Story by Maria Buteux Reade
Photography by Andrew Plotsky
Leather work gloves are the humble tool indispensable to those of us who do manual labor. We keep a pair or two stowed in the truck or closet, stained from projects, and molded to our hands.
Sturdy, comfortable gloves can make an arduous task less daunting. Most people don’t give them much thought.
Sam Hooper does.
Sam’s homestead is in Brookfield and he also helps at his brother’s goat farm in Randolph. After years of blowing through cheap gloves, Sam discovered a pair of premium leather gloves made right in Randolph.
“I was floored by their quality and that got me interested in the company,” Sam explains.
Goatskin gloves made by Vermont Glove, formerly known as Green Mountain Glove, are for people who work with their hands all day long in inclement weather and need a reliable glove that will protect them. People whose hands are tools. Sam scheduled a meeting in 2016 with the company’s owner, Kurt Haupt, who was in his late 60s and nearing retirement. “We talked off and on for about six months, and I convinced him to let me apprentice at the factory. I was eager, and Kurt and his daughter Heidi taught me every step of the operation.”
Sam was 23 at the time and looking to transition out of his role in marketing and sales at Vermont Creamery. He met with the creamery’s owner who gave him the green light to branch out. The owner just happened to be Sam’s mom, Allison Hooper.
When Sam Hooper says he’s going to do something, he persists. He credits his business acumen and drive to his mother, who co-founded the renowned Vermont Creamery in 1984. While learning how to cut and sew gloves during the day, Sam did his homework at night. He dug into market research, studied the industry past and present, and wrote a business plan. That intense analysis only strengthened his resolve and his vision to reinvigorate the heritage company. He recalls thinking, “If I can’t figure out how to make a pair of gloves, I won’t be able to teach someone else how to do it. I may not be the best sewer on the floor but I know how to do every step. And I understand the importance of quality assurance.”
The Education of an Entrepreneur
Sam bought the company from Kurt Haupt on January 26, 2018. “Kurt handed me the key to the front door and said, ‘Good luck.’ I thought, geezum, I just took on a lot of debt. Time to get to work!” He set up an advisory board of businesspeople who he respects: Ric Cabot, president of Darn Tough Socks; Frank Michael Munoz, director of marketing at Land O’ Lakes/Vermont Creamery; Jody Davignon, a managing partner at Farrow Financial in Randolph; and Allison Hooper. “I know I have a lot to learn, and I trust these people will push and challenge me. I’m 25 and don’t have all the answers.”
Sam quickly acknowledges he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t grown up involved in
the family business. “My mom is my greatest hero. I garnered a crash course in business development sitting around the dinner table and working in every aspect at the cheesemaking plant during summers and school breaks. I worked production line, cheese room, sales, and marketing. That taught me about manufacturing and how to build a national brand. Mom included me in discussions about the company culture and building an enterprise. When Land O’ Lakes took over Vermont Creamery, that gave me great insight into mergers and acquisitions. I learned about feasibility studies and growth strategies.”
Sam said he always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “You have to have the passion and the grit to put sweat equity in. You can’t do 100 hours a week with no pay if you don’t fully believe in your business. As owner, you don’t ever clock out. I go home and my brain is churning. I wake up in the middle of the night and review marketing materials, or look at sales projections and answer emails. I try to be the first one in and last one out.”
Asked what invigorates him, he pauses then smiles broadly. “Getting an email from a lineman who says, ‘you guys make the best gloves I’ve ever put on my hands.’ An ironworker writes that he’s never had a glove last more than 10 days on the job until he tried our product. A consumer calls from across the country and says she bought our gloves from Smith & Hawken 25 years ago and finally needs a new pair. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.”
100 Years of History
Richard Haupt founded Green Mountain Glove in 1920. He originally made silk dress gloves and riding gloves for women. However, the Europeans soon conquered that market. Richard saw an opportunity on the horizon with the advent of electricity coming to rural making heavy-duty line worker gloves.
“Amazingly, FDR’s program to electrify rural America directly impacted this small company here in Randolph,” Sam notes. “Our product has a purpose—it protects people’s lives.”
Vermont Glove’s primary market is forward-thinking utility companies that will invest in premium products. “Line workers understand these gloves are indispensable tools that help them do their jobs safely,” Sam says. “Our target market is medium-size utility companies across the nation. Green Mountain Power is one of our best customers, and they’ve remained committed to us over the years.”
So what distinguishes these gloves? First of all, they’re made from the highest quality goatskin sourced domestically. Why goat? Goatskin provides durability, dexterity, and comfort; the leather dries soft and flexible. Deerskin can’t handle abrasion, and cowhide stiffens up after being wet. Vermont Glove is a cut-and-sew operation. Each glove requires 8 to 12 different cuts of leather, and all those individual pieces must be carefully assembled and stitched. “This is highly skilled labor,” Sam explains. “It usually takes two months to train someone how to use the sewing machines and a month on how to make the cuts. That’s why we value our employees who work with diligence, speed, and precision.” Daphne Herwig, a master cutter, has worked for 28 years at Vermont Glove. Heidi Haupt, operations manager, started 18 years ago at her family’s company and can do all the steps. Lauren Bomalaski is team lead, nimbly handling everything from cutting to assembling to inspecting and shipping. Pam Nickle, a lifetime industrial sewer, joined Vermont Glove in 2018. She’s now the sewing supervisor and stitching trainer.
Consider the Glove
Leather gloves are the most difficult garment to make in the textile world. Boot manufacturing can be automated to a certain extent but not a glove, a three-dimensional product with a specific size. Workers have to deal with heavy-duty material, intricate patterns, and challenging stitch runs. Moreover, every pair of gloves is made to order. And with 25 styles of gloves in 24 sizes with variations for each utility company, it’s not feasible to keep a stocked inventory. It takes 10 steps to make a pair of gloves. Every piece of soft, golden hide must first be inspected for any imperfection in the grain. Next the leather is gauged for thickness. Each hide is then worked and stretched by hand, a crucial step that helps the cutter understand where to position the various cuts. For example, the palm needs to stretch by width, not length. The gloves’ application determines the gauge of leather to be used.
Heavy-duty work gloves require a thicker gauge while the protective covers that slip over a line man’s 20,000-volt rubber gloves call for a thinner leather to allow for greater dexterity. “Each hide is different and we know how to read it in order to position the variety of required cuts,” says Lauren Bomalaski. She places a metal die, akin to a heavy-duty cookie cutter shaped like a part of the glove, on the surface of the leather, punches a button, and the powerful clicker press stamps the die through the material to produce the desired cut. “Our goal is to use as much of the hide as possible and generate minimal waste, while working around slight imperfections or variances in the skin.”
Stacks of the die-cut pieces are carried upstairs to the sewing room floor and re-inspected in the natural light to make sure no imperfections in the grain were missed and that the stretch is correct. Each piece is arrayed from dark to light to match similar color tones. Then comes assembling. A sewer secures the palm piece to the thumb piece and the gun finger, the back of the hand to the palm piece to the thumb piece and the gun finger, the back of the hand to the palm, and the cuff ties the glove all together. Closing, when the glove takes on its familiar shape, unites the two halves, front and back. Experienced sewers know how to handle the gathering points to create a three dimensional space and to ensure a comfortable, smooth fit.
“We sew our seams on the outside for better durability and comfort,” Sam says. “The seams meld into the glove once they break in and add reinforcement.” Trimming requires carefully snipping away excess bits of leather and thread. Finally each glove is placed over a stainless steel form in the shape of a hand, and steam is forced through the glove. This step softens the seams and helps the glove to take shape. According to Sam, the steaming step is crucial. “This is where we can catch any break in the grain or a dropped stitch. It tests the durability of the glove. If a glove can’t hold up on the steamer, it certainly won’t hold on a line worker.” Pairing is the final step, matching up right and left hands for size and color tone.
“Up until the 1970s, about 40 percent of the workforce used to be in textiles,” Sam explains. “Now it’s less than half a percent as we’ve outsourced everything. However, there’s a resurgence in American textile manufacturing but typically in products that can be automated, such as boots, bags, wallets, clothing, and dry goods. A mere 3 percent of what we wear in America is actually made here. These gloves aren’t cheap in any way. This is a premium product and we charge a price that reflects the value.”
Sam knows that if he outsourced the manufacturing, he would lose control of quality assurance. He is barraged by emails from overseas manufacturing companies eager to produce his gloves. He resolutely turns down each offer. “I want to impact people’s lives, create jobs here, and contribute to Randolph’s economy.”
Vermont Glove moved to the former Whiting Milk Plant in 1960, alongside the railroad tracks just a mile from town. Natural light streaming through the windows on both sides of the sewing room creates a bright atmosphere that allows the employees to see their work. Sam is a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist who takes his company’s carbon footprint seriously. “Environmental responsibility is hugely important to me. When I took over the company in 2018, we were burning 28 tons of coal annually. As of 2019, we now use 100-percent renewable energy to heat the building.” Sam followed his conscience and invested in a biomass pellet boiler, installed solar panels on the roof, and insulated and air-sealed the entire structure.
“People told me I shouldn’t buy a boiler because it doesn’t make more gloves or sell more gloves. Those were huge expenses so I applied for state and federal grants to help offset the costs. We received a U.S.D.A. REAP [Rural Energy for America Program] grant. We were a high-impact application for our commitment to switching from coal to pellets. We partnered with Efficiency Vermont and Renewable Energy Resource Center to incentivize the boiler and insulation. As for the solar, we use half of the energy and the rest goes back into the grid.” Sam and a friend spent every weekend from September through early winter doing the carpentry and air-sealing the building. “I’m so proud of what we’ve done here. It definitely helped the working atmosphere on the floor, keeping the place warmer in winter and cooler in summer.”
Respecting Tradition with an Eye to the Future
Heidi Haupt, 40, is the fourth-generation shareholder. She began at the factory when she was 19. “I spent a few years in the sewing and cutting process and then left to start my family. I came back in 2007 and have been here ever since. I’ve learned all the parts of the process over the years. I don’t enjoy sitting in one spot; I prefer hopping from station to station.” As operations manager, Heidi sets up people’s schedules and lays out their tasks for the day. She also oversees quality assurance. “Dad used to be the final inspector, and now Sam and I handle that.” Heidi is pleased that Sam has taken over the business as owner and president. “It’s been great to see the place take on new energy. Sam brings a new perspective and has some good ideas for growing the business. Having worked with my father and my grandfather, I had some anxiety at first. But it’s been a smooth transition and we work well together.”
Sam concurs. “We’re like brother and sister, except we never fight! We jibe really well and respect each other’s opinion.” Sam, as owner and president, handles sales and marketing, finances, supply chain management, and business development. “I can hop on a sewing machine if I want to change things up, or tackle a building project. I also brainstorm prototypes with Heidi. We have a lot of fun trying out new ideas for future products, and she’s great at executing the ideas we generate.”
Sam Hooper sees significant growth potential for Vermont Glove. “We want to use our business as a platform for social good, and ultimately become a Certified B Corporation. We hope to create sustainable workforce development and meaningful jobs through sewing applications here in Randolph. We’re looking at various partnerships with vocational programs and trade schools to bring textile manufacturing back.”
With products named the Farmer, the Vermonter, and the Chopper’s Mitt, alongside those life-saving line worker gloves, there’s no question this company will remain true to its Vermont heritage.