Hyperlite Mountain Gear Raises Bar in American Manufacturing

John Schafer has 40+ years experience in manufacturing and management.
John Schafer has 40+ years experience in manufacturing and management.

John Schafer was ready to retire. At 64, he’s spent the last 30 years working in manufacturing, including the last few years running Shape Fabrication, a fabrication company for architectural and marine industries. At 6’4 and 280 pounds, he still lugs his Maine-made bleachers and steel staircases around with ease. But, he says, he was prepared to start spending more time smoking cigars and drinking cocktails on the 24-foot Grady-White power boat he docks at Biddeford Pool. Then he met Mike and Dan St. Pierre, owners of Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Their shop was just around the corner in the same 180-year-old textile mill where he ran his company. Schafer and the St. Pierres became friends, and then Schafer began to help them a bit with managing and organizing the production floor, where all the Cuben Fiber tarps, mids and packs are made. And then, before he knew it, the St. Pierres asked him to come on full-time as the Director of Operations. He agreed.

 JoAnn Proulx, one of the company's most experienced stitchers, talks business with John Schafer.
JoAnn Proulx, one of the company’s most experienced stitchers, talks business with John Schafer.

Why? Because John Schafer believes in the power of American-made products, and he thinks Hyperlite Mountain Gear epitomizes manufacturing done right in the United States.

“No one in our industry has a quality product comparable to ours, and there’s a reason for that,” Schafer says. “More than anything, we strive to continuously improve our lead times, how we ship and our product quality, among other things. We’re establishing a culture of continuous improvement.”

Schafer feels the key thing that distinguishes Hyperlite Mountain Gear from the rest is the company’s approach to how they manage quality all the way from the supplier base to how product is shipped. When Schafer came on part time January 2015, he quickly implemented “cellular manufacturing,” which includes defined work stations that process products in the most efficient manner possible. The nature of cellular stations is quality control resulting from strong “customer-supplier” relationships, he says.

“If I’m in the cutting department and I receive a lot of Cuben Fiber, I make damn sure before I cut that stuff that our supplier of that fabric meets or exceeds my expectations for the quality of that product,” Schafer explains. Similarly, when Cuben Fiber leaves the cutting department and goes to its “customer”—the first sewing station—the cutters have to make sure they cut things perfectly.

“From our raw material suppliers to our final end user, we tightly manage that whole chain of customer-supplier relationships,” Schafer adds. “No one on this floor will ever walk by a discrepancy. We have empowered our people with the responsibility to stop an operation whenever they detect a quality issue.”

Continuous improvement, adds Schafer, makes Hyperlite Mountain Gear competitive in the outdoor industry. “Our competition overwhelmingly sources its products from the Pacific Rim,” he says. “But these packs in China; there’s no way in hell they will come close to what we manufacture here. They don’t have the commitment to continuous improvement.” Plus, he adds, by manufacturing our packs and shelters in Maine, Hyperlite Mountain Gear has ultimate control of process and product consistency. Finally, and of the utmost importance to Schafer, the manufacturers in Asia don’t have that commitment to the people who make the products.

“Unlike in other parts of the world, our folks here are our most valuable resource,” Schafer says. “The real heroes are the people who are taping and stitching every day. People who work at Hyperlite Mountain Gear are not just here making minimum wage; they honestly care about what they do.”

Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Schafer says, is going to be the crown jewel of his manufacturing legacy. “We have everything here going for us—the best workforce, the best product and the most cutting-edge product development for our industry. Why wouldn’t I want to work here?”

John Schafer brings a diverse manufacturing background and 40 years experience to the Director of Operations position. He started as a mechanical engineer for the Norton Company, a manufacturer of abrasive products. A third-generation employee in Worcester, Mass., his first boss was his grandfather’s apprentice. After 18 years there, he took a job as the Vice President of Manufacturing for KomTex Technologies, where he oversaw 225 steelworkers who made castings and forgings for the biomedical and aerospace industries. In the late 1990s, Schafer moved to Maine to become the Director of Manufacturing for Hussey Seating Company, which makes products for the educational and entertainment industries.

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear shop in the Pepperell Mill, a 180-year-old textile mill in Biddeford, Maine
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear shop in the Pepperell Mill, a 180-year-old textile mill in Biddeford, Maine

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