched the company as an economic development initiative for Clarkfield, a community of about 850 people in Yellow Medicine County. They purchased machinery from a defunct Wisconsin company and began producing outdoor apparel.

Schoep has since purchased much of the original stock. He’s now eying another possible transition. At age 72, he would like to bring in a new buyer who he could work alongside him and help keep the company on the grow.