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Maine Company Reveling in Winter's Icy Grip
02/10/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

For most of us, news of an approaching winter storm brings a feeling of dread: more snow to be shoveled, roofs to be raked, pathways to be salted and sanded - the list goes on. Not so however for John Millburn president of 32North - a southern Maine-based manufacturer. For him, snow and ice mean more demand for the company's signature product, the "Stabilicer." Tom Porter has more.

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John Millburn 1

32North President John Millburn with one of the company's popular "Stabilicer" cleats.

These are lightweight rubber overshoes studded with metal cleats which I tested recently on a visit to the plant in Biddeford. I'm jogging from side-to-side, changing direction, I'm feeling completely confident.

The Stabilicer fits over the bottom of your boot or shoe and prevents slipping. To keep up with winter demand, 32North has to stay in full production mode all year round.

"One of the things that is great about being a U.S. manufacturer is that we can fulfill orders when the guys that are importing products can't," says the company's president, John Millburn.

Millburn says the Stabilicer is stretchy, durable and reliable in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Furthermore, he says, it's the only product of its kind made in the U.S. - which means it's about 10 percent more expensive than the others, a markup that doesn't seem to be quelling consumer demand.

John Millburn: "We have definitely had a bubble here that we're scrambling to keep up with, which is not the norm for us - we're usually a little bit better than that. But it was only a couple of weeks worth of time when we were seriously behind on orders, and we've almost caught up to that."

Tom Porter: "You're one of the few people that's praying for a long, dark winter aren't you."

John Millburn: "Having grown up in Maine, it does seem like we're back in the cycle we had when I was a kid."

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Three versions of the Stabilicer on display at 32North's Biddeford headquarters.

32North employs 15 staff at its Biddeford headquarters, says Millburn. The company also uses two contract manufacturers in Lewiston and Kennebunk. Because it's a privately-held company, he says, there are no sales figures available. But Millburn does admit that 2014 is on course to be a strong year, and that expansion is a very real possibility going forward.

There are five different Stabilicer products on the market. But good luck finding a pair.

"They have been selling off the racks. We've sold thousands and thousands of them," says Linda Holbrook, who works in the footwear department at LL Bean's flagship store in Freeport. She's standing in front of what remains of their Stabilicer display - a handful of smaller size pairs are all that remain.

Holbrook says they've been popular all through the season. "They sell out almost as soon as we get them in," she says.

"It's great, too, because they're a Maine-based company," says LL Bean spokesman Matt McKeever. "We always love to support Maine-based companies."

McKeever estimates they've sold tens of thousands of Stabilicers this season, either here in the store itself or nationwide via the retailer's catalog or Web site business.

Stabilicers may be a mainstream product now, but, says Anne Gould, this was not the case when she and her husband David founded 32North back in 1991. She says it all began when David went to a business conference in Nova Scotia "and found that someone was making this interesting-looking product, and he was selling it to the handicapped and that sort of thing. and he just thought it was a very unique product and that it would have a good market in the United States," she says.

And so the Stabilicer came to the U.S., originally sold under a licensing agreement with the Canadian company. Gould says they branched out and came up with the "Stabilicer Max" - a product she describes as the company's workhorse.

"And that was really designed for people to work outdoors in tough conditions - so utility crews, oil delivery people, some lumbermen, construction crews, firemen, postal service, that sort of thing," she says.

This commercial market provided steady growth for a number of years, says company president John Millburn. But it was when 32North branched out again into the outdoor recreation market that the business really took off. "And then we realized, obviously, there was a lot of opportunity beyond the commercial safety business," he says.

Products like 32North's running cleats and its more general use lightweight outdoor cleats have fuelled strong growth in recent years, says Millburn. And new products are on the way, he says - including indoor cleats, specifically designed to be used in places like commercial kitchens.

Photos: Tom Porter



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