Like any runner, Jonathan Vogel doesn’t want his socks to slip or his feet to blister.
A marathon runner for 20 years, Vogel, 44, gave up cheaper socks two years ago for a specialty brand that happens to have a Charlotte-area tie.
Those socks are Feetures! They fit snugly but not tight, don’t shrivel in the wash and come in a range of colors, Vogel said. And when he beat his personal record in the 2014 Bank of America Chicago Marathon by 34 minutes, he hardly noticed them.
“The socks ... mean everything,” said Vogel, a Bank of America lawyer. “You want to be able to focus on what (you’re) doing and also enjoy the run. And I can’t do that if I’m uncomfortable and then blistering.”
Never miss a local story.
That’s the message Hugh Gaither and his sons, John and Joe, have pushed for the past 12 years: Compression arches, socks with a snug fit and fabrics that don’t retain moisture.
The Feetures! brand, built from Hugh Gaither’s affinity for sports socks, has turned into a family-owned company with offices in Conover and Charlotte that has seen more than 30 percent in revenue growth over the past five years.
Variety and family, the Gaithers say, are keys to their success in a crowded marketplace shared by competitors such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.
“We disagree, which is good,” Joe Gaither said. “We recognize that we have the same goal.”
Forming the brand
Feetures! employs 20 people, six of whom work out of a newly opened Charlotte office in South End. In their loft-like space at the Design Center of the Carolinas, a wall with a palette of colorful socks draws visitors to the back. Sitting on a table are foot sculptures wrapped with tightly-fitted socks made with soft fabric.
“Socks make a difference,” said Joe Gaither, 28, the Feetures! marketing director. “A lot of people run out there ... and they get blisters and they have problems with their feet, and they think it’s part of running.”
It’s not, say the Gaither men, who are all avid runners.
The company started in 2002 – the same time Feetures! CEO Hugh Gaither, 64, says the running market experienced a resurgent boom.
After nearly 30 years of working with an athletic sock manufacturer, Hugh Gaither sought to create a brand of performance socks that wasn’t thick or bulky but would snugly fit around a runner’s feet and use compression to increase blood circulation.
Using connections he established earlier in his career, he found a South Korean company that helped manufacture the socks from a plant in Vietnam. He partnered with a North Carolina fiber producer to create the sock’s fabric. He gathered a team of 30 salesmen who promoted the socks to sports retailers.
The pieces came together, but one issue remained. The socks needed a name.
Enter Joe Gaither, then a 15-year-old high school student doing homework at the dinner table. He suggested Feetures. The name fit, Hugh Gaither said, and seems to have resonated with consumers for more than a decade.
The athletic sock business in the U.S. last year generated $1.8 billion in retail, said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource, a sports market research firm with a Charlotte office. The specialty sock business is a small part of that retail space.
Feetures!’s effort to promote its mission statement (enhance healthy lifestyles) distinguishes it from big-name competitors, Powell said.
“That’s not something you see other brands put a big emphasis on,” he said. “On (Feetures!’s) website, they talk about being runners. They are the consumer as well as the manufacturer. They can speak with authority.”
Feetures! socks can be found in shops throughout the U.S. and in more than a dozen European and Asian countries. Locally, the socks have shelf space at Run for Your Life, Charlotte Running Co., Omega Sports and TrySports.
The originals sell for about $12, but an elite brand of the socks costs about $15. The product line has evolved from basic white socks to a blend of bright and dark hues.
In 2011, the company introduced Feetures! Elite, a brand of anatomical socks that provides cushioning support on the sole of the foot. A year later, it unveiled a sock that helps runners avoid plantar fasciitis, intense pain in the foot and heel.
“Consumers are paying a premium for our products,” said John Gaither, 36, who leads product development. “We think (the socks) need to stand up and can’t wear down.”
The recession didn’t hurt the company. Quite the opposite, actually.
“People kept running and we kept growing,” Hugh Gaither said. “People, even when they were out of work, wanted to stay healthy.”
Working with dad
Hugh Gaither is the first to admit that his sons are not like him.
John Gaither is careful, cautious and thorough. Hugh Gaither is spontaneous and “shoot-from-the-hip.” Joe Gaither came up with the “invaluable” Feetures! name and is still waiting for the royalty check, his father said, jokingly.
Their differences are good for business.
“It’s fun to go out to trade shows and marketing events and you’re with your family,” Joe Gaither said. “You’re spending time with people you like to be around, obviously.”
They’re not the Brady Bunch. Disagreements happen and meetings can become “lively,” Hugh Gaither said.
“We can disagree and use that to come together for the right decision,” he said.
Those family dynamics, Powell said, might be why retailers flock to their brand.
“It’s a grassroots story,” he said. “The running specialty marketplace is a relatively small universe of stores and retailers. Because they’re small businesses also, they begin to express some of the same values that Feetures! would.”