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Fancy Plumage

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  • | 3:15 p.m. March 17, 2012
  • Strategies
  • Growth
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Company. SA Feather Company
Industry. Manufacturing
Key. Ingenuity and quality craftsmanship will help U.S. manufacturers stay ahead of the competition.

Feathers are back.

If you watched the Super Bowl game halftime show this year, the marching band was wearing fancy feathers made by a Fort Myers company that has specialized in this business for four generations.

Feathers were once a huge industry when women used to wear them on elaborate hats. The hat-making trade, called “millinery,” has dwindled with changing tastes. But SA Feather Company has survived since 1906 using a combination of mechanical ingenuity, quality craftsmanship and an intimate knowledge of its customers.

SA Feather buys ostrich, turkey and chicken feathers from brokers, and it crafts them into elaborate and colorful displays. They decorate the hats of West Point cadets, college marching bands, masons, fashion models, carnival partiers and Broadway stars. In addition to hat plumes, it makes boas and feathers for Mardi Gras masks.

Because the work can't be automated, 18 employees make every piece by hand. “It's completely concierge,” says Darren Samuel, 45, the fourth generation to lead the family business. In a good year, the company can make as many as 250,000 plumes for hats.

Like most businesses, overseas manufacturers have taken over the mass market with inferior products. “We don't dabble in the novelty market,” says Samuel. “We do high-end stuff.”

Tucked away inside an industrial park along Interstate 75 in the gritty part of Fort Myers, SA Feather only sells to uniform manufacturers and other retailers. It's a wholesale business, but Samuel knows his end customers. “The big designers know us,” Samuel says, adding, “I can't share any names.”

Although SA Feather has about 4,000 customers in its database, about 20 customers make up 60% of the company's volume. The marching band uniform industry makes up about 70% of the company's total sales, which have totaled $1.5 million to $2 million annually in recent years.

Samuel declines to disclose prices for competitive reasons, but he says a feather boa made by SA Feather might cost $75 to $100 at a retail shop, for example.

Engineer the business
While much of the work is done by hand, companies like SA Feather have had to engineer their own equipment because the work is so specialized.

For example, Samuel's uncle, Ron Isserman, created a boa-twisting machine. Workers stitch feathers onto galvanized wire and then tie both ends of the 12-foot-long boa to a machine that twists about 60 revolutions in opposite directions. It's not a machine you can buy, of course, and Samuel restored it in 2006.

Samuel, who builds hot-rod race cars in his spare time and races in Immokalee, is also working on developing a dyeing facility where he can control the coloring of the feathers he buys. He's collected and restored equipment such as giant 60-gallon kitchen pots from a freighter ship to soak feathers and a steel hydrotherapy bathtub from a medical office to color longer ostrich feathers.

“Everybody has custom stuff,” Samuel says. “You have to engineer.” Paying for someone else to engineer has proved to be too costly for companies that have gone that route, he says.

That's key because feather-dyeing companies are disappearing. What's more, Samuel says controlling the dyeing process could add to profit margins and improves quality control. “Freight and logistics kills margins,” he says.

You can't buy parts to make feather plumes, so Samuel buys composite copper wire and dips them in special glue to hold the feathers for hat plumes. “We custom-make our own wire,” he says.

More feathers
It takes 18 months to train someone to make plumes for hats and other feather artistry, says Samuel. To retain good employees, SA Feather pays 100% of their health benefits.

Samuel says the company got out of buying and stocking feathers long ago. “We buy lots that have been pre-sorted by brokers,” he explains. “We buy exactly what we use and we're not tying up working capital.”

Business has been increasing lately and Samuel says he's planning to hire three to four more people. But he's going to wait until after the marching band season, which is about to get under way. “You can't train in the busy season,” he says.

After several years of dwindling business, school and professional marching bands are starting to spend again on new uniforms. The key is to be in touch with marching band directors to know what styles are trendy. “The whole marching band thing has become theatrical,” Samuel says.

That's important because SA Feather sells to the major manufacturers of uniforms or hat makers for marching bands. Generally, school marching bands change uniforms every five years and spend as much as $300 for each uniform.

Samuel attends marching band conventions, where he meets and chats with band directors. He also sends them samples. “This is the first time in years that it's a good sampling season,” Samuel says.

A family contract
How does a business pass successfully to the fourth generation?

Darren Samuel acquired SA Feather from his uncle, Ron Isserman, but insisted the two hire their own attorneys and negotiate a formal contract.

Samuel, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe before immigrating to the U.S. and is related to Isserman by marriage, planned to make his career in the agriculture industry after earning college degrees in agriculture and business.

Samuel moved to the Fort Myers area to work for tomato grower Gargiulo in its seed-breeding department. “I came here to farm tomatoes,” Samuel chuckles. But agribusiness giant Monsanto bought Gargiulo in 1996 and moved its operations.

In the meantime, Isserman's manager left and he hired Samuel, who started by sweeping floors and worked his way up through each area of SA Feather. When Isserman retired in 2000, Samuel agreed to buy the company.

“There is a contract between us,” says Samuel. “We did it in a friendly way and worked it out so I could be successful with a long-term note.”

But lawyers spelled out the buyout agreement in precise terms to protect both men and so there would be no misunderstanding. Samuel says oral promises among family members often lead to acrimony and the business suffers as a result. “That's how it fails,” he says.


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