KELLOGG, IdahoLarry and Brenda Stinson were among the 2,700 workers who were laid off when the Bunker Hill Mine here shut down in 1981.
They could have left the Silver Valley, as many mining families did, but instead the Stinsons decided to try to expand a home-based sewing business that Brenda had started on the side two years earlier to make bags for mine operators. They shifted the focus of that business, Silver Needle Inc., to designing and making protective clothing for people who work with dangerous substances, especially molten metals.
At the time, Silver Needles operations consisted of one sewing machine in the Stinsons spare bedroom, which they took turns using. Today, the company employs 35 people in a seven-building operation thats a beacon in the still economically depressed valley. Sales this year should top Silver Needles 2002 revenue of $1.2 million, Larry Stinson says. This spring, Silver Needle was named North Idaho small business of the year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The company now supplies protective gear across the U.S. and in some foreign countries to industries ranging from mining to firefighting to nuclear power to cryogenics. There are special vests for geologists that hold a full-sized clipboard, waterproof leggings for Gulf Coast workers that can repel the sting of a manta ray, full-length coats made of aluminized leather that shed, rather than trap, drops of molten metal, and high-visibility, fire-resistant safety vests. In addition, the company makes flame-retardant gloves, hoods, aprons, and coveralls, and insulated clothing for people who work in cold environments.
Its hard to believe how different it is now, says Larry Stinson, gesturing around Silver Needles crowded office and manufacturing space in downtown Kellogg, although it was fun making the business.
Fun it may have been, but it was a lot of stress, too, Brenda adds.
In the early years of the business, the couple supported themselves and their two young daughters by selling vegetables and hay that they raised on their Cataldo ranch, Larry says. All they bought was flour, sugar, and salt, he says.
We even made our own beer, he says. Trust me, it was terrible.
He tells a story of fielding customer calls at their home while a rooster crowed outside, and of sharing a party line on that phone with a crusty old woman with a very foul mouth.
The couple worked from 7 a.m. until midnight every day to fill orders, and their dining room was stacked floor-to-ceiling with goods waiting to be shipped to customers, he says.
There were threads no matter where you went in our house, he says.
Silver Needle moved from the Stinsons Cataldo home into leased space in nearby Pinehurst in 1984, and in 1986 the company bought the first of the buildings it now owns in Kellogg to house the growing operation.
Repairing saddles and other goodsan auxiliary business that Silver Needle continues to this dayhelped pay the rent and mortgage bills until the sales of protective clothing took off, he says.
The biggest challenge Silver Needle faced as it grew was getting people to trust you, because youre dealing with safety, Stinson says. Many big companies are self-insured, so a safety slip-up can be devastating financially, he says.
At one company, one accident cost them $7 million, and those people went to jail. Its more than just safety, Stinson says.
It took Silver Needle 15 years to sell its products to a big companymagnesium smelter Northwest Alloys Inc.but once it did, sales to other large customers climbed based on word-of-mouth advertising, trade-show appearances, and Stinsons articles in trade journals on setting up safety-clothing programs, he says.
Silver Needle custom-designs just about all of its products to its customers specifications, Stinson says.
Were one of the few people who do humongous sizes and tiny sizes, Stinson says, pointing to a picture on the wall of Silver Needle workers holding up a size 7X coverall that was made for a 6-foot-5-inch man who weighs 450 pounds.
Because everything is custom made, we dont care if you buy a dozen left-handed gloves, Stinson says.
Customers, who include Kennecott Utah Copper, Alcoa Corp., Avista Corp., and Consolidated Edison Inc., typically receive their orders in four weeks, he says.
Once its contacted by a prospective customer about a specific safety need, Silver Needle sends out a test kit of different fabrics, and the customer determines which fabric will work best for its uses, Stinson says. Silver Needle then uses a computer program either to design a new product or to customize a design it already has.
Some of the materials the company uses are drastically expensive, such as aluminized leather, which costs up to $4,000 a roll, he says. A coat made from the material sells for $300 to $400, he says. At the other end of the spectrum, furnace gloves that are designed for high-heat use cost about $30.
Silver Needles employees are cross-trained on all of its equipment so that they can rotate around the plant. Stinson says that constant change helps prevent boredom among employees, which, in turn, contributes to a stable work force.
The most important thing in a company is not just growth, its stability, he says. I would think most of our employees have four weeks of vacationmost of them have been with us for years.
Although Silver Needle keeps up with new technologyit took delivery last week of a machine that can cut and sew belt loops automatically, and another that can sew buttonholes and attach buttonsStinson says hes not interested in moving production out of the U.S. to cut costs.
The main reason we started this business is to stay in this area, he says. In many cases we could get equipment to eliminate people, but that isnt our goal. For its employees sake, the company also doesnt run a night shift, he says.
Stinson says he stepped back from day-to-day operation at Silver Needle in 1996, although Brenda still works there every day. He maintains the companys buildings, works when he wants to, and spends some of his time evangelizing about safety, he says.
You need safety big timeyou see so many horrendous accidents, he says. Still, When the economys doing bad its hard to go to the boss and say, Ive got to spend another $20,000 or $30,000 to protect these guys.
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