On an icy day in early January, Tom Chappell peers across the rolling pasture of his 85-acre farm in southwestern Maine. He purchased the land 10 years ago, thinking it could be the very solution he needed for Ramblers Way, the idea he had for a new kind of clothing company that would create a performance wool made in America, starting with shirts. Chappell figured he’d have to piece together remnants of a faded manufacturing industry that had long ago relocated to Asia, but he hadn’t anticipated there would be virtually no U.S. source for high-quality, soft-fibered wool. So the 74-year-old bought the farm with a perfectly logical plan: He would breed the Rambouillet sheep himself.
It’s not an uncommon impulse for Chappell, who had spent the previous 35 years building Tom’s of Maine, the natural personal care company that proved products like calendula deodorant and fennel toothpaste could become commercial successes. “Tom is an optimist at heart,” says his wife, Kate, co-founder of Tom’s of Maine. “An optimist is not necessarily someone who looks on the bright side of things, but someone who understands practical ways things can happen and anticipates that they will be successful. Pessimists say there are so many obstacles it’s never going to work out.”
But even Chappell, who has the presence and baritone of a New England pastor, admits that in this instance, optimism gave way to romanticism. “It was more fantasy than any well-thought-out business idea,” he says of buying the farm. Today, there are no longer sheep roaming the pasture (it’s now an energy-neutral organic hay operation), but Chappell has managed to persuade a handful of Rambouillet sheep ranchers out West to select the finest wool from their herds and sell him the fibers at a premium, which he uses as the base fabric for Ramblers Way.
Chappell worked his entire adult life to grow Tom’s of Maine from an upstart that made hippie toothpaste into a national drug-store-chain staple. The company joined a generation of like-minded progressive brands, including Patagonia, Seventh Generation, and Ben & Jerry’s, that made money by questioning business as usual.
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