The Story of Tom Bihn of the TOM BIHN Company

Mar 28, 2024

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Tom Bihn of the TOM BIHN Company

By Nesha Ruther

As a child, Tom Bihn loved spending time in the great outdoors. Raised in California, he spent his days hiking, camping, and backpacking. Over time, this passion for wildlife developed into an interest in the clothes and equipment needed to outfit such adventurers. “I would get these catalogs from North Face, Sierra Designs, REI, and Eddie Bauer. I got excited about the backpacking equipment that you could find there,” he says.

Although Tom received a small allowance from his parents and worked after-school jobs, much of this equipment was well out of his price range. “The way I saw it, I would have had to mow an infinite number of lawns to buy a North Face jacket and about five infinities to buy a sleeping bag or something.” Tom’s parents (perhaps jokingly) suggested he learn to make the gear himself.

Despite sewing being an unconventional hobby for a young boy in the ‘70s, Tom loved the idea. After his mother taught him the basics on her sewing machine, he and his brother repaired an old machine of their grandmother’s. Little did the Bihn family know, it was the beginning of a long and successful career. At ten years old, Tom began making small bags and selling them to his classmates.

Tom’s mother realized there was potential there, and introduced her son to Dave Meeks, an entrepreneur in Santa Cruz who owned his own custom alpine equipment store. “He was 25, recently back from Vietnam, and had his own little shop and factory where he and his girlfriend would sew sleeping bags and jackets. He invited me in, he’s a real generous person with his time, and showed me how to make my own equipment,” Tom says of his mentor.

By the time Tom reached junior high, he had learned to make the puffy down jackets that were all the rage. Typically expensive, he sold the jackets at a lower price to friends and even teachers. “I made a little money on the side, just for fun, but more than I would have made mowing lawns. I did that through my limited high school years.”

At 16, Tom dropped out of high school. He took the High School Proficiency Exam that granted him a diploma and began attending junior college. After a number of years, he was accepted to UC Santa Cruz. He attended UC for a year before dropping out once again. “I’m just a dropout,” Tom says laughing, “I just kept dropping out of things and never graduated from college.”

When Tom was 18, he had the opportunity to tour the North Face factory in Berkeley, California. “In 1978, everything North Face made was made in a solid city block in Berkeley, you could just walk through it. I had no idea how fast people could sew until I went to that factory. They were mostly women, and they were freaking flying through the stuff. North Face has an aesthetic and really clear design imperative that shines through.” Years later, this commitment to design would be reflected in his own career.

Tom spent his 20s working various odd jobs including a youth hostel, a winery, and a position working with mentally and physically disabled children and adults. “I did so many different jobs,” he says. “I made a list one time; I think I had 35 jobs.”

While working at the youth hostel, Tom spent a lot of time with travelers and began paying attention to the way they handled their luggage. “I watched how people used their bags and backpacks, how they relate to them, what they find useful, what they find frustrating.” It is a habit Tom maintains to this day. “For years, whenever I traveled, I would sit in the airport and watch people interacting with their luggage.”

People who didn’t like their bags would struggle and fight with the item, people who liked their bags treated them with ease or would show off the bag’s appearance. Tom noticed how some people treated the objects they owned as if they were imbued with great meaning. For others, it was simply a bag.

In the late ‘80s, Tom created his company TOM BIHN and began making bags out of a workshop in his home. Some friends of his owned a shop in Santa Cruz and started selling his merchandise; they gave Tom a commission on every bag he sold. “I would take a job for six months, knowing that I was earning just enough money to buy materials, then I would quit the job and sew for a couple of months and sell my products. When I would run out of money and fabric, I would go back and find another job for a while,” he says.

When he was in his late 20s, Tom went to an event and heard one of the speakers say something that would change his life forever. “[The Speaker] said this thing that struck me, which was that if people got to do what they really love to do, the world would be changed for the better. I realized I had been doing all these jobs, but what I loved to do was making stuff. My 20s were an era of learning about myself and how to be of service to the world. But in my 30s I realized that I wanted to do what I loved.”

Within months, he had rented a retail storefront in downtown Santa Cruz. He moved in his sewing machine, his cutting table, and rolls of fabric and began selling his bags directly to customers. He stayed in that same storefront for ten years before moving to the Pacific Northwest to expand his business. Like so much else in his life, this choice was informed by his love for nature.

“I moved to a town out on the Olympic Peninsula, Port Angeles, because I found that whenever I had any free time and was on vacation, I ended up in Port Angeles on my way to go backpacking in Olympic National Park,” he says. “It has a lovely climate, it’s a nice place, and I could afford to buy a house there, unlike Santa Cruz. It was a great move, I never looked back.”

For those first ten years in Santa Cruz, Tom had made every product himself. After moving, however, he began working with a sewing shop in Minnesota that had similar sensibilities to his. Tom had tried to outsource the manufacturing before, but his designs were so elaborate that previous sewers had given up. “I sent [the shop in Minnesota] a little fanny pack I was making at the time, and I sent the pattern set. A week-and-a-half later, I get this box back from them and I open it up and pull out the fanny pack. I thought they didn’t even want to try and just sent mine back to me. Then I looked more closely and realized it was theirs. It looked almost exactly the same.”

Tom used that shop as his manufacturer from 1996 until 2005. During that time the company had grown to the point where he was able to rent a factory in Seattle and hire his own team of seamstresses to manufacture his products.

Tom developed a love for beautiful, aesthetically minded products that also served a utilitarian purpose. When he started his company he brought that mindset to the forefront of product design. “Everything I want to do is aesthetically based, that’s the part of my business that I loved, the design. [The TOM BIHN brand] doesn’t make backpacking equipment, but bags that you’re going to use every day. That you take to school, work, or the grocery store. To me, if you’re interacting with an item every day, you want it to be pretty. Even if you don’t care about that kind of thing, most people gravitate towards something that has a visual and textural aesthetic that they’re drawn to.”

Tom’s particular creative vision is heavily influenced by the ‘70s outdoor brands he loved growing up, as well as the colors, textures, and shapes native to his environment. “My aesthetic is very feminine, it has curves. The natural world seldom has straight lines, right angles, and sharp corners,” Tom says. “In the natural world, sharp corners get worn off. If you look at a river rock, it was probably once a big square chunk, but it gets worn down. If you look at my designs, they’re curvilinear rather than boxy. I think my whole design process hugely revolves around the ability to conceive of something in a three-dimensional, curvilinear way, execute it, and then really refine it.”

Tom was so committed to ensuring the product design accurately reflected his vision, that even after hiring his own team, he always made the initial prototypes himself. “The final aesthetic has to be exactly what I want. You might look at [the seams] and think ‘Oh, that’s a straight line.’ But when you start interacting with it, you realize that there’s a gentle curve, it’s at a slight angle, or it goes off in a weird direction.”

Tom’s designs were so detailed and complex, that he had to learn to balance his vision and need for quality with the pacing necessary to have the products made in a timely manner. “All my designs are ridiculously complex, but if it’s a struggle for the sewer to make, it’s going to take longer or it’s more likely to come back with a flaw in the sewing, so it’s got to be manufacturable,” he says.

Despite turning his hobby into his career, Tom never lost his love for sewing. Creating a well-loved product became central to his company’s philosophy. “I love to sew; I really enjoy the process. There are these moments of delight when you’re sewing these crazy curves together. There are moments when [the product] has been patterned right, and cut right, and it’s like ‘wow, look at that!’”

As the TOM BIHN company grew, the scale of Tom’s responsibilities changed. While he was no longer making every single piece of merchandise himself, it was important to Tom that his time was spent doing what he loved—designing bags.

A close friend of Tom’s was Mike Pfotenhauer, the founder of the outdoor equipment brand Osprey. Osprey had gone wholesale and began selling to stores such as REI. While selling their merchandise wholesale had made Osprey a very successful company, Tom knew it was not an approach he wanted to take. “[Mike] told me about their experience doing wholesale, and I just found it so discouraging,” he says.

“If you buy an Osprey backpack for $100 retail, the retailer bought that for $50. I get it, you’ve got to make that margin or else it’s not worthwhile, but I’d rather just sell it directly [to customers] for $100. I remember Mike telling me that he spends more time trying to get his retailers to pay their bills than he does designing new products. I thought that was just horrible.”

While Tom no longer interacted with customers as directly as when he ran his storefront in Santa Cruz, in 1996, Tom discovered a new way through the rise of the internet. “My brother is a computer guy, and he’s like, ‘Tom, you’ve got to sell on the internet. There’s a thing you get called a website and a web store.’ He bought me a Mac computer and I took a class in HTML and designed my entire website by myself.” By the time Tom moved to the Pacific Northwest, 70% of his sales were online.

While today, bag and backpack design is a very oversaturated field, this was not the case in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Fewer brand names meant that many of Tom’s customers found him completely organically and became loyal buyers. “People were like, ‘I looked you up because I was at the airport and this guy standing next to me had one of your bags and it looked really cool.’ Now there’s so much saturation of that space; you shake a tree, and a bag designer falls out,” Tom says.

The landscape of the industry changed throughout the 2000s and required a more aggressive online presence. Tom hired Darcy Gray as an employee, and over time she became his partner in the business. Hiring Darcy allowed Tom to focus on his artistic and design pursuits while she handled the company’s marketing. “Darcy has an amazing Spidey sense about this stuff,” Tom says.

One way Darcy helped market the company was by appealing to online influencers long before “influencers” even existed. She reached out primarily to travel bloggers and offered to send them a free bag. If they liked it, they would discuss it on their blog. “It just grew and grew. I always tease Darcy and say, ‘You invented internet influencers, thanks a lot.’” Tom says laughing.

Despite their growing online presence, the TOM BIHN company always maintained a brick-and-mortar presence from which they sold their merchandise. In their factory in Seattle, they set up a showroom selling directly to customers. “That’s something people forget,” Tom says of having a physical store. “Having a retail storefront or a brick-and-mortar location legitimizes you in the eyes of the customer.”

As powerful as the internet had become, there is still a particular kind of relationship between the customer and retailer who do business in person. Tom saw that firsthand through the love and loyalty his customers showed the brand. “We had serious hardcore customers that would contact us and say, ‘Me and my family are planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest. We’re going to be in Seattle, can we come to your factory showroom on this date? It’s part of our vacation plan to see the TOM BIHN factory.’”

The TOM BIHN brand had developed a cult following of small, but extremely dedicated customers. Tom was grateful to the people who had chosen to champion his products and never lost appreciation for them. “We definitely knew we had it,” Tom says of his cult following. “We tried not to pander to them but rather appreciate them. I think between the ethos of the company, how we related to people in general, and Darcy’s nuanced skills with people, we enhanced it. It was an organic thing, but we knew it was good for us, so we played it up and worked it.”

Part of what made the brand so appealing to customers was its philosophy of caring for its customers and staff alike. “Our company philosophy is to treat people really well. We treat our employees really well, we treat our customers with respect, we do our best not to talk down to them or take them for granted,” Tom says.

One way that TOM BIHN embodied this philosophy was by choosing not to market its brand through the aspirational lens used by many outdoor apparel companies. “Darcy and I as business partners felt very strongly, before inclusivity and diversity were buzz words, that we wanted to invite everybody who wants to participate in our brand to be a part of it,” Tom says.

“For so long if you look at the catalogs for REI and Patagonia, everyone was 25, fit, the guys all had beards, the girls were all spindly rock climbers. It’s all the same. And that’s not even who they sell to, but who they imagine themselves to be. That aspirational thing always just made us sick to our stomachs. We sell to men and women of all shapes, sizes, abilities, and disabilities.”

That philosophy also applies to Tom’s employees. “They’re golden. They show up every day and make the stuff that makes me money and makes them money too. They’re not replaceable, interchangeable parts. They’re real people.”

Tom also understands that he got very lucky in his business, and his success was not solely the product of sheer power of will. “I tease people when they say, ‘How did you succeed in business?’ I say, ‘Well, one of the early choices I made in my career was to be born white and male.’  Nobody [starts a business] on their own, but in the context of a society.”

Tom’s notion of business success is not based solely on income, but rather doing the right thing and playing an active role in making the world a better place. The TOM BIHN Company is a certified B Corporation. This means that their metrics for success don’t solely concern their product or service, but the ethics and impact of the company as a whole, including factors such as company culture, supply chain, environmental impact, and more.

It has always been a core tenant of Tom’s business philosophy that his company has a civic and social responsibility. This became apparent in a time of profound national crisis. When one of the first outbreaks of Covid-19 occurred in Seattle, the TOM BIHN company stepped up and began making masks, specifically masks that met the requirements needed to protect frontline healthcare workers.

“In early March we came into work one Monday, and Monday is always a great day of sales because people shopped all weekend so you’re going to fulfill all those orders. But that Monday our orders were down 70%, we actually closed the factory and sent everybody home,” he says. “By the end of the week, we were making masks and had brought more than half our staff back.”

Because of Tom’s age and being at risk for the virus, his team lovingly banished him from the factory. He continued to work remotely and settled into a state of partial retirement. After so many years of running the business, he was beginning to feel burnout. His partner, Darcy, felt similarly from the stress of navigating the business throughout the pandemic.

Darcy found Gregory Kovsky and IBA through a local winery that had recently sold. Gregory worked with Tom and Darcy to assess the business and find a buyer. “His communication was great,” Tom says of working with Gregory and IBA. “Looking back, I think we got what we expected based on what he relayed to us. He was great at setting and meeting expectations.”

Tom recommends that anyone looking to sell their business prioritize communication and mutual respect with the broker. “We interviewed other potential agents and some of them just give you the vibe that they’re just blowing smoke. Just like any relationship, you want them to keep you updated on what’s going on, Gregory did that and was a great match.”

[Besides getting fair value for the company, it was important to Tom and Darcy that the new owners would have the same business values, including prioritizing employees and customers and a long-term focus. Through IBA, they found the right buyers and had a very successful transaction and transition, remaining advisors to the company after the sale.]

Tom now splits his time between Port Angeles and the Cascades, where he spends his time hiking with his dogs and friends. For him, the American Dream was never about achieving great wealth, but rather a simple life in which he could enjoy the beauty of the natural world, and the freedom to explore his creative pursuits. “I was just this hippie kid who liked making stuff,” he says with a laugh.

Similar to the TOM BIHN philosophy of inclusion, Tom also sees the American Dream as one of community and diversity. When in Seattle, Tom stayed in a very diverse neighborhood and enjoyed seeing people from different cultures come together to live their lives day-to-day.

“I was in the check-out line at Goodwill one day, I had some piece of pottery that I had found and liked. There was a Chinese American woman standing in line behind me with a part of a blender. We made eye contact and smiled. To me, that’s the American Dream. Everybody comes to America, and we get to do our stuff and add value, eat each other’s tacos and stand in line at Goodwill together. At the end of the day, we’re all just people. To me, that’s the American Dream. We’re all here with our different backgrounds and stories, standing in line at the Goodwill. To me, that’s far more the American Dream than making a pile of money.”

Whoever you are, no matter your journey, TOM BIHN has a bag you can carry with you along the way.

Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.