Olympic flag-bearer turned glove maker

3/29/2013 7:30 AM
By Associated Press

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — Head over to the banks of the Brandywine, where Jessup Street meets the 16th Street Bridge on Wilmington's East Side, and you'll see new signs of life.

Like that sign on the sleek black fence — Masley Enterprises — marking the spot where Frank and Donna Masley have planted a new flag in what has been labeled a "Historically Under-utilized Business" Zone.

Into this testy neighborhood, where jobs and second chances are sorely needed but tough to come by, and into this testy economy, where the signs of recovery are better but not yet good - the Masleys have opened the new headquarters of their glove-manufacturing plant in a 20,000-square-foot brick building that once housed Brandywine Mills.

It's a calculated risk, the kind not meant for the faint of heart or the insecure.

But if you're a longtime sports fan with a fondness for Delaware, you may recall that Frank Masley is neither faint of heart nor insecure. You may recall that he has been a flag-bearer into other challenging territories - the Olympic Games, no less.

Carrying the U.S. flag into the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984 was an honor Masley won by vote of his fellow athletes on the U.S. Olympic Team. It was his second trip to the Olympics as a member of the U.S. Luge Team - no small feat for a guy from a state where the highest point above sea level reaches a dizzying 450 feet.

As Masley remembers it, the luge team nominated him - not because of a hard-luck story, but because of his hard-work story. He had been a pioneer in the sport as it grew in popularity in the U.S.

After the first vote, Masley was tied with a household-name kind of guy who would soon win the gold medal in the men's slalom - alpine skier Phil Mahre.

"He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated that week," Masley says with a grin, "so it was pretty good to tie with him."

After the second vote, the decision was reported this way: "The luge guy won."

"They didn't even know my name," Masley says with another grin. But his teammates whooped and jumped up and down, and soon the eyes of the world were on this smiling kid from Newark, Del., carrying the flag into cavernous Kosevo Stadium.

Soon after that stirring ceremony, he was at the top of the luge track on Mt. Trebevic, doing what he had come to do - hurl himself feet-first onto a 4-foot sled for a wild slide down an ice-packed chute. The three-quarter mile course dropped 425 feet, with sliders reaching speeds up to 80 mph and only a helmet to shield them from peril.

It was a sport Masley mastered — in singles and in doubles, with his late partner, Ray Bateman — to win 10 national championships and compete in three Olympic Games (1980, '84, and '88). He did it with practice, discipline, attention to detail and a piercing mental focus.

Masley grew up in Chestnut Hill Estates, graduated from Christiana High School and met his future wife, Donna, in 1983 when he got his hair cut at Don's Salon in Castle Mall one Saturday. She was the shampoo girl and cashier. He pursued.

After three Olympic competitions, Masley retired from the luge team in 1988, though he still goes for a slide now and then, as he did in a masters race at the Empire State Games last month. He finished his engineering degree at Drexel in 1989, then worked for W.L. Gore & Associates for 11 years. In 2000, he set out on his own, developing a high-tech line of military gloves with the strong, breathable Gore-Tex fiber as a foundation.

Leave a steady job at Gore to make gloves? In peace time? With three kids (Dean, Steven and Paige) and a wife?

Donna endorsed this plan, and her nursing job at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia covered them with health benefits and a steady income while the business grew.

In five years, it was profitable enough to open the first factory on Germay Drive, and Donna put her business savvy to work as owner of the company, with Frank as CEO.

The company's glove became an asset to U.S. troops after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The rugged terrain and frigid winters of Afghanistan pushed everything to its limits - and human hands needed all the protection, dexterity and warmth they could get.

Martha Hays, a church lady from Pearl, Miss., can vouch for that.

Her son, Ben, is an Army helicopter pilot. When he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, he sent word home that his crew needed much better gloves than they had - especially the gunners in the back who were exposed to brutal elements for hours at a time. Hays and her husband, Robert, got to work - notifying friends at church and others on an Internet list who had offered to support their son - and soon they had raised the money to send 25 pairs of Masley gloves to her son's unit.

A second order soon arrived for another unit in Afghanistan, this one working higher in the mountains.

"We saw a couple crew chiefs a couple of years later and they said those gloves saved their lives," Hays said. "It made a huge difference to them."

Soon, Masley Enterprises won a contract from the Department of Defense to provide 1,000 pairs of gloves to the 101st Airborne, then a contract for the 82nd Airborne, which wanted 650 pairs. Then came a big Army contract - 300,000 pairs for deploying troops.

For a while, Masley had almost 50 people working in two shifts at the Germay Drive plant. He and Donna often wished they had more space. Now, in the more expansive Jessup Street site, they are between contracts and have more space than work - a situation they hope soon will make a decided about-face. If not, they may offer some of their space to others who are incubating new businesses, Donna said.

With the drawdown of U.S. troops, military gloves may be in less frequent demand, "but I'd rather make gloves for peace time," Frank says.

But now, the firm has had to lay off most of its workers until new jobs come in. In the interim, Masley is exploring new designs and ways to expand the line that now includes cold-weather gloves, gloves for fuel handlers and flame-resistant gloves. Among the promising markets are gloves for hunters, motorcycle riders and - especially - general online sales.

Competitors hire cheap labor overseas and whittle prices to unsustainable levels. But the Masleys want to make their gloves in the USA and continue to pay about $10 an hour - nearly $3 more than minimum wage - to their workers.

That's important for the City of Wilmington. With manufacturing jobs draining out of Delaware in recent years, officials like Harold Gray, Wilmington's director of economic development, want to do all they can to help businesses like Masley's make it.

Dean Masley, the Masleys' oldest child, is studying marketing at the University of Delaware. He says finding the right price is critical to building a consumer market. The gloves have proven quality and a strong reputation, he said, but consumers don't need all of the features a $90 military glove has. He believes they'd want something closer to $60.

Masley continues to bid for federal contracts, and with its move to a HUB Zone, the firm could gain a 10 percent advantage by meeting terms set by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Among the requirements: At least 35 percent of Masley's hires must be residents of the zone. Last year it was more like 40 percent, Masley said.

Masley's move to the East Side was great news for Anthony Coleman of Wilmington. Coleman can walk to work now - it's just around the corner from his house - and that saves him lots of gas money.

"And I like working here - doing something positive and taking care of my family," he said.

Brittney Warren of Wilmington described the work atmosphere as "family-like."

"I've never been at a place where people get along like this," she said. "There are disagreements, sure, but then you're right back together. And they hire people with troubled backgrounds. Here, people get second chances. And these people show up half an hour early for work, they work hard, and they care about these gloves as if they were their own. They go above and beyond because they have something to prove."

Hakim Thomas will do whatever he can to see the business succeed.

"I respect the guy," Thomas said. "He gives people like me - who have a bad past, who got in trouble when they were young - a job. Nobody would hire me because of that. He did."

During this slack period, many workers, including Thomas, have helped with the move from Germay Drive to Jessup Street. Others have come in to help complete small contracts. They're hoping for another significant job to come through - soon.

Jane Bijelic had been out of work for six months and had almost given up on finding another job when the unemployment office called to say she could interview at Masley's.

She had moved to Delaware from her native Bosnia after the end of that nation's horrific war. She worked for Amazon for eight years, but when that job was moved elsewhere, she decided not to move with it. She wanted to stay in Delaware, where she had family.

She and Frank Masley went over her resume. She was an expert sewer. She had studied movie-making and costume construction in Bosnia.

You lived in Bosnia? Where?

"Sarajevo."

"Sarajevo?"

Bijelic sat stunned as Masley told his Sarajevo story.

And then she told him the rest of her story. She was working for Sarajevo TV during the '84 Games and was assigned to a TV trailer — the one at the bottom of the luge track.

Small world indeed, this Delaware, where connections emerge at unexpected times in unlikely places among those who moments ago were total strangers.

Signs of life, yes. But hard work remains for Masley Enterprises. Finding sustainable price points, maintaining high-quality craftsmanship, building steady product demand, winning new contracts, providing fair wages and solid employment - all are on a daunting to-do list.

But maybe daunting isn't so scary. Military gloves? Out the door by the thousands. Luge? Ten national titles. Second chances for felons? Let us count the names.

What is this guy thinking now?

He's thinking it's good business to help revive an East Side neighborhood.

Want to bet he's right?

___

Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com


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