Richard Sontag may not be old, but he recognizes his limitations.
That’s why the owner of Turtle Fur, the Vermont-based cold-weather accessories brand targeted to the outdoor and snow sports markets, opted to sell a majority ownership stake in the business to a private equity firm.
Sontag, a longtime apparel industry executive, finalized a deal earlier this week to sell a two-thirds interest in the company to Minneapolis-based Camano Capital. Terms were not disclosed.
At the same time, Turtle Fur has completed its transition into a B Corp company, as it focuses on transforming itself into a brand-focused, sustainable business operator that gives back to those in need and makes the outdoors inclusive to all.
Under the terms of the deal, Sontag will remain as chief executive officer “as long as I’m relevant,” he said, and will retain a seat on the board.
“I hit 60 in March and realized my skill set was not current enough to grow this brand into what it can be,” he explained. “We stayed in our lane and did very well, but we sell only one category — cold-weather accessories. We don’t even make gloves. I didn’t want to leave, but I didn’t have a growth plan either. So I put it on the market.”
His criteria for a sale was that the new owner would be willing to retain the company’s headquarters in Morrisville, Vermont, as well as its 25 employees, many of whom have been with the company for decades.
“I received a tremendous response,” Sontag said. “So I found a small group that understood what we stand for and can absolutely expand our offering while maintaining the integrity of the business.”
Turtle Fur was founded in 1982 by Millie Merrill who designed the first fleece neck warmer in the basement of a children’s store named the Yellow Turtle in Stowe, Vermont. “She invented the category,” Sontag said.
She created the Turtle Fur company and expanded beyond neck warmers into hats and other accessories. When she retired in 2001, she sold the business to Sontag, who had a long history in a family-owned textile business called American Silk Label as well as with a fleece apparel and accessories brand call Nordic Gear. He combined Turtle Fur with Nordic Gear after the purchase.
At the same time, Sontag was juggling the care of a very sick son, Jacob, who had Canavan Disease, a rare genetic disease. It was during his frequent visits to the hospital with Jacob that Richard Sontag realized how many parents were cash-strapped and unable to be with their sick children because they had to work.
Sontag wanted to do something and made a decision to start a nonprofit group and begin donating product. He called it Project Warmth and to date, Turtle Fur has given away more than 125,000 products to more than 350 organization in 49 states and three provinces in Canada to help people in need stay warm. “It really exploded on us,” Sontag said.
Under the new ownership, Project Warmth will continue as well, he noted.
And even though Jacob Sontag died from his disease and his father was able to focus more on the Turtle Fur business, “I realized I was an impediment,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere, but I’m not going to be the one making the three- to five-year plan either.”
That will fall to Camano.
Sontag said there is no rush to immediately expand into additional product categories or add staff, but he’s working closely with the new owners to “frame the groundwork for what we want to do.”
And Camano, which has offices in Seattle as well as Minneapolis and whose portfolio includes E-Cloth, a microfiber cleaning products business, Omnia, a leather furniture manufacturer and Norsari, a direct-to-consumer wrap and blanket company, believes Turtle Fur has the potential to grow beyond its current assortment.
“We feel very fortunate to partner with Richard and his team to grow Turtle Fur to the next level. Turtle Fur is a unique brand — it has integrity, brand-name recognition, a loyal following, and has achieved tremendous success while focusing on a narrow segment of the outdoor industry. We are excited to have the opportunity to work with Turtle Fur to help them reach their untapped potential,” said Tom Newell, founder of Camano.
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