March 30, 2015
Above, Mike welcomes Japanese clients to a revitalized Ashley Sewn Products Company
Mike Trull had learned the most basic rule of business: things change and adapting can be hard no matter how necessary. The Ashley Company had been sold. Mike had to set aside the emotional ties to something he had worked so hard to build and do whatever was best for him and his family. Ultimately, he decided to leave a place he loved, a lovely home he and Libby had built, and a daughter with two children of her own living in Winston-Salem. The next chapter in the story of Mike Trull, musician and entrepreneur, and Libby Trull, dancer and actor, is set in California.
The change began, however, in Charlotte. During a sales trip there while still working for the new owners of the Ashley Company, Mike had struck up a friendship with a wealthy businessman from California who was producing Polar Fleece garments in an Oakland factory. His new friend had helped finance the factory, which was managed by a Vietnamese with contacts in Asia. Mike was invited to visit Oakland, where he shared his opinions about the potential for growth. The visit ended with an offer for Mike to head up the business and make it grow. It was an offer Mike couldn’t refuse, being assured he would have total control and the capital to make it successful.
“California was a new start and it was an exciting challenge,” Mike says.
It was also the hardest decision he had ever made. Now in his fifties, Mike was not eager to give up old friendships or the dream home he and Libby had built. Still, another part of him was ready for a new experience and even the geography of California was alluring after a lifetime in the mountains of western North Carolina. Mike had been through a lot of change in his life and had met its challenges. Embracing change is a fundamental part of his psyche.
“I knew whatever I had built in Sylva was gone and trying to convince the new owners there was a place for me in the company was a waste of time. It was time to try something new.”
It went well in the beginning. He was traveling to Asia now and building a brand in the promotional premiums industry, shorthand for garments and accessories that are used in marketing promotions for products or services. Demand grew, but before long the Vietnamese manager of the factory wanted to stop producing fleece because he couldn’t see a long-term market for it.
“The owner of the company had deep pockets and could have kept the company going,” says Mike. “Nonetheless, he wanted my opinion about what needed to be done. It might have cost me my job, but I told him that if it were my money, I would not risk it on a warehouse full of product. We needed to broaden our product offerings, print catalogs and a have a much larger marketing budget to be successful.”
Mike was taking a chance that he had demonstrated a work ethic and an integrity that would encourage his boss to trust him with new responsibilities. It did. Mike soon found himself in a new office designing a new product line. He built relationships with factories in China and Vietnam and monitored their work to ensure quality. He published catalogs and advertised extensively, claiming that not advertising, even in hard times, is like winking in the dark.
“You know what you’re doing, but no one else does.”
As 2007 dawned, annual sales reached $2.5 million and a firm foundation had been established. Mike was projecting they could double sales in two years. As things turned out, nothing was doubled in the first two years of the Great Recession.
“You couldn’t give product away,” Mike recalls, shuddering at the memory. “I’d go to trade shows where the body language and facial expressions were matched only in a horror movie.”
Mike began cutting again but by 2009 there was no choice but to close the business. He survived on his severance pay and an order of 50,000 caps for the Colorado Tourism Department he had landed before closing.
“It was small money compared to what I was used to, but business is business and I knew where to get the product produced in Vietnam for a good price.”
The wheel had turned. The newest axiom that should be engraved on parchment and framed to hang on an office wall is “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Success in a global market may depend on it.
Mike was on his own now and 2010 would be a better year. He had several small successes and one big job for 22,000 shirts for a hospital group. It was enough to let him “start running forward again, rather than just inching forward.” That was followed by more big orders and Mike began to feel like a boxer who lost his previous bout on a TKO but had lived to fight another day when he was in better shape.
By 2012, Hollywood beckoned and Mike produced products worn by movie stars and the like; he landed a large corporate account to produce all their promotional items for the Winter Olympics in Russia from yarns and fabrics manufactured from recycled plastic bottles. Work was becoming fun again.
In 2013, now established on his own, Mike and Libby decided to move back to North Carolina. They had loved California, but they wanted to be closer to their daughter, her husband, a physician, and the two grandchildren. The move was completed but there is yet another chapter in Mike’s business life.
During Mike’s travels in China, Taiwan and Vietnam, he had begun playing trumpet in the jazz venues, where he became friends with Tom Koenig, a guitarist from the United States. Tom, like Mike, had suffered setbacks in his business and had landed in Vietnam. He reinvented himself by starting a new brand of travel gear and landing the licensing agreement for all of Vietnam to sell the famous German luggage brand, Rimowa. Tom then signed up a Japanese customer who wanted to buy products that could be labeled “Made in USA.”
“The Japanese have a high regard for products from the U.S.,” says Mike, “so when Tom asked if I knew where he might set up a U.S. operation, I had a quick answer.”
Mike and his former partner still owned the building in Sylva that had housed the Ashley Company and he had maintained contact with many of his former employees. A new die was cast. Tom designed the “bags” (a kind of carry-all) and had samples made in Vietnam. He then sent them to Mike to determine if it would be possible to assemble the unfinished products in Sylva so they could be labeled as Made in the USA.
There were details to be worked out and workers to enroll. Mike was able to convince a work shop in Sylva that hires the disabled to move their existing sewing operation into his building. Recently, the Japanese partners paid a visit to the newly formed factory in January and plans were laid to get production underway as soon as possible. Longer term, plans are to manufacture the bags with fabrics made in in the U.S. and do the complete production in the Sylva factory under the name of Ashley Sewn Products, a division of Corps Style, Inc.
“This is a dream come true,” says Mike, crossing his fingers that everything goes as planned. “I am now able to bring jobs back to the community that means so much to me and those jobs will improve the lives of people with special needs, which was one of my priorities when I owned the Ashley Company. Of course, I’m very happy and proud to be able to bring the name of my daughter back to the Sylva factory.”
So the wheel has turned full circle. Mike is back where it all began, even if there were a few detours along the way.
“Life is full of detours,” he says with a shrug of acceptance, muting the fierce pride he has that the detours led back to the state he loves.
Mike still travels to Asia, spending months at a time ensuring his clients get the products they want and playing jazz trumpet at the Hard Rock Café, the famous SAX N ART club and the popular Elbow Room in Ho Chi Minh City. He is a member of the Saigon Flight Wave Band which was formed by Tom Koenig over six years ago and is billed as the best jazz group in all of Vietnam.
Mike has learned the hard way that being an entrepreneur is never easy and isn’t for everyone.
“You must be able to ride the highs and endure the lows with equanimity and there will be plenty of both. It also takes a special kind of synergy between you and your family. You cannot be successful unless your home life is one of joy and support.” Mike and Libby have their own separate passions. Libby has heard the applause of audiences from North Carolina to California. Mike has known the satisfaction of running a successful business. They remain partners in life.
“You have to be able to endure those lows and celebrate those highs together for them to have any real meaning,” he concludes.
Carole and I met Mike and Libby Trull shortly after we, too, moved to Winston-Salem. Mike was on an extended trip to Asia at the time. Libby, who had a successful theatrical career in California, is a delight and we looked forward to meeting Mike. When we did, he too, became a close friend and shared with me the story of his business career. I found it fascinating; I hope I have done justice to it. What I hope most comes through is the resilience he demonstrates, which I regard as the personification of what Americans want to believe about themselves, i.e., that we are “can do” people, not easily discouraged and willing to work hard to make things happen. But something more emerged in my conversations with Mike and Libby. Despite all the ups and downs and the hard choices they have made, they display no bitterness, no rancor, no hard feelings. They still have a great sense of humor, a positive and upbeat attitude and continue to look forward to the future. We are proud to call them friends and I only wish that I had such boundless optimism.
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