Globe Manufacturing: Saving Firefighters and Making History
The factory floor of Globe Manufacturing may seem like your average textile manufacturing space -- from its daylight yellow walls, to the Technicolor knickknacks dotting individual workstations. But the work being done here is anything but ordinary.
Each button affixed, every buckle checked is done with purpose and comes with the communal feeling that every part is gravely important, that it better be right if it's going to help bring someone home safe tonight.
What Globe produces is, in fact, very important to people across the country and the world. Located in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, the company is a fourth generation manufacturer of firefighter turnout gear. They literally invented the stuff over a century ago, and over the years have continued to grow and change their product to reflect the needs of the firefighters and emergency medical service workers they serve in more than 80 countries. Their biggest success has been the ability to create fire suits that, with each new iteration, get more flexible, durable and comfortable.
The suits are also customizable, which means that every piece of gear that leaves the factory is custom made for a real person with a name and a job working in emergency services.
"What we make, it doesn't go in a machine and come out the other side," says Gef Freese, great-grandson of the founder and senior vice president for operations at Globe. "It's people who are doing it and they are really proud of what they do -- they want the firefighters to come home alive."
Chapter 1: 'A Call to Service'
In 1901, Courtland F. H. Freese was becoming the best horse harnesser in an increasingly automobile world. Then, his brother-in-law, JD Wentworth died, leaving his business, Globe Manufacturing Co., up for grabs. At the time, Wentworth's company, located in Lynn, Massachusetts, manufactured custom leather coats for workmen, farmers, pharmacists and the like. Freese bought Globe, and moved operations from Lynn to a one-room shop above his horse harness business in Pittsfield.
Among his new clientele were firefighters who would wear the coats as turnout gear -- so named because these volunteers turned out in the middle of the night to fight fires -- and did so in the dead of winter. New Hampshire winters are cold ... extremely cold. And these bucket brigade firefighters were out in the thick of it, sloshing water as much on themselves as the fires they were fighting.
Freese wanted to keep them warm, and so, came up with a three-layer system comprised of an outer shell, a moisture barrier and a thermal liner. He marketed it as the only waterproof turnout gear in the U.S. and tripled his business in three years. With this innovation, Globe's mission and the company's success was born.
Soon, Globe became a fertile testing ground for new technology. According to company officials, they were the first to use 3M reflective trim, which allowed firefighters to be seen in dark and smoky conditions. Until Globe started using flame-resistant fabric, turnout gear was entirely flammable. They also were the first to use Gore-Tex, a still waterproof but more breathable fabric.
The spirit of innovation is still strong in the fourth-generation owners -- Gef and his brother Rob Freese along with cousin-in-law Don Welch. Only, these days instead of waiting for innovation to come to them, they seek it out. In the 2000s, Globe started collaborating with universities, government researchers, technical textile developers and designers to evolve their products.
One huge leap forward came from a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Together, Globe and FEMA designed a suit that helped protect emergency crews working in hazardous situations. These new suits were water and windproof and helped protect crews from skin exposure to blood, body fluids and chemicals. The outer layer was also flame resistant, which protected against flash fires. This proved itself very useful when the Pentagon came calling Globe for help with gear two days after 9/11.
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-... it's why we do it. When you've got a vision, a passion -- that's what drives this business.%Another partnership with the U.S. Army produced the "Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform," which allows an incident commander at a fire scene to track the location of firefighters inside a burning structure as well as monitor the physiology of each firefighter.
The company also occasionally takes special requests, including one from a California firefighter who, after being burned over 80 percent of his body, wanted a lightweight breathable suit that would allow him to return to service.
"That's the sort of stuff we do, it's a call to service," says Rob, Globe's current senior vice president of marketing. "To be able to have customers like this and to be able to protect these folks who are running into burning buildings. It's not about what we do; it's why we do it. When you've got a vision, a passion -- that's what drives this business."
Chapter 2: Brothers in Business
Gef started working for Globe Manufacturing when he was 6-years-old, only he didn't know it.
"I never thought of it as work or an expectation, it was just a place that I would come to be with the family and I wanted to be with my family," he says, now in his 54th year with the company. All five of the Freese kids cut their teeth in the business. While their uncle Courtland Freese II, ran the firefighter division, and their parents Florence and George headed up the Skiwear division their grandfather started in the 1920s, the kids were busy sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, cutting swatches and whatever else needed to be done.
Despite this, when it came time to work -- actually work -- for the company, they had to earn it. Anyone related to the Freese's, and that includes the owners, who wanted a job with the company had to interview for it, do an internship and work his or her way through each department. When it came time for the business to switch hands in 1993 from the third generation to the fourth, even that wasn't a sure thing.
"Nothing was ever handed to us," Rob says. "You weren't guaranteed the business. You needed to show some enthusiasm, passion, desire and ability to fulfill that role before you could earn that role, and only then were we given the opportunity to buy it from them."
Most family businesses don't make it to the third generation, let alone the fourth. Globe is working on the fifth. Part of the reason they've made it this far, says Rob, is the owners have made a conscious effort to honor the previous generations' legacy when making changes critical to future success.
Back in the day, there was Courtland and George Freese at the top. The current owners recognize the experience and capabilities of their senior management team and practice a consensus building leadership style. They each have their roles and focus their attention accordingly. When there's a dispute, they gather input from their senior managers, hash it out, and move on.
In fact, disputes are few and far between these days. The current owners attribute that to the way they personally do business-which is all about the customer demand and not individual preferences. At Globe, they ask the firefighters what they like, what they don't and what would help. That steers the ship. And in that way, decisions aren't personal, just a strict adherence to giving the customers what they want.
What's more, the business works because they genuinely like each other. They hang out outside of work, go on vacations together and even live in the same neighborhood. And every Tuesday night without fail, Rob and Gef still take their 90-year-old mother out to dinner to catch up and talk about the business.
"I've never asked her," Gef Freese says with a chuckle. "But I think she's pretty proud of us."
Chapter 3: The Historian
Doug Towle grew up on a farm in Pittsfield, one of 13 children. His sister, Shirley, married Courtland F.H. Freese II, one of the third generation Globe owners. At 13, he started working at Globe after school doing odd jobs for the company. Throughout high school, he was working 40 hours of nights and weekends a week making 50 cents an hour.
"By the time I graduated high school, I had saved $10,000," Towle says. His work at Globe put him through college and graduate school.
A lot has changed since Towle first came to work at the company. When he started, a Globe-manufactured coat sold for $16.75. Today it's not unusual for them to be closer to $1,600. Back then, they were making 10 or 15 suits a week and had only 20 workers, whereas today they are about 500 employees between their operations. The company itself employs about 10 percent of Pittsfield.
"It's a true success story," Towle says. "There are a million firefighters out there today and we are the largest in the world at making [firefighter] clothing, in this little town, in this little factory, in little New Hampshire, and so I think we're really proud of that."
He says "we," because over 58 years later, Towle is still with Globe. But that doesn't mean his life didn't take some twists and turns along the way. After graduating from Boston College at the top of his class with an MBA, Towle dreamt of making the best men's suits on the market. At the time, that meant going to Chicago to work for Hart Schaffner Marx where he landed a spot in the company's new management trainee program. Three years later, Towle was living the glamorous city life from high atop his 30th floor apartment in downtown Chicago, making a handsome living. That's when Courtland Freese called him back home to work for him.
"I'm living in a 30th floor high-rise in downtown Chicago, I had a Rolls Royce," Towle says. "I said, 'Boy you know, the air quality here is not that good, and I have to fight traffic to get downtown and I feel like an idiot parking my Rolls Royce.' So I decided I might like to come back to Globe at that time. I thought why wait until I'm 50 or 60 years old to come back to this beautiful place."
He kept the Rolls, but took a 50 percent pay cut, came back and has been at Globe ever since.
Towle, who at one time was head of sales and marketing, has evolved into what he calls a goodwill ambassador. He's worked like family next to two generations of Freeses and today still lunches with a third. That is, when he's not traveling to trade shows extolling the virtues of a line of products he believes in.
"So you'll ask why at 72 aren't you retired," Towle says. "Basically I had the opportunity of a lifetime here. This is really an American Dream what I've gone through. This job allows me all the joys in life. This isn't work to me. And I've gotten to a point and I don't take it for granted, that this is really where I need to be. That is my family. I'm not an owner, I'm just a paid employee like everyone else. But this is part of my life."