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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2007

Sock-making business creates a comfy niche

NASHVILLE, Ind. A tour of a sock-manufacturing factory didn t initially turn my head in Nashville, in Brown County, Indiana.

That s the town with more than 200 shops, numerous art galleries, and night entertainment.

Did I want to watch socks being made with so many other choices?

Granted, the name For Bare Feet was intriguing, and there was a chance I could meet the woman who started the business and after 20 years is still at the helm.

I decided to go in.

Sharon Rivenbark was in her office, seated behind a large mahogany desk.

Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling in the room that was large enough to accommodate velvet-upholstered sofas that ensure comfort during business sessions.

Nearby was her fluffy white Havanese puppy, Elizabeth Taylor.

Does the president of this successful company which has 150 employees working three shifts have advice for other women who get the bug to have their own business and be their own boss?

Indeed, she does.

First, she says, the endeavor must be innovative and worthwhile, or it isn t worth the work. To be in business is very hard work, Ms. Rivenbark says. Many nights I have been at this factory until 2 in the morning and had to be back at 6 the next morning.

A former fifth-grade teacher, she recalls staying up late many nights grading papers, but that was a snap compared to the manufacturing business.

Ms. Rivenbark s first line of advice to entrepreneurs who get discouraged is this: You just can t give up.

People say they can t do this and they can t do that because of obstacles, but they should think of ways to get around the problems, she advises.

Ms. Rivenbark didn t get into the sock-making business because of her talent for needlework.

Quite the contrary. She admits that she got a D-minus in eighth grade because she could never knit a pair of mittens to suit her teacher.

She kept telling me to rip it out, rip it out, she remembers. Ms. Rivenbark quickly adds, I was an all-A student studying for my master s degree.

But such memories were put aside when her son Tim, one of five children, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.

A single mother, Ms. Rivenbark wanted to establish a business for Tim to have a place in the world, she explains.

Tim had dropped out of Indiana University when he was 18, and doctors had warned that he would become mentally disabled. Socks are a necessity, she reasoned, and Tim agreed.

She borrowed $1,200 from her parents, which was enough to buy an antique knitting machine and to rent space in a Nashville store.

Before Tim died two years later their socks were gaining popularity. Ms. Riverbark created interesting designs, and the owner of the store where they rented space learned that they could be a gift item. Visitors from other cities began to order wholesale.

This business is all that I have left of my son, she says. The business that began as mother-son teamwork has multiplied many times and is seen throughout the United States and in Canada.

Her daughters, Tina Bode and Kelly Baugh, serve as vice presidents of operations and sales.

The estimated 10,000 designs include custom orders for national companies. For Bare Feet also does custom orders for schools, churches, reunions, and special events. (72 pairs is the minimum order.)

The customer list includes the NFL, NBA, NHL, Coca-Cola, resorts, national parks, and theme parks.

I started selling socks in a market that had not perceived socks as a gift before, Ms. Rivenbark says. So I guess you could say I created a market that wasn t there.

Sock designs address hobbies, trends, nature, and wildlife. Ms. Rivenbark currently favors the penguin and butterfly designs, but that will change. Of course, a graphic of her Havanese dog has made it to the knitting floor.

For the record, the pair of For Bare Feet socks I have on as I write this story is inscribed, Factory Tour, 800-669-6674. If you are in the area, give them a call.

It s worthwhile and it s free.



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