When Kurt and Kathy Cressey began manufacturing pack baskets in the small general store they owned in the middle of the Maine woods, they faced a couple of pretty significant obstacles.
The first came before the first basket was ever crafted about 16 years ago. Neither of them knew what the heck they were doing. They’d bought the basket business, which included a company name and a few molds, but received little guidance. The Cresseys reasoned that they’d have plenty of time to make baskets during the frequent slow periods at their store, which catered primarily to fly fishermen and snowmobilers.
“When we bought the business, somebody was going to come up [to Grand Lake Stream], where we owned the [Pine Tree Store], and show us how to weave a basket,” Kurt Cressey said. “That never happened. I ended up taking apart my own pack basket and reverse-engineering it.”
Still, it took him several days before he actually built a basket he thought a customer would be interested in buying.
“It was almost like starting a store all over again,” he said. “When we first bought the store, I would drive into Princeton, flag down a Pepsi truck, and say, ‘Hey. I’ve got a store. Can you sell stuff to me?’ It was the same way [with baskets]. Where to find the webbing. Where to find the wood. Where to find all this stuff. We just had to dig, dig, dig and figure it out.”
The second obstacle: Once the husband-and-wife team began producing baskets, they were afraid to let too many people know their company existed. Unable to make baskets during times when business at the store was slow, they were afraid they might attract too much business.
“We purposefully did not advertise ourselves. We purposefully did not have a website,” Kurt Cressey said. “Because we knew if we grew and could not service whatever the orders were, that’s a slippery road to ‘They’re not dependable. Don’t deal with those people.’”
So the Cresseys kept on digging, kept growing modestly in the cramped 700-square-foot general store, and kept dreaming of a day when they could concentrate on making baskets full time.
Five years ago, they moved to Orrington from Grand Lake Stream, rented some available space on Main Road, and expanded their factory to about 4,800 square feet.
While once they had to move the racks of food to make room for basket production, they now had a real factory. They hired three part-time workers, but continued to work seven days a week themselves.
Eventually, they changed the name of their company to Pack Baskets of Maine — They had learned there was another company going by the original “New England Basket Company” — and bought actual business cards. Within the past two years, they even set up a website.
Walk into L.L. Bean, and you’ll likely see their baskets. They’re also sold at Reny’s, along with many smaller Maine retailers. In 2013, the Cresseys were honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration as Maine’s mirco-enterprise of the year.
And now, they’re poised to take the next step forward … they think.
“You know how families have a family crest and a motto?” Kathy Cressey asked. “Our family, the Cresseys, is ‘We do things the hard way.’ It seems like everything we’ve ever done,we’ve just had to bull our way through it and figure it out.”
Not just for fishing
The pack baskets that the Cresseys produce are, Kathy will tell you, “utilitarian.” Her husband says that every basket has to be exactly like all the others in a particular product line.
“There’s no room for creativity in this company. It’s the same way, in every way, every year,” he said.
Where the creativity often comes in, he said, is when customers get involved.
Most Mainers likely think of pack baskets as pieces of equipment, like a backpack, that they can use to carry ice fishing gear onto the lake.
Kurt Cressey said that since the company’s website went live and he began taking retail orders, he found that customers in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Washington were interested in the product.
“Now, people use them to collect mushrooms and forage in the woods. One guy puts 40 pounds of rocks in his and goes for a hike, three times a week,” Cressey said. “They like ‘em because the basket is flexible, yet it won’t break. It’s durable. It’s stronger than having a canvas pack, so you can put delicate things in there and they won’t get crushed.”
The baskets come in different sizes and retail for between $63 and $97.
Kurt Cressey said many customers use the packs as decorations. Some put them beside a door for umbrella storage. Others hook small packs under their mail slot so that their dogs don’t chew up the mail when it arrives.
“A lot of times, the use of the basket is beyond our imagination,” he said. “We need the customers to tell us what they do.”
Business is booming
With nearly seven times as much space to work with, and three part-time employees to pitch in, the Cresseys have ramped up production since arriving in Orrington.
During a good year in Grand Lake Stream, they might have managed to produce 1,200 baskets a year. Now, they’re putting out between 4,000 and 5,000 per year, and are focusing on the company’s future growth.
They’re exploring an opportunity to sell the baskets on a home shopping TV show, and are considering branching out to find more new customers outside Maine. One way to garner that attention: Attend a few large sporting expos outside the state.
“What we would like to do is get into other markets,” Kathy Cressey said. “A lot of markets in the sporting goods field, but in other parts of the country. And maybe [become a vendor at] more retail shows. I think it would be fun to actually get out there and talk to customers.”
Kurt Cressey said the five years spent in Orrington have put the company on a new plane of growth. The next step, he said, is exciting, yet daunting.
“In any business, the first five years are the toughest. And then once that five years is over, all of a sudden you’re on the other side of the cash flow,” he said. “My analogy is, this is the year that I’m on a surfboard and I’m waiting for that big wave to come in. Do I have the guts to paddle up to the top of that wave and ride it in, or am I just going to let it go by?”
Among the steps they may take if they choose to ride that wave: Hire more people, including a plant manager, and focus their attention more on building the business and cultivating clients.
“As a management team, we’re going to have to rethink how we’re running this company,” Kurt Cressey said. “Right now, it’s running us.”
But his wife said stepping away from the day-to-day production of baskets won’t be easy.
“Those are big steps. For us, we take those steps in baby step increments,” she said.
“And we hate to let go,” her husband chimed in.