In 1984, Wayne Heflin and Glenn Russell met in a hallway of a U.S. handbag manufacturer. A seasoned professional within the fashion industry, Russell was the company’s financial controller. Heflin, a Vietnam veteran who entered the leather goods and fashion arena after his service ended, had recently established a fashion belt line for the company, as well as a new promotional products division.
One handshake and two years later, they founded Cross Canvas Co. after witnessing the gradual demise of their former employer as cheaper products made overseas increasingly outpaced sales of U.S.-made products.
“Even in those trying times, we felt there was a place in the market for high-quality, U.S.-made promotional products, so we jumped in to provide items that were considered a necessity—not a luxury,” Heflin says. “Our niche became customization. We wanted to be a corporation’s tailor and to impress them by our ability to quickly turn around high-quality, low-quantity orders.”
Delivering on reputation
Based in Asheville, N.C., Cross Canvas manufactures custom specialty textile products, from accessories and aprons to bags and cases of all sizes and functions. It also specializes in private labeling for a variety of retailers.
Regardless of size, every order is made to a customer’s precise specifications. Customers range from entertainment and financial giants to government agencies, medical companies and small family businesses. Key partnerships over the years have included licensed product lines with NASCAR and General Motors.
Whether Cross Canvas is shipping luggage tags or duffle bags, its attention to presentation is critical to converting a customer’s first impression to a second order—and eventually, a long-term relationship.
This commitment to excellence is fundamental to the company’s reputation, which continues to sustain its growth and longevity. “Our bags are not meant for everybody,” Heflin says. “U.S.-made products don’t work for every budget, but customers turn to us because they know they’ll receive the highest quality and our undivided attention.”
To keep up with customer expectations, Cross Canvas has evolved its product lines to include more leather, better hardware, heavier-duty canvas, more stitching, brass zippers—features that help to categorize the products as nicer end but not higher end, Russell explains. “By building nicer bags, we can produce smaller quantities with a better margin. There’s very little margin if you’re making large quantities of cheap bags, especially when so many similar products are coming in from overseas.”
But “nicer” doesn’t equate to intricate. “One of our taglines is ‘simplicity,’” Russell says. “By keeping the design clean, classic and simple, we can avoid the unnecessary bells and whistles that increase labor costs but don’t add value to the product. If more customers understood this, there’d be less sticker shock when it comes to U.S.-made products.”
A consumer trend that’s trickier for Cross Canvas to manage is the demand for more “green” materials—especially from younger generations, Russell notes. “It’s not something we typically work with, but if a customer wants recycled material, we offer it,” Heflin says. “That’s an important instance where we’ll lean on Industrial Fabrics Association International [IFAI] to help us source the fabric because it’s not something we’re using every day.”
No matter what material is being requested, Heflin and Russell say the appetite for U.S.-made products has increased in the last year. “We’ve seen this type of demand before, after major events like 9/11,” Heflin says. “It comes and goes, but we’ve streamlined and sacrificed our way through many periods of uncertainty over the years. We’re survivors. And by ‘we’ I mean our entire team. Without our employees, there wouldn’t be a Cross Canvas today.”
With nearly 25 employees to manage, Heflin and Russell have built a company culture around three principles: respect, positivity and pride. “There’s no room for egos,” Russell says. “We both remember what it’s like to be an employee and know what it means to work as a team. Our team succeeds together and fails together, and our employees understand that.”
Mutual respect is essential to maintaining a positive work atmosphere where employees feel trusted, empowered and valued. “We do whatever we can to keep our employees happy,” Russell continues. “We may not be able to offer all of the benefits of a large company, but we pay well and offer generous vacation time and flexibility to ensure employees’ families come first.”
At Cross Canvas, the physical environment is just as important to the employee experience. Routinely getting rid of old machinery, showcasing company projects in dedicated areas, repainting walls and setting time aside daily to clean makes a difference.
Facing the future
Satisfied employees are more likely to stay and recommend the company to others seeking work—which Heflin and Russell are particularly grateful for, as skilled labor is hard to find. “There’s definitely a lack of education about the cut-and-sew business among today’s workforce, but there’s also a lack of interest,” Heflin says. “I don’t have an answer for this issue, and that concerns me for the future of this industry.”
“If five sewers walked into our office today, I’d probably hire all of them on the spot,” Russell adds. “Over the years we’ve had success bringing in younger people with an interest in sewing and devoting the time necessary to help them improve. Sewing is hard work, but it’s rewarding.”
Cross Canvas employees—who have an average tenure of 15 years—are just as invested in new hires. “They watch over the company as much as we do,” Heflin says. “Most of our newer employees are referrals, but no one wants to refer someone who won’t be able to perform at their level or fit the team culture.”
Another constant challenge is keeping up with advances in technology. Though most of the cutting is still done with a knife and clickers, half of the company’s 45 sewing machines are less than five years old, with the goal of adding or replacing three to four each year. Sewing equipment includes single- and double-needle walking foot machines, computerized tackers, overlocks and machines set up for special operations. Cross Canvas also has 30 heads of embroidery, automated and manual screen-printing presses, direct-to-garment printers, and leather cutting, skiving and embossing equipment.
Russell recently renovated the company website as well. Designed with distributors and the general public in mind, it’s now easier to navigate and features sharp imagery and a simple, clean design. “This is an amazing tool for showcasing our products, but to stay top of mind with customers, we also rely on word of mouth and trade shows,” Heflin says. Prior to the pandemic, he attended 10 to 12 trade shows a year and is looking forward to attending these again in the near future.
Looking ahead, Cross Canvas will proceed with a pre-pandemic agreement with a Tokyo-based sourcing firm to license its brand internationally, further expanding its sales and recognition throughout the world. Cross Canvas has granted its name, likeness and specific designs for this program—an area it’s been experimenting with over the last decade.
Whatever else comes next, Heflin and Russell will adapt. “That’s what’s allowed Cross Canvas to keep going all these years,” Heflin says. “Being open to uncertainty has helped us work with some of the biggest names in America. You never know what the day will bring, but bring it on.”
Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Project Snapshot
A 24-step solution
Where there’s a customer will, Cross Canvas finds a way. But working with leather can be especially difficult—a lesson learned the hard way by a customer who met Wayne Heflin, vice president, at a trade show 12 years ago. She was struggling to find someone who could design a leather case for a safety instrument that miners worldwide attach to their belts while they work underground. Keeping the device safe is of the utmost importance, as it can track the wearer’s location and shut down nearby machinery when a wearer gets dangerously close to it. Sample cases from other companies had not met the customer’s durability standards. Using oil-tanned leather and a rigorous testing process, Cross Canvas developed a 24-step cut-and-sew process to produce a 6-by-4-by-2-inch case that meets the customer’s exact specifications. Case orders continue today, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand each time.
SIDEBAR: Q &A
What advice would you offer someone new to or interested in entrepreneurship?
Wayne Heflin, vice president: Be prepared to make some sacrifices. I tell people it takes more than a great idea. First ask yourself: What do you want in life? What do you want your life to look like in five years? Then ask: Do I have the stamina for this new idea? Can it be profitable? If the answer is yes, find a mentor, be open to learning every day, and remember the value of teamwork as you surround yourself with the people who will help you navigate your next steps.
Glenn Russell, president: Price your product to make money. To be able to do that, you have to know and understand your costs. Also, even as you specialize in a specific industry or product line, continue to diversify your skills and interests; it’s an important part of leading and working with others.