Interview with John Delaloye, Diamond Brand Gear

 Slide introducing the interview with John the CEO of Diamond Brand Gear

Can you tell us a little bit about your background/history that has led you to this point?

I grew up in the Midwest, right outside of St. Louis, and then, attended school and found my first job in Chicago. My first career was more financially-oriented – I worked for an investment fund. One of the last funds that I worked for took more of an active investment approach and ingrained itself within the operations of the companies themselves. During this time, I served as the acting CFO for a real estate development company. This company was not about cookie cutter homes, but rather let the neighborhood and property inspire the design. This led to finished products that were long-lasting and happy to look at when finished.

When I was younger, I had the desire to work with my hands and be more creative. I wanted to help develop things, to create and to be an influence on what and how things are made. So, when I got the chance to come and work for Diamond Brand in Asheville, I was excited.

A good friend of mine purchased Diamond Brand in 2000. At the time it was a specialty outdoor retailer and contract manufacturer. In 2005, the company experienced significant demand and growth from the War in Iraq since products were made in the U.S. My friend needed assistance with the financial side of the business, so I joined to help grow it from a mom and pop shop to a medium-sized enterprise with systems.

In 2015, my friend and I were trying to run both businesses under one roof, which we found to be quite the challenge. Therefore, we decided to split the business into two entities – Diamond Brand Outdoors and Diamond Brand Gear. I bought the manufacturing business (Diamond Brand Gear) and am now in the process of creating an identity for Diamond Brand Gear.

Since the company has such a rich history, we are tapping into that nostalgia by bringing back products and concepts from the 1960s and 70s while also drifting towards elements that are unusual, difficult and out of the norm. We like being in dialogue with the past while thinking about the future. 

Tell us about your product/brand and the inspiration behind it?

Diamond Brand has always been known for durable canvas products, especially tents. We are a long-time partner of the Boy Scouts of America and in our early days, helped The North Face, REI and L.L. Bean develop their product lines.

When a lot of manufacturing went overseas in the mid to late 1970s, Diamond Brand didn’t follow. We focused on quality domestic products and items for the military.

Our consumer base is evolving into a much more broad market than just intense outdoorsmen. Consumers today now care about how our company is run and how we interact with things that are important to them, rather than just considering price.

Being in Asheville, I think part of what we have to thank for that shift is the craft brewing industry. Craft breweries are often small, independent operations that are active in their communities, care about the ingredients they use and are all essentially made in the U.S. 

I’m a big fan of gleaning learnings from other industries and how I can apply them to my own work. At Diamond Brand Gear, we are always big supporters of creating a bigger movement around authentic, craft manufacturing. 

Diamond Brand Gear duffle bag made of upcycled materials

How does sustainability play a role in your brand/product development? How important has this been to consumers?

Sustainability is a big, broad concept. It isn’t just related to product use, waste minimization or power consumption. Today, there is a social aspect of sustainability and how companies impact a community – do they pay living wages or not, do they provide benefits and flexibility to their workforce and do they educate and help them develop.

At Diamond Brand Gear, we consider the life cycle of the product at the beginning of product development. We want our products to last a long time. We want them to be something to hand down, share, fix and repair. Additionally, if we consider the life cycle of the product at the beginning, then we make a big impact in terms of waste. We give more thought to the materials we use and whether they are repairable, washable and will continue to have a long life.

We are also big fans of upcycling. We are creative in our designs and use different materials from one product to create another that might evoke an emotion from our consumers – such as a fond memory of something they used to do. For example, we use scraps from old tents and repurpose them into bags. Additionally, we are working on a take-back program for used tents – thinking about working with summer camps and other organizations that replace tents over time.

Diamond Brand Gear also places a high priority on maintenance, set-up and repair education. We take actions at the front end to extend the life of our products and take great pride in seeing a tent still performing after 20 years.

With our fabrics, we consider how many coatings they have on them, if additives are used, and what they are comprised of that might cause sustainability issues down the road. Our hope is to address concerns on the front end in a way that contributes to the same great performance you would expect of our gear.

Finally, we are currently partnering with a professor at the University of North Carolina on a sustainability study to understand which elements have the biggest impact and where our business/products stand relative to those things. We aim to take these finds and not only do the bare minimum, but find ways to surpass those expectations with metrics that we transparently communicate to our customers over time.

How does technology and innovation play a role in your business?

Technology and innovation are vital to any company. They are key things in the mix no matter what you do.

At Diamond Brand Gear, we use technology as a tool to help us do the things we want to do better and quicker at higher levels of quality. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is more automated, just that it delivers our vision more predictably.

And I don’t know how to be a successful company without innovation of some sort. Again, here, you don’t have to reinvent all the time. Rather, the key is making small changes that make a big difference – “micro-innovations.”

My favorite example of this is from a story I heard from a man named Josh Linker in Detroit. He told the story of Buckminster Fuller and the trim tab. Fuller worked with ships in the 1900s on ways to make the rudder more effective in steering a ship. However, the rudder itself wouldn’t work. So, Fuller added a teeny rudder on the back of the rudder itself (called a trim tab) and that made all the difference 

In Western North Carolina, we feel intertwined into this narrative since Fuller taught for some time at nearby Black Mountain College. Asheville is also home to a few modern artists and architects such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and Josef Albers.

We are often asked why we are in Asheville. And really it is just the perfect spot for outdoor activity. It is so accessible to the average person and that’s really important to us.

Behind the scenes at Diamond Brand Gear's warehouse

What does wilderness mean to you? 

To me, wilderness means a raw, untouched and “healthy” space. It is getting away from mass-produced things that we are surrounded by every day and everything that comes with that (the rush, cars, stress, etc.)

Wilderness is more authentic. It is what it is. It is not manipulated, it has not changed. What you see is what you get. And, at the end of the day, that’s healthy.

Some people don’t have the chance to experience wilderness. Diamond Brand gear wants to help people get there and engage in things that we know are good for them. To this end, we work with an organization called Muddy Sneakers in Hendersonville, North Carolina to help get kids outside. 

Finally, because of all these benefits of nature, it is important to us that we not sell products that could negatively impact these wild places in the future.

Do you have a favorite item, it may be an heirloom handed down from a grandparent, friend or relative of some kind, that has great meaning to you?

One of my grandfathers collected pocket knives and the other was a meat cutter and collected butcher knives. They were not necessarily the nicest or most expensive products, but they took such thoughtful care of them over time. I try and keep them in a shape they would be proud of today. 

If you had to choose one place to live with only the basics available to you where would it be and what would you take with you apart from the obvious survival gear? 

I would say right here in the Carolina mountains. There is an experience, accessibility and variety that exists here mixed with a group of people from all over who care about the what makes this a unique place. There is an ethos to this area.

I would bring pens and notebooks, so that I could focus on reflecting on my experience, remembering to jot down what the experience made me feel and think.

I would also bring books on comparative religions, as well as the Bible, so I could take the opportunity in nature to read and gain insights on how people approach big questions in life. I would take the opportunity to do a lot of pondering.

Style shot of Diamond Brand Gear in back of an old car

Imagine that 25 years from now you are looking back on your life, what would be the legacy that you would hope for your brand to leave behind?

I would want to leave a legacy of inspiration – inspiring folks to not be afraid, to try and do the things that they want to do in life and that they think are good decisions.

I hope that I could through my journey encourage others to be comfortable being different.

Finally, I would want to demonstrate that you can make decisions about things that are good for the environment, good for people and good for business. That you can create organizations that value community and a commitment to each other through their approach to business.

Do you have a quote, saying or poem you find inspirational and what is it?

Even though it’s cheesy: “If you build it, they will come” from the movie Field of Dreams. Nowadays, people want to be conservative in business and ensure that demand is there before they create something; however, business requires boldness. Think about Steve Jobs.

It’s okay to take on risks sometimes. Sometimes finding the right thing requires that you take a chance and see.

Tiles of various Diamond Brand Gear items and behind the scenes manufacturing shots

What brands do you admire?

Sierra Nevada. It is a great brand with great people that do the things important to them and don’t always think of bottom line. I really admire how they go about things. Their leader, Ken, operates in such a humble way outside of the spotlight.

Porsche. For their high level of design. There is no substitute idea. They build high-performance sports cars, but they are drivable, have space and feel good. It is not something you have to put on a racetrack to enjoy – even though, that is quite enjoyable as well.

Chick-fil-a. There is no other company in the 24/7 industry that chooses to give their employees one day off a week; people don’t understand the cost/benefit of that. And for how busy they always are, they always serve quality items in a pleasant manner. Their training is impressive and unusual in today’s world.

Patagonia, of course. They changed the way people think about running a company. They have an impact, found a big megaphone and use it to influence a lot of people, change discussions and elevate issues. 

People operate on different stages. Certain folks in the outdoor industry operate at a high level in terms of awareness. Specialty folks operate in different way. Both are important. 

How important do you think transparency and authenticity in brands is to consumers?

They are both getting to be more important, but full adoption is going to take some time.

At Diamond Brand Gear, we are willing to share learnings with other small businesses or any company that wants to take a similar approach. We collaborate a lot and enjoy being a resource for folks trying to solve issues on their own. 

Currently, we are doing some workforce development with 20+ other companies and want to continue to contribute to the growth of the industry/region.

As companies and innovators, we don’t need to repeat everything. We should adopt good ideas and share our good ideas.

Diamond Brand Gear travel duffel bag in brown

What is your favorite animal and why?

Cats. They have their own view of things and go where they want when they want. I’m always wondering what on my cat’s mind. Cats always appear to be up to something, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I also appreciate their mentality. They make their own choices.

What is one thing you would be willing to or have already given up with the health of the planet in mind? 

Perhaps a bit of a nontraditional answer: I am willing to give up maximizing my own personal income. 

This is a big issue today where leaders of companies make so much more than the average worker. They live different lives, but work for the same organization. This is not healthy or sustainable.

I am committed to ending this practice at Diamond Brand Gear. I keep my salary as CEO under 10x what the average worker makes. I also participate in monthly shop clean-ups at 6 am on the first Friday of every month.

I say all of this as a capitalist, free market guy who believes that the market should dictate what people get paid. I am not a fan of controlling executives with caps, ceilings; however, I do think that we should remind people that they have a choice to change what they make and how compensation plans work within their company.

If I make more choices that give benefits to individuals employees, then that is arguably more sustainable and good for the health of the planet, generally speaking.

Warehouse shot of Diamond Brand Gear's shop in Asheville, NC