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K1 Sportswear changes hands

Cloquet-based K1 Sportswear was sold earlier this month by founder Marty Ketola (right) to new owner Tony Fisher, after posting its best year ever. Fisher said he wants to stick with the same team and mission, but work on growth for the company. Contributed Photo 1 / 7
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After building his K1 Sportswear business from one sewing machine in a basement to the No. 1 hockey jersey manufacturer in the U.S.A., Cloquet’s Marty Ketola has sold the business.

New owner and St. Paul native Tony Fisher said the base of operations will remain in Cloquet, along with the company’s other facility in Paynesville, Minn., and a warehouse in Proctor, because he knows a good thing when he sees it.

Ketola hands off a company that just had its best year ever, something Fisher points out is rare.

“A lot of times businesses like this get sold when they’ve flatlined or need restructuring, but it’s actually quite the opposite,” Fisher said. “Marty is selling at a high point, and it’s a unique opportunity for someone like me to come in and focus on growth. This is not a business that’s struggling — the team knows that and I know that — it’s a business that just delivered a record year in both profitability and sales.”

Ketola said it was the right time for him to go, after nearly 30 years in the business (although he is staying on to help with the transition).

“It was just time to pass it on and move it forward,” Ketola said.

K1 Sportswear Inc. sells primarily business to business, places like hockey stores, sports equipment stores, college bookstores, teams and their franchise shops. In addition to hockey jerseys, K1 Sportswear makes performance hockey socks, breezer shells (which go over the top of the padded hockey pants and offer teams an opportunity to do more customization at a lower cost) along with lacrosse uniforms.

“That’s new,” said Ketola, whose son plays lacrosse. “But it’s a growing market, especially in Minnesota. It was a natural fit for us, because we have the materials and knew how to jump right in.”

Like Ketola, a hometown hockey legend who helped lead Cloquet to the state hockey tournament in 1982 and played four years for Colorado College, Fisher was a standout athlete in high school at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul and played baseball at the University of St. Thomas. He then played three years for the Texas Rangers organization before getting a job with Target Corporation.

Ketola was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins but said he went to camp after college and said he “only lasted a short time” before returning to Cloquet.

That’s when Ketola got into the business of selling uniforms. He was playing softball and started selling softball jackets to local teams for a mom-and-pop operation out of Wisconsin. Then he hooked up with a company in Tamarack making practice hockey jerseys in a barn. Pretty soon, he had so much business coming in, the folks in Tamarack had a hard time filling orders.

“I hired some retired ladies to make jackets; those were the first things we made under the K1 label,” Ketola said, revealing that the name was suggested by a fellow softball player during a post-game bar conversation.

In 1989, he hired Aune Lane to sew jackets and warm-up pants out of her basement in Proctor. The K1 style of putting the team name down the leg of the warm-up pants became very popular in Minnesota and was a No. 1 seller for years, Ketola said. As the business grew, next he hired Mary Krause from Superior and bought a company sewing machine.

With help from his family and his wife, Lauri, Ketola managed the company at the same time he was working full-time for the Cloquet Fire Department; he would work a 24-hour shift there, then work the next day on K1 business.

After four years of working two jobs, K1 was doing well enough that Ketola went full-time. He rented a building on Washington Avenue in Cloquet (where Younglife is now) along with space on the second floor of the Masonic Lodge in West End Cloquet.

“I had cutters and sewers upstairs there for one season,” he said. “My brother Corey and I hauled fabric upstairs.”

They quickly outgrew that space and next moved both parts of the business to a building in downtown Cloquet, a former hardware store which is now home to Cloquet Abstract and the Rudy Gassert Yetka & Pritchett law firm. K1 remained there for a number of years before Ketola purchased the former L&M building at 1309 Avenue C (behind Cloquet City Hall) when L&M moved to its current building along Highway 33 and Doddridge Avenue, 15 years ago or more, he guessed.

“When we moved into this building, we had probably 30-35 workers,” Ketola said. “Now we have between 70 and 72.”

K1 also employs 15 people at a facility in Paynesville that Ketola purchased nine years ago when a company they had been sewing for went out of business. For a time, they also did screen printing and some sewing in Proctor. However, he moved the screen printing business into the former dry cleaning building next door when he purchased it several years ago and the Proctor building became primarily a warehouse.

Having a background in hockey has been helpful, he said.

“We sell across the country so it’s very easy for me to go into a hockey shop or store and start talking hockey with people,” Ketola said. “The hockey world is a small world, and someone knows someone within a few minutes of talking. Understanding the uniforms is helpful. I’ve been around hockey since I was 7 years old.”

Both Ketola and Fisher were exceptional athletes in school. Both men also used that background in business — Ketola into manufacturing hockey apparel and Fisher in his job with the Target Corporation.

“In my first job at Target in 1999, I was responsible for the licensed apparel business,” Fisher said, referring to licensed team jerseys, shirts, etc. sold by the Minnesota-based retailer.

Over the next eight years, Fisher’s career with Target saw him tackle a number of different roles, but he came back to licensed apparel when the retail company was going to get rid of that part of the business.

“I felt very strongly about it and I convinced them to let me take it on again,” he said. “They did. I put together a plan to help drive the business and we ended up doubling the business the first year. I think it tripled a few short years later.

“I’ve always been passionate about sports apparel,” he added.

Thus, when Fisher started thinking about what he’d like to do next, the timing was serendipitous.

“Marty was looking to sell and I was looking to get into sole business ownership,” he said.

The two men met through a mutual person who was helping Ketola sell the business, then Fisher spent the next several months doing lots of homework, before deciding that buying K1 was the right thing for him.

“Everything I saw pointed to full speed ahead, this is a go,” he said.

They signed the papers two weeks ago. Nov. 16 was Fisher’s first day as the owners of K1 Sportswear, Inc.

There were many reasons that it was a good move for him, Fisher said.

He was attracted by the idea of owning a sports apparel businesses and the license side of things, he said. He was impressed and happy with the company’s strong financial performance. And the team at K1 is “fantastic,” he added.

Ketola agrees wholeheartedly. On a tour through the Cloquet facility, he repeatedly talked about how skillful the employees are.

He stopped in a part of the building where several people were working on “cut and sew” hockey jerseys, which can have as many as 32 different pieces.

DuAnne Sarvela was sewing a jersey for a Moundsville team. She’s been with K1 for 20 years.

“You could go across the U.S. and you’re not gonna find probably anyone who can sew a hockey jersey faster than DuAnne,” Ketola said. “We actually had a sewing contest a few years ago and DuAnne won the trophy. We had a big sew off.”

DuAnne said it was only because someone made her mad … that got her going.

“She’s lightning fast,” Ketola added. “Everyone back here has been here a long time. They’re expert sewers. I’d put them up against anyone.”

Not too far away, another seamstress is working on a sublimated jersey for Hockey Day in Minnesota.

There’s a lot less sewing to be done with the sublimated jerseys because stripes, for example, can simply be dyed into the fabric rather than cutting and sewing strips of different colored fabric. It’s faster and offers a lot more flexibility in terms of fabric designs.

“That (sublimation) is the direction the company is going,” Ketola said. “It’s really exciting, I think. It’s hard to get out here at the peak because I know how good it’s going to continue to do, but it was just time for me, I guess.”

While one printer is printing a girls lacrosse jersey design, a second sublimation printer is just printing a solid roll of green, which Ketola says is a special color green that the Dallas Stars want for an alumni game. K1 will dye a whole roll “Dallas green,” and then make the jerseys from there.

While Fisher wants to expand the company’s offerings — baseball jersey samples sit on a shelf in his office — he said he isn’t planning to do anything that’s really outside the company’s current mission.

“People always ask me, what changes do you want to make?” Fisher said. “If I made any changes, the company would probably go downhill. The first priority is to continue to keep things moving as they are. We’re at the end of our peak busy season and the team has to stay focused on that.”

He wants to continue to find ways to optimize productivity, he said, and focus on growth in the future.

“I absolutely believe we have a tremendous amount of market share to pick up in our existing business of hockey, and I’m also very excited about the potential in sports like baseball and lacrosse. I believe what we offer — cut and sew, screen printing and sublimation — can really be transferred to basically any sport. We have a very talented team that can do that … I know this team, the 70 people we have on board, from what I’ve seen and what Marty says, are the best people in the country (if not the world) at creating custom hockey jerseys.

“Lastly, I want to continue to focus on the team and growing the team. I did not buy this business with the intent of having it be status quo and flatlined for the next 20 years. I bought it to continue to take advantage of the growth of the K1 brand in Minnesota and the U.S. and I anticipate a continued need for new talent.”

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