By Eric Peterson | Jun 01, 2020
Goose and duck down and bedding products
While he was a college student in New York, Uretsky got a job testing down. "You've got to pay your dues, no matter what."
The experience led to the launch of ALLIED Feather & Down in 1987. "I was very fortunate. I learned a lot," says Uretsky. "What I really learned, and I've practiced this my whole career, is like that Spike Lee movie: Do the Right Thing."
In the last decade, ALLIED has expanded from primarily supplying down to department stores for bedding to outdoor brands like the North Face. Uretsky says the pivot has paid off. "We grew and grew with our customers," he explains. "It's a simple formula. It's not rocket science."
A particularly cold winter in 2009-10 catalyzed outerwear's adoption of down. "It was switched, like turning on a light," says Uretsky. "Garments started to drive it."
The company's roster of outdoor-oriented customers now includes Helly Hansen, Outdoor Research, and Land's End. Outdoor brands tend to demand accountability from their suppliers, and Uretsky turned it into a differentiator. "What Steve did was really unique," says Matthew Betcher, ALLIED's creative director. "First and foremost, we're an insulation brand bringing a higher quality and traceable materials to the growing brand."
It was a much different story in the 1990s, he adds. "Back then, the whole supply chain looked like a network of brokers who had zero transparency. Steve single-handedly changed the supply chain, so now we work directly with farmers, all the way upstream, to offer traceability and an animal welfare program."
The price sensitivity in the bedding market was not a factor for the outdoor brands, who demanded quality as well as sustainability and traceability. ALLIED's retailer customers worked with middlemen to source down for finished products. "We were selling to other manufacturers," says Uretsky. "It was, 'What's your best price?'"
The outdoor industry is markedly different. "We aren't dealing with the manufacturer, we're dealing with the brand," says Uretsky. "How do I make myself more important to the brand? They have exposure. Let's do this right. That's what changed: young people caring about where their material came from."
Uretsky, who works with three of his children at ALLIED, says it's about standing out in a commodity market. "What are we marketing? We can't be marketing down, because that's a commodity. We've got to be forthright, and we've got to do the right thing."
The company helped develop the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) in 2014 to "make sure the supply chain is clean," says Uretsky. "It's about animal welfare as well." ALLIED works with third parties for verification of the supply chain.
Retailers in the bedding market also liked the approach. "It's been very successful," says Uretsky. "Almost all of our bedding customers want the down traceable. They all want that RDS standard. It's been really cool."
The 1999 World Trade Organization agreement with China led to a shift to offshore manufacturing, and ALLIED opened its first factory in Asia. The company now sources down from goose and duck farms in China and Europe for processing facilities in factories in California, North Carolina, China, and Vietnam. A Canadian facility is slated to open in Montreal in July 2020, and ALLIED has a European partner in the Czech Republic.
It's often shipped directly to manufacturers for American brands in Asia, and the highest-quality down from Europe is typically brought to the U.S. for processing. The vast majority of U.S.-processed down is shipped back overseas for manufacturing. "A lot of our brands aren't looking for the cheapest material," says Uretsky. "High-quality brands want high quality. They want to maintain that."
About 75 percent of feather down comes from Asia, where duck and goose are often on the menu. "You have 1.3 billion people in China -- they eat a lot of duck, they eat a lot of goose," says Uretsky. "Down is a byproduct. If you can't sell the meat, you're not going to raise the down."
ALLIED manufactures bedding products in Asia; Uretsky says costs would be about 40 percent higher manufacturing the same products domestically.
The company adheres to the same high standards at each of its facilities, says Uretsky. "In China, we recycle 100 percent of our water," he notes. When other factories were shuttered for overuse, ALLIED's remained open.
When COVID-19 shut down California in March, ALLIED pivoted to manufacturing face masks and pillows for the homeless and frontline workers. "Retail is on hold," says Uretsky. "Our down business is on hold for the most part."
The daily face mask target is moving from 10,000 to 20,000. "We're a local manufacturer who can make masks in the United States, and we're doing it and we stand behind it," says Uretsky. "We're hiring more people on a daily basis to put two shifts together."
He credits his staff for the quick ramp-up, noting, "Without people, you're nobody. You're nothing. You don't exist."
Betcher says volume fluctuates with demand, but the company ships "several million kilograms" of down in a given year.
The pre-pandemic growth curve was solid. "We've doubled over the last several years," says Uretsky. "I can't speak to that for this year. Sales have really dropped."
But he remains bullish. "My outlook on life is always the cup is half full," he says, "There's always an issue, but how do you overcome it?"
Challenges: A possible push to relax supply-chain standards in the wake of the pandemic. "One of the big challenges we face now is going back to a more opaque vertical sourcing," says Betcher. "You have to be very careful with what you're purchasing. It's not all the same material."
Opportunities: The apparel market will continue to drive ALLIED growth, says Uretsky. "It's outdoor," he notes. "It's fashion as well. There's a lot of huge fashion companies that use a lot of down."
He adds, "Our bedding business is also growing. We've hired a lot of people, so that's a push for us."
Needs: "The ALLIED need is for our people to stay healthy," says Uretsky. "That's the ALLIED need. . . . It isn't all business. It really isn't."