As a junior at the University of Oregon in 1996, Scott Jones didn't like the quality or look of the fleece jackets available on retail racks.
Nor could he afford to buy one of his own.
''So I went out and bought the material and a pattern and made one,'' said Jones, now 26.
That first jacket was ''pretty pathetic,'' he admits. ''I didn't even know how to thread a bobbin.''
Seven years and more than 5,000 garments later, Jones can probably thread a bobbin in the dark, with one hand.
Jones' Eugene-based outdoor clothing company, Beyond Fleece, is in hyper-growth mode. A maker of custom-sized fleece jackets, vests and pants sold directly to customers over the Internet, Beyond Fleece last year experienced a 1,000-plus percent jump in sales, Jones said.
This year, the firm is anticipating similar growth as word of the made-to-order clothing spreads among outdoor enthusiasts and as outdoor-oriented magazines publish favorable reviews.
To keep up with demand, Jones has rented an extra 1,000 square feet of space at the same west Eugene industrial building where he currently leases a cramped 1,400-square-foot area. Jones also plans to hire a couple of new workers to help with sewing, which would bring the number of employees to eight.
Not bad for a firm that a year ago hired its first full-time employee and just two months ago formally incorporated.
His experience shows that a nimble entrepreneur can still turn a profit making clothing in the United States, even though most large clothing manufacturers shut their U.S. factories long ago and contracted the work to low-wage factories in Asia.
Jones ties the success of Beyond Fleece to the high level of customization, the fabrics and the competitive prices it offers.
''No one else does what we do,'' Jones said. ''No one else can mass-customize.''
Taking orders over the Internet and telephone, Beyond Fleece offers multiple options in size, color and choice of fabric. Buyers personalize the clothing with options that include the location and number of interior and exterior pockets, and whether to add armpit zips or a hood.
Jones figures hard-to-fit people probably make up about one-third of his sales. ''There's probably another third that buy from us because of price and a third that likes us because of the custom-design options and colors,'' he said.
Despite the lower labor costs and economies of scale mass producers are able to find in Asia, Jones has been able to offer similar and in many cases lower prices in spite of the customization.
''He's able to compete because he has the ability to sew the stuff like people want it,'' said Dale Berg, owner of Berg's Ski Shop in Eugene and a longtime friend of Jones.
''People are willing to wait a little bit for that good fit,'' Berg said. ''I expect people are even willing to pay a little more, though in this case they are not paying more.''
Selling directly to the public and avoiding the retail markup is another way Jones can compete with offshore clothing factories.
Beyond Fleece's most popular fleece jacket with a windproof and waterproof membrane sells for $119. A similar North Face jacket sells in the $170 neighborhood. A jacket with slightly less windproofing made by Columbia sells for $110.
Jones said he aims for the middle price point of the market.
Beyond Fleece has been able to keep its costs down by keeping advertising to a minimum, not taking on substantial debt and by Jones not taking a salary and instead pouring profits back into the company, he said.
''That's the only way to build this business,'' Jones said. ''I don't pay myself anything right now, just what I need to live.''
Jones declined to reveal specifics of the firm's sales or profits.
After graduating in 1998, Jones kept at the business, though he struggled. He wasn't willing to take on loans or investors or use credit cards to finance the venture.
''My friends had graduated and were making between $40,000 and $80,000 a year,'' he said. ''I was living off a dollar a day for food and I was getting tired of it.''
In 2001, he obtained a $30,000 Small Business Administration-backed loan from Eugene-based Pacific Continental Bank to fund an expansion.
That was about the time Jones got a call from an editor at Backpacker magazine. She had ordered a jacket and pants from Beyond Fleece and was impressed.
A Backpacker review came out on Nov. 1, 2001, Jones said. ''We had a very busy holiday season.''
In December 2001, Backpacker notified Jones that Beyond Fleece had won the magazine's Editor's Choice Award for outdoor apparel. The issue announcing the awards came out last April.
The company sold about 2,500 garments between October 2001 and October 2002. Jones said he expects to sell about 4,000 jackets, vests and pants during the next 12 months.
Jones said he's aware of the pitfalls of rapid growth, but insists the years of toil have prepared him. ''If I can get this company completely stable by time I'm 30, I'll be doing very well,'' he said.
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