Interview with Tom Sega, Duluth Pack

Image introducing an interview with CEO of Duluth Pack, Tom Sega

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

I am an industrial engineer. For 22 years, my career was in sales and sales management capacities within the paper manufacturing industry. During that time, I traveled extensively for business and found that very few products would hold up to the rigors of this continual travel.  Following an unfortunate mishap with an expensive briefcase, I decided to purchase a Duluth Pack Computer briefcase. Twenty-six years later and I am still using the same briefcase. That purchase led to a second, third and many more Duluth Pack purchases. At that point, I was enthralled with the quality and craftsmanship of the Duluth Pack products and decided to approach the company to see if they would be interested in selling. Following three years of hounding the company, we finally sat down and put a deal together.

At that time, the company was struggling financially and needed many good business practices put in play. Then, we were at 21 employees between our factory and flagship retail store. Today, we are at 110+ employees and are housed in our operating building in Duluth, Minnesota.

What is it like to live in Northern Minnesota?

If you like four distinctively different seasons, then this place might be for you. We are blessed to have four seasons even though most of us say winter gets a little long.

During winter, a walk in the woods on a -25 degree day where the wind is light is awesome. If you dress appropriately and keep moving, you will not get cold. The air is so clean and fresh, it is an experience everyone should give a try.

Spring is sometimes stretched a little long and the weather gods trick us into believing that we’ve survived another winter, but, too many times, it will simply dump a big snowfall on us once again. 

Summer is earned up here. It gets light about 4:30 am and I can mow my lawn until about 9:30 pm. 75-80 degrees and low humidity is very nice.  

Fall time is extraordinary in Minnesota. The colors are bright with crisp mornings and warm afternoons. Although most up here agree that it could stretch out longer, it is my personal favorite season.

We are also blessed to live on the edge of Lake Superior, which is the largest freshwater lake in the world. Lake Superior holds 10% of the Earth’s freshwater, and it is in our backyard. It serves as our inland sea.  

Image of a Duluth Pack green bag packed for an adventure

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

Duluth Pack is the oldest canvas and leather pack and bag maker in the USA. At 137 continuous years in business, we have been working in the same manufacturing site since 1911.

The Core Values of Duluth Pack are: 1- Quality, 2- Premium Product, 3- Made In The USA, 4- Lifetime Guarantee on all craftsmanship and hardware.

With core values such as these, Duluth Pack oozes quality from everything we do. All of our decisions must fall into these core values or we will not move forward with the project.

Everyone aspires to be in the outdoors. It does not matter if you live in a large urban area or are from the backwoods of Minnesota, we all love the outdoors and Duluth Pack brings that to you with each and every bag and pack we build.

We ship products to all seven continents, including Antarctica. Our channels of sale include: one flagship retail store, which is located in the historic Canal Park of Duluth, MN., the Duluth Pack website, which hosts visitors from all over the globe, and our wholesale department that sells our brand to a global dealer network. We also have a private label business where we sell our bags with other brand’s logos attached.

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

Sustainability plays a big role in Duluth Pack. Being that our products come with a lifetime guarantee, we buck the trend of the throwaway society. When you invest in a Duluth Pack product, you have purchased a lifelong bag. When you observe the materials of our bags- cotton canvas and leather- they both are the epitome of sustainability.

We also sell any scrap canvas and leather that is not useable to Duluth Pack’s manufacturing.  Local artisans purchase these smaller components for the projects they work on. We are continually working to reduce or eliminate any waste from our manufacturing processes.

Two images of Duluth Pack bags, one red and the other gray, in the outdoors

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

Technology plays a large part in our business from an infrastructure standpoint. We utilize computers and technology in every department in the company. It would be impossible to effectively operate a company without it in today’s age. Although, if you walk in our factory, some of our machinery is over 100-years-old and we still use hand tools such as hammers, cutters and several miscellaneous tools for product manufacturing. When we say handcrafted, we mean it.

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?

My favorite product that we make would be either my original purchase of the Computer Briefcase or my All-Day Lumbar Pack. I do not go on any of my many fishing or hunting trips without my All-Day Lumbar Pack. It is the best fanny-style pack ever.

Image of a woman wearing a Duluth Pack bag looking out over a stunning mountain range

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 have three happy places: 1- On the Florida Gulf Coast with my wife; 2- My hunting shack in the woods, this meets the basics part as it has wood heat only, a dirt floor, no insulation, no running water and an outhouse; and 3- Our cabin lease in Canada’s backwoods where it is an 8-mile boat or snowmobile ride to the cabin from the end of the road. It is very basic, but extremely relaxing. While we are there, we have no phone, no TV, no running water, no interruptions. Life is good!

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?

In 25 years, I would like to believe that people would look and say, “wow, this company is a lot better off than it was when they came here and they treated a lot of people very well.” And that we remained authentic and true to our values.

Photo of a man with his dog going out into nature with red, Duluth Pack bag in tow

What message do you have for those starting their own business in regards to sustainability and innovation?

Everyone should strive to be as sustainable as we can in everything we do. And be as innovative as you can be, but do not get hung up on every detail. Surround yourself with the best people you can and set them up for success. Business is hard work, it’s hard work every day. Do not go into business if you are not willing to work harder than everyone else. Do not try to be everything to everyone. Stick to who you are and do not compromise your values.

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

“All you can do is all you can do, but, all you can do is enough.”

Images of Duluth Pack bags being utilized on the water

What brands do you admire?

Mossy Oak is a brand I admire. The culture at Mossy Oak is as good as it gets. It has grown into a large company, but they have never forgotten where they came from and the family culture is the fixture of everything they do.

On the flip side, sadly, there are many companies that I do not admire, as they will sell their soul for a buck and try to be everything to everyone. I find that to be hypocritical, thus I cannot support those companies.

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

I believe that transparency and authenticity has been lost in business. As stated earlier, we should never try to be everything to everyone. As companies are pushed harder for shareholder value, their core values seem to go out the window and leaders will do about anything to concentrate only on a narrow set of goals to keep investors happy. Companies will use statements of transparency and authenticity, but they end up being words only.

Image of a woman wearing a Duluth Pack cross-body bag overlooking a beautiful setting

Can you tell us something about your product/brand/personal journey that might surprise us to know?

I was not a great student. Traditional book learning was a struggle for me. Give me a book to read and I will not do well. However, show me how to do something and I will excel. I always was a hard worker and to this day feel that to be successful in whatever you choose to do, you must be willing to work harder and longer than anyone else. If you do this, eventually you will be successful. This does not mean work hard this day or this week. It means work hard every day of your life. Most others are not willing to sacrifice and work hard every day. If you are willing to do this, you will be successful and many others will not.

What is your favorite animal and why?

The Dog. I cannot find anything else so loyal. They will give and give to their masters with little asked for in return. I believe that we can all learn a lot about loyalty from dogs.

Man carrying a Duluth Pack briefcase to work

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

Propane to heat my house. Even though I live in Northern Minnesota and our winters are long and brutally cold, I would welcome heating with wood. Wood is obviously sustainable, plus I would be in much better shape than I am today. Some of my best days are at my shack in the woods cutting up heating wood for the next seasons heating.