By Gregg Hoffmann
COON VALLEY – Chris Jackson has seen his Borah cycle jerseys and shorts on cyclists riding on the top of the hills of southwest Wisconsin, the Rockies and other lofty places.
But, he never saw it in a loftier place – from a political standpoint – than last August when President George W. Bush and famed cyclist Lance Armstrong wore Borah jerseys on the “Tour de Crawford” bike tour in Texas. (see bottom of page for picture)
“It was very rewarding,” said Jackson, founder and owner of Borah, based in the business park of this tiny Vernon County community. “The ladies who do our sewing especially were excited about it.”
Neither Jackson nor others from Borah talked about it for weeks, at the request of the White House. When the order was placed for the 12 jerseys, the White House contact said the president could not be seen as “endorsing one company over another.”
WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com found out about the transaction through an independent source and reported it in a news brief in August. Now, after months have passed, Jackson believes he can talk about it without giving away any national secrets.
“I have no idea how they tracked us down, but we got the call out of the blue,” Jackson said of the order from the White House. “We turned it around in a couple weeks. We didn’t say anything for a long time, but I think it’s well after the fact now.”
Borah has a story that goes beyond the Tour de Crawford. In the last two years, the company has experienced 60 percent growth each year and now produces 80,000 units per year between Mount Borah Designs, which sells through bike stores and other retail outlets, and custom sublimation apparel for cycling, runners, cross country and Nordic skiing and other markets.
“We projected 35 percent growth, which I thought was pretty aggressive, but we’ve had 60 percent,” said Jackson, who employs 12 people at the Coon Valley plant, which opened last year. “I see almost unlimited markets for us to expand into over time, but we want to be tactful on how we grow.”
Borah has grown in part through its reputation as a maker of quality products at reasonable prices and in part because of the sublimation process. The company uses a digital printing system and rotary heat press machine rather than the conventional silk screening process.
The sublimation process dyes the fabric with color and does not cover it with ink. The latter process makes it difficult for the fabric to “breathe.”
“You want air and moisture to pass through,” Jackson said of the fabric. “The person wearing the product is more comfortable and you don’t get the peeling or flaking that comes with ink on the fabric.”
The process also allows the company to turn around their products quicker and do smaller runs. Borah will produce as few as six jerseys. The average custom order is around 20.
In addition to more than 300 bike stores around the county, Quality Bicycle Products — the largest bicycle products distributor in the world, distributes Borah products. They also can be purchased through the company’s Web site at http://www.mtborah.com.
A large percentage of the customized sublimation business is with corporations and other groups that want apparel for specific cycling and other events. Jackson’s company has made a lot of jerseys for MS benefit cycling events around the country.
Almost all the custom work is done right in Coon Valley. Some of the retail Borah apparel is now contracted out to a California company.
An Avid Cyclist
Jackson, a native of Milwaukee, is an avid cyclist himself and once competed in cycling and skiing. After his graduation from UW-La Crosse in 1992, Jackson sold copy machines in the Twin Cities for a short time and then became an independent sales representative for a variety of bicycle-related products.
Through that job, he got to know many retailers and others involved in the cycling industry. He saw a niche in apparel and started Mount Borah Designs in the Twin Cities in 1995, while still working as the rep.
The company’s first product was a baggy bicycling short with padded Lycra shorts sewn inside. Those remain Borah’s best seller today because they allow the comfortable ride of Lycra while also not looking out of place in public.
Jackson moved from the Twin Cities to La Crosse in 1997 and a year later to Coon Valley. “I knew the area well from my days in college,” Jackson said. “I knew this was a great area to ride bikes with the bluffs and hills. We have great farm roads here where you can ride and hardly ever see a car. So, I thought it would be a great spot to locate the business.”
Borah did business in downtown Coon Valley until building the 7,000 square foot plant in the community business park. There is plenty of room to expand on the 3-acre site, which overlooks Coon Creek and the hills to the west.
“We should be fine here for a couple years and then might have to consider expanding the facility,” Jackson said. “We have deer come right up to the place here. It’s been a great place to do business as has Wisconsin in general. We have put together a great team of employees, which has been a key to our success.
“You hear so much about how difficult it is to keep good employees, but we have a wonderful team of committed people here. I think our business also fits the area, since so many people like the outdoors and are into the environment.”
Borah has set a 2006 goal of becoming even more of a “green business.” The company already recycles paper from the dyeing process and has a company that recycles the polyester scraps left over from the manufacturing process.
Jackson, 38, lives in nearby Westby with his wife, Heidi, who is involved in the design work for Borah, and his step-daughter, Cara. He is involved with an organization called Vernon Trails and has helped sponsor a triathlon in past years. Borah also is a sponsor of the Super Week cycling event in southeast Wisconsin each summer.
“I think we can do even more,” Jackson said. “We are committed to doing business in this community and state. We live here and want to be part of the community.”
Meanwhile, he admits to a certain satisfaction in knowing that his products reach well beyond the Coulee Region to Europe and “lofty” places of various kinds, including the Tour de Crawford.
President George W. Bush and Lance Armstrong cycling in Borah jerseys.