Haute Cow-ture

What happened to a savvy marketer who couldn't draw

by Rosalyn Graham

When a North Carolina sock manufacturer told Gail Wheel the cow design she'd drawn on the back of a napkin was "the stupidest idea they ever heard of," she decided to order 1,200 for herself and sell them before she had to pay the bill. That was 1989. This year, she expects $1.7 million in sales for her Stowe company, Wheel House Designs.

The words "sock lady" conjure up a story of a white-haired granny knitting socks for her grandchildren who is inspired to turn her love of knitting into a cottage industry. She recruits her granny friends to knit, too, and before long, they are world-famous and rich.

Erase that picture. This sock lady is a petite, fair-haired single mother who has never knit a stitch; she is a smart marketer who recognized a gap in the specialty products market 15 years ago and decided to fill it. Last year, she sold 21,338 dozen pairs of socks, and next year she expects to sell 27,000 dozen.

From cable cars on socks in San Francisco to bassett hounds on socks at the Westminster Dog Show in New York City and skiers on socks at Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont, Gail Wheel of Wheel House Designs in Stowe has turned socks into sought-after souvenirs all over the United States and gifts with designs to suit every giftee.

It all began with the classic "let's see the country" adventure that had brought Wheel, newly graduated with a degree in international relations, and a friend from her hometown of Denver to Mount Washington in New Hampshire and then to Stowe. She waitressed and tended bar, spending three years as the manager of The Shed on the Mountain Road.

Married to The Shed's kitchen manager, Todd Wheel, she left the restaurant business when she became pregnant, and for four years focused her creativity on The Art of Giving, a gift shop in Stowe where she could combine entrepreneurial activity with motherhood, keeping baby Marshall in a bassinette in the back room and playing with him when the store wasn't busy.

When she was pregnant with her second son, Casey, she sold her shop and found the ideal career for a young mother with two babies to care for: sales rep. Jan Hall, whose Oslo Shop was next door to The Art of Giving, was making hand-painted T-shirts and needed someone to market them.

"That's a job you can do out of your house," Wheel says. "You make your little swing around to meet people and after that you call them on the phone and ask them if they need more." She could do that between diaper changes. Working from home with two little children even prompted the name for her business. Calling it Wheel House made it easy to answer the phone with a professional sound.

The cow sock came first. Wheel was at a trade show representing Hall's designs when she was approached by a sock company looking for a New England rep. She said she would give it a 30-day trial. "I never opened the box of socks they sent me, but during that 30 days, I had the bright idea of doing a spotted cow sock for Ben & Jerry's."

The Ben & Jerry's connection was a natural. The ice cream makers used cow motifs on their products, and their buyer, Marianne Corcoran, had worked for Wheel at The Art of Giving. "I knew I could get it in there, and with the prospect of all that commission from Ben & Jerry cow socks, I was in heaven."

Then reality struck. Wheel pitched the cow sock design she had drawn on the back of a napkin to the manufacturer. "I'm not an artist, and they sent it back, saying it was horrible. They said the black splotches looked like bats and waves." After several attempts, the mill got tough, saying they didn't want to do the sock, that it was "the stupidest idea they ever heard of," and, moreover, that she had no experience selling socks. "They said it was a bomb," Wheel moans.

Such negative feedback from a company with so much experience in the sock business touched off a reaction Wheel has seen many times in her life. "If they say you can't do it, I have to do it," she says. "When they said no, I said, 'What if I buy them myself?'"

She ordered 1,200 pairs of her cow socks and had 30 days to pay for them.

Filled with uncertainty and afraid her idea was a bomb, Wheel had a stroke of luck and a big surprise. She was visiting Orvis in Manchester showing Jan Hall's T-shirts when a sample of what she describes as "one of the uglier cow socks" fell out of her briefcase. The Orvis buyer looked down and said, "I want those."

Orvis was doing a "whole cow spread" in its spring catalog, says Wheel, and they wanted her cow socks. They ordered 3,000 pairs, even agreeing to her suggestion that, for the honor of being the first catalog in the world to have her socks, they should pay in advance. Today, after years of working with catalogs, Wheel knows how rare that arrangement was.

Wheel House Designs' retail shop, Wild Life Gift Shop, shares space with the wholesale part of the business. Jean Fuller (left) manages the store; Priscilla Stone is sales and operations manager for Wheel House.

She took the socks to trade shows and couldn't keep up with the orders. She called the 200 clients on her T-shirt rep list and asked them to take some socks to see if they would sell.

"The manager of the gift shop in the Burlington International Airport said, 'Gail, these are so ugly, they'll never sell,' so I said, 'Just give them a shot I'll give you three dozen of them on Friday, and you can just pay me for the ones you sold.'" He called her Saturday to say they were sold out.

The Ben & Jerry's connection has played a key role in Wheel's company's growth. Her cow socks are in 200 Ben & Jerry's stores and franchises across the country. Corcoran is still at the ice cream company and has high praise for Wheel and her socks. "She is one of the brightest people I have ever met when it comes to marketing," Corcoran says. "Our biggest problem is keeping them in stock."

Reactions like that, and Wheel's good reputation among specialty shops of Vermont and beyond, launched the sock business like a rocket. In her first year, 1989, between April and December she sold $13,000 in cow socks. Last year, the company had sales of $1.3 million and this year Wheel expects $1.7 million.

As choices for sock shoppers grew, Wheel thought, "If I can do a cow I can do a moose." She created socks with cats because people said, Why don't you do cats? She now has a handsome catalog full of dogs "huge right now," Wheel says and cats, song birds and wild birds, moose, skiers, flowers, holiday motifs, sporty themes and novelties such as chili peppers and bookworms. Sixty sales reps around the country sell to her 2,000 clients, mostly gift and specialty shops. The socks are in other people's catalogs and on the Web.

Wheel House Designs has grown from its tiny beginnings when Wheel operated out of her little house in Mansfield View north of Stowe, juggling her sons' schedules and phone calls, scanning the skies for rain as she received tractor-trailer loads of socks on her front lawn to be sorted, repacked and shipped out the same afternoon because she had no space for storage.

Since 1996 she has been on Main Street in Stowe, with a retail shop in front and the rest of the business squeezed into the back half of the building and the basement. She knows the time is fast approaching when she will need to move to bigger quarters, perhaps her own building, with room for offices with doors and a bit of elbow room.

The staff has grown, too. "The sock people" as Wheel calls them, include five full-timers back to six as soon as Wheel can fill one empty slot and two part-timers. Priscilla Stone is sales and operations manager and Wheel's "right hand"; Jean Fuller manages the retail store, Wild Life Gift Shop, works in the office and is Wheel's "left hand"; Shawn Goodell handles shipping and is training to be a purchasing agent; Karen Miller, the administrative assistant, handles details from typing invoices to making phone calls; Carol Miller keeps the books; and artist-designer Tony Orzech is the newest addition to the full-time staff. Two part-timers, Linda Adams and Kristin Walker, work in the gift shop.

Wheel appreciates their adaptability and their willingness to overlook the cramped conditions. Adaptability has been a tradition since she hired her first employee, Randy Michelson, to do filing. "I looked over her shoulder one day and she was doodling," Wheel says. Soon Michelson was in charge of art and design, moving from pencil and paper technology to computer-aided design. "Randy taught herself and she took me to another level," Wheel says. When Michelson retired recently, Wheel hired Orzech, who brings a whole new degree of expertise in art, computers and designing for the two mills that produce the Wheel House Design socks.

No product of Wheel House Designs has more personality and charm than the bear that wraps its big paws right around the body of a T-shirt the bear hug design Wheel created in 1991. It was a departure from the socks and it involved a whole new learning curve. Many printers said a design that wrapped around the shirt was impossible and too expensive. Richard and Bonnie Barton, who owned Deerfield Designs in Waitsfield, thought the project was feasible. Richard built a screen printer and developed a "manual wrap" printing strategy that produced thousands of bear hug shirts in all sizes, for many years.

The bear hugs were especially popular with the customers of Signals catalog, the publication that goes to supporters of public radio stations, who bought $225,000 worth of the shirts in the first year. Bonnie Barton speaks highly of Wheel as "extremely creative and fabulous on marketing."

"The business was a survival thing, not a dream of socks," Wheel says. "It was a fluke that I was a good salesperson and I started selling an idea that I had in my head. I figured it would last about two years."

Her son Marshall, 21, is studying business at Vermont Technical College and beginning to have a new awareness of Wheel's business acumen while she takes the opportunity to funnel business questions to his professors. Casey, at 17, is a basketball-playing senior at Stowe High School.

Artist-designer Tony Orzech creates the designs for Wheel House socks, which are sold across the country, from the Westminster Dog Show in New York to San Francisco gift shops. Gail Wheel is the company's founder.

With 15 years behind her, Wheel is making changes and looking toward others. She has spent the last year focusing on inventory control and purchasing. "I switched from sales I knew I could do that and spent a whole year designing a spreadsheet to track every design in every size so we know how many have sold in which designs," Wheel says. "I've learned to think more as a business-person."

She has learned to call on the wisdom of others in the business community, especially Bob Richardson of Banknorth, on whom she relies, not to talk about money, but to look at her business from its details to its future vision.

With her boys grown, Wheel sees Wheel House Designs taking bigger steps and faster. "It may take 10 years, but when I have an idea, it always happens," she says.

Originally published in December 2003 Business People-Vermont