MANCHESTER, NH – Travis York is a serial entrepreneur, which means he’s as likely to create something as he is to recreate something. Most recently, he’s found a way to revive the spirit of his late grandfather, Henry Spaulding, by way of his latest business venture, York Athletics Mfg.
It’s a real-life Back-to-the-Future situation, one where the family’s history and future collide. Only the vehicle that gets them there is not a DeLorean time machine, but rather a pair of understated athletic shoes, affectionately named “The Henry.”
An athletic shoe by any other name wouldn’t mean nearly so much to York or his four brothers, all partners in this sequel to the family athletic shoe business.
Indian Head Shoe Company was originally launched 70 years ago in the same building on Canal Street that is now HQ for York’s main pursuit, as President & CEO of GYK Antler, a full service independent marketing company. The historic 7-20-4 Cigar Factory building was reclaimed last year by the York brothers.
“It became available while all this was in the works, so yes, it felt like a sign,” says York.
“I’m a sucker for history and heritage and story. It’s the reason why I bought an agency, rather than start an agency. It’s the reason why with this shoe brand, we’re not just starting from scratch – it’s a legacy brand with a family story. It’s about taking what’s good about something and making it relevant for today,” says York. “In almost all my business ventures, there’s that same angle, of reinvention.”
York Athletics, headquartered in Boston, is the latest incarnation of Henry Spaulding’s shoe factory, once a thriving footwear manufacturer in the Manchester Millyard.
As manufacturing jobs began to shift overseas in the 1970s, the factory ceased operations here. That’s when Henry Spaulding’s daughter Gail and her husband, Don York, extended the business from an outlet store in the basement of the Canal Street factory across the way, launching a mom-and-pop sporting goods retail center, Indian Head Athletics on Lake Avenue, still going strong.
It was a business that York and his brothers all felt very much a part of. Their family’s rich history in manufacturing, and their parents dedication to outfitting athletes for every sporting season was always a point of pride and integrity.
Indian Head Shoe Company had even created custom footwear for many professional athletes of that era, including high-top cleats for football great Johnny Unitas and figure skates for Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming.
York has recruited husband and wife team Mark and Elizabeth McGarry, friends of the family and industry experts, to shepherd the York Athletic brand.
Beyond birthright, leadership is something that has delivered him to this particular place in time – as a third-generation entrepreneur, it only seemed fitting that reclaiming the family manufacturing business would mean centering it around the spirit of his grandfather, and using that spirit as the basis for the brand.
“True confident individuals are leaders, not followers. They are people who aren’t wearing the same thing others are wearing, people who aren’t comfortable putting a major corporate brand on their chest. We feel the understated look of our shoes allows a person to be themselves, and that a line of footwear and clothing can empower them to do that,” York says. “The brand is simple and classic.”
A section of the Canal Street building doubles as a mini-museum. A display case features some of the original footwear and ice skates manufactured during his grandfather’s reign, old photographs, and an oral history available by request from York that includes the story of the day his father marched into the corner office and asked Henry Spaulding for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
In the long term, York would like to see some if not all of the manufacturing moved back to Manchester, although for right now, the manufacturing is done in China.
“We seriously considered manufacturing in New England – especially after the acquisition of the building, which made the prospect of manufacturing more enticing,” York says.
But adding in start-up costs for equipment and training for talent, it would have been cost-prohibitive. Plus, the only real shoe manufacturing going on in New England is for ‘brown shoes,’ like boots and formalwear, says York.
“My brothers and I have a chip on our shoulder, that a shoe manufacturing business couldn’t sustain itself here, so we really wanted to find a way. At the same time, starting off with a manufacturing operation wouldn’t necessarily be a smart evolution of the family business,” York says.
With a focus on building the brand first, the McGarrys made the decision to seek out highly-skilled labor in China. Team members made several trips back-and-forth until they found the right factory owner, with a proven commitment to quality.
York Athletics, which also includes some sportswear and accessories, will be sold mostly online using a direct-to-consumer model.
“Eventually we will have some specialty products on site at Indian Head Athletics, but we’re not pursuing a typical retail distribution model,” says York. “If you look at the Warby Parker online eyeglasses model, that’s an aspirational model for us, selling something mostly online that you might have thought historically impossible.”
York also accepts that this is destiny, as his entrepreneurial DNA is mixed with a bit of fashion forward flair.
“I’ve always been intrigued by fashion and style, and have explored starting brands a number of times, but the timing and opportunities never lined up like they did for York Athletics,” he says.
“I probably have more shoes than my wife does. I’ve always been intrigued by footwear and what it says about a person,” York says. “I think that it all comes together for me in that concept. For years, I struggled with not being able to relate to performance brands – loud colors, logos front and center. I’m in advertising. I don’t need to be an advertisement for other brands.”
The Henry comes in basic black with white or gum-colored soles, and concrete gray and sells for $110-120. York says the target buyer for this subtle but high-performance brand is any creative, young professional.
“We don’t want high-paid endorsers. We want authentic values-aligned people to bring the brand to life, and we’ve been tapping that with our early marketing efforts, from the tattoo artist who is a linguist or the skateboard fanatic who’s a science teacher – people with creativity and flair, who want to make a statement by what they are willing to wear – as much as what they aren’t willing to wear,” York says.
With support and guidance from their parents, the York brothers, along with seed investor friends, expect that York Athletics will reflect the next generation of what’s possible, a high-value product line created through hard work and vision.
“There’s really only one way to compete in this arena with legacy brands; you have to be a rabble-rouser,” says York. “We still have a lot to learn over time, but we know that we need a distinct point of view that’s different. We have that with The Henry. Now, it’s just a matter of getting it out there and resonating with our target audience.”
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