PIVOT!

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How Brist Mfg. became one of the fastest-growing manufacturers in the U.S.

It is among the more memorable television scenes of the 1990s. Chandler, Ross and Rachel are all attempting to carry a heavy couch up a flight of stairs on an episode of “Friends.” The couch is much too large for the sharp-angled staircase. Ross tries to guide the rest of the couch-moving crew up the staircase by constantly and abrasively shouting “Pivot!”

While shouting “Pivot!” might be a poor strategy for moving a couch up a flight of stairs, pivoting away from the company’s original business model was the best thing that ever happened to Bellingham-based Brist Mfg. The apparel maker originally got its start as Disidual Clothing, a lifestyle brand that eventually gained a presence in retailers up and down the West Coast. The brand was even on the shelves and racks at Zumiez, a longtime presence in major malls and shopping centers.

While Disidual was successful, CEO and owner Brendan Pape soon realized the difficulties associated with large-scale clothing manufacturing.

“Scaling up required existing relationships with overseas suppliers and unrealistic minimum order requirements,” Pape said. “Disidual did not have those relationships nor the ability to order the number of minimums suppliers required. We knew we had to figure out a different path. We solved our own problems by starting Brist Mfg.”

The plan worked. Brist became very good at manufacturing apparel and solving the needs of clothing companies. By 2015, Disidual was making more clothes for other companies than it was for Disidual. At that point, Brendan made a strategic business decision. He and his then-business partner focused on Brist and manufacturing clothes for other brands. It was a wise decision.

Over the next half-decade, Brist Mfg. experienced year-over-year growth that culminated in being named to the 2019 Inc. 5000 list. Published by business magazine Inc., the prestigious annual list ranks the nation’s 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies.

“2019 was an exceptional year for our company,” Pape said. “We entered 2020 with every expectation that we would continue on the same trajectory. By that point, the business had around 50 employees, and we were growing rapidly.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

“Businesses were clearly struggling with projecting demand in such a sudden economic downturn,” Pape said. “We definitely struggled with our revenue and sales goals. We had to make some hard decisions that could have had a much more negative impact on our culture than it did. I commend our team for that. They have really faced this year with a sense of courage and determination. It makes me proud to work with them.”

Almost immediately, Brist tried to do what they could to help each other and their community through the coronavirus crisis. In response to the pandemic, Brist developed a campaign focused on one simple message: “America, We Got This.”

“We could either wrap it up and go home or buckle down and try to make a difference,” Pape said. “No one on our team wanted to wrap it up. We all wanted to make a difference. Because of that, we developed a message for our community, and really the world. We are all in the same boat. We all face uncertainty. But we have faced fear and uncertainty before and have always risen to the occasion. That’s the message we were trying to share.”

The program centered on the ability to design an “America, We Got This” shirt specific to individual communities, with a portion of sales going to the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund, which supports independent food and beverage businesses.

Brist’s commitment to its community may have brought the company good karma. After enduring the first three quarters of a terrible year, Pape and his team bounced back in a big way at the end of the year. The fourth quarter of 2020 set an all-time sales record for Brist.

“The hard work everyone put in this year — and our commitment to each other and our community — really paid off. We aren’t where we were before the pandemic hit, but we see the path ahead that could put us where we want to be,” Pape said. “Barring any other major national calamities and assuming the vaccines work like they should, this year should be a great year for Brist.”

Brendan attributes Brist’s success to the fact that they are more than just a run-of-the-mill screen printing shop. The company has an in-house creative department that can provide clients custom art and designs.

“Normally, creating a custom piece requires working with a separate design team and then bringing that artwork to the company that turns it into a finished clothing item,” Pape said. “It is an inefficient process, and things sometimes get lost in translation between the design and production sides. Brist is different. Our creative team can help customers imagine, design and produce items while working one company. We help our clients create complete marketing solutions. That is very different in our industry.”

The difference has been noticed by more than just Inc. magazine. Brist has a client list that includes Woods Coffee, the Seattle Mariners, Lyft, Alienware, South by Southwest, the Sundance Film Festival, Mt. Baker Ski Area, Jackson Hole Ski Resort and seemingly half the craft breweries in the Pacific Northwest.

(Half might be an exaggeration, but Brist does a significant amount of business with breweries inside and outside of Whatcom County.)

“I like to think our partners understand the value of our creativity and innovation, but more than anything, I like to think we’ve worked with so many great local and national brands because they are attracted to our values,” Pape said. “Our commitment to our culture and our community is even more important than our commitment to our bottom line. The past year showed us we can’t always control the environmental factors affecting our business — but we can control the way we respond to those factors. At Brist, we stayed committed to our core values. Because of that, we are starting this year from a much stronger position than I would have expected a few months ago.”

Brist Mfg. is setting an example that, one would hope, other entrepreneurs in Whatcom County will follow. The clothing industry is notoriously difficult, as Brendan Pape learned when he started Disidual. Whatcom County also is a challenging place to start a business of any type — let alone one with the labor and production costs that come with running a clothing maker.

Still, Brist is doing far more than just making the best of a challenging situation. The company is thriving. In 2019, Inc. magazine ranked Brist No. 42 among the fastest-growing manufacturing companies in the country.

“I really believe there is a future for manufacturing in the United States and in Whatcom County,” Pape said. “We proved value is recognized wherever it is created. I hope that inspires others to start something they love, right here in Whatcom County. It will not be easy. But if you stay committed to who you are and what your business stands for, you will succeed — and the team here will root for you all along. And when the time comes, we will be happy to design and manufacture your apparel.”