180s reinvents its way to top of inner-city list

Growth: A new Baltimore company that makes "performance wear" is ranked first in the national Inner City 100

April 06, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Reinventing the ordinary has had an extraordinary impact on the bottom line of a new Baltimore company called 180s.

Revenues at the company - best known for its ear warmers that wrap around the back of the head - grew 9,669 percent from 1998 to 2002.

That remarkable pace has propelled it to the top spot on a new list of the 100 fastest-growing private companies in U.S. inner cities that was compiled by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, a nonprofit business research organization in Boston, and Inc. magazine.

The companies, all privately held, were ranked by revenue growth for the 1998-2002 period.

"It's been a rocket ship, both from a revenue perspective and from a human resources perspective," said Gib Mason, chief operating officer of 180s.

Mason joined in 1999 as the only employee of the company's two founders. 180s now has 122 employees, most of them at its new headquarters at the Columbus Center in the Inner Harbor.

Sales at the company - known until recently as Big Bang Products - grew from about $340,000 in 1998 to $32.6 million in 2002. Last year, they jumped to $47 million.

180s is one of two Baltimore companies in the Inner City 100. Campaign Consultation Inc., which works on social change efforts including corporate citizenship and sustainable nonprofits, ranked 40th for its revenue growth of 594 percent during the same period.

Its 2002 revenue was $1.9 million.

"People are starting to realize that building a better planet Earth ... makes sense and it's worth spending some little additional dollars to make that happen," said Steven Rivelis, co-founder and chief executive officer of Campaign Consultation, which is based in Charles Village.

"As a result, we've been able to build a business off of it," he said.

The Inner City 100, which will be celebrated next week in Boston, was formed to showcase the economic potential of urban America.

"Very often people think that inner cities are devoid of economic activity, so we thought it was very important to raise awareness," said Deirdre M. Coyle Jr., director of Inner City 100. "Just by existing in inner cities, [businesses] play a huge role in helping to revitalize."

Like many others on the list, Coyle said, 180s actively works in the community. It has mentored Baltimore youths since 2000 and about a year ago started b4students Foundation with another Baltimore company, EntreQuest, to connect local corporations with city schoolchildren.

The company's founders, Ron L. Wilson II and Brian Le Gette, built the forerunner of their current business in 1994 when they designed the ear warmer. Financing came from credit card debt and $100,000 invested by fellow students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, who realized the pair had hit on something with their sleek, pliable product.

"The problem with the typical earmuff is they really look a little silly; they go over your head, they mess up your hair," Mason said.

They moved to Baltimore in 1997. By the following year, the company was on the brink of failure, with lots of products but only catalogs and television as sales outlets.

Wilson and Le Gette decided to narrow the company's focus to "performance wear" for athletes, broaden its sales reach and recruit people to help - from marketers to accountants.

Now the company has offices in Canada and France as well as Baltimore, and its products are carried by more than 18,000 stores worldwide. Customers have bought more than 10 million ear warmers alone since mid-1999, Mason said.

Apart from the earmuffs, the company offers sunglasses - dubbed "eyegear" - with ear pieces that fold in the front to prevent lens damage and gloves with ports so people can blow warm air on their fingers without taking the gloves off.

"If you see a 180s on [a product], you will know the wheel's been reinvented," said Le Gette, the chief executive officer.

A new, lighter version of the ear warmer that weighs half an ounce, designed with runners in mind, will hit stores this fall.

180s controls 4.1 percent of the "winter headwear" market, competing against better-known companies such as adidas, Columbia Sportswear Co. and Nike, according to SportScan INFO, a Florida market research firm that collects data for the sporting goods industry.

"They're in there with a number of large players, and they've done very well with pretty much a niche product. ... They're on par with Nike," said Neil Schwartz, SportScanINFO's director of marketing. "They're young and they're innovative, and I think they're going to be successful at whatever they do."

Various versions of 180s' ear warmers are the third, sixth, seventh and 13th best-selling products in the winter headwear category, he said.

Though it sells only a handful of ear muff styles, 180s has patented more than 50 variations. That's by design.

"We like to create what we call an intellectual property minefield ... so we control that space that we created," Le Gette said. "We don't want to create a market for the low-cost producer to take from us."

Company officials have filed more than 100 lawsuits against businesses selling products - generally ear warmers - that they considered knockoffs. A few are pending, including a recent one against Walgreen Co. The rest were settled "with a positive outcome for 180s," Mason said.

Le Gette said the company plans to branch out into other performance wear products in 2005 and 2006.

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