Forever Young

Bright and early, you can find Lane Kalmin at the office outlining strategic initiatives, double-checking the accuracy of orders and ensuring that the business he has built remains on track. At age 81, he remains fully engaged in growing the headwear and bag company that has served the promotional products and decorated apparel industry for 30 years.

Kalmin’s path to becoming the founder of Houston-based supplier Kati Sportcap & Bag was a long and winding one. Raised in Dallas alongside four siblings by his single mother, Kalmin joined the Army right out of high school. His first job in the private sector took him on the road selling costume jewelry. This was Kalmin’s introduction into the fashion sector, and he was hooked.

After marrying and starting a family with his wife, Doris, Kalmin transitioned to the wig industry, which was a thriving fashion enterprise in the 1970s. He and his family moved to Houston when he was offered the chance to run his own wig business. Kalmin had the strategic foresight to realize that wigs were on the decline, and he expanded the company’s product offerings to include t-shirts and caps.

Kalmin ran that company until 1983, when he decided to start his own company as a regional distributor for Sportcap. Over the years, Sportcap suffered some setbacks, and Kalmin eventually took over the operation. Kati Sportcap & Bag was born.

What were some of the obstacles you encountered when starting out?

When we took over the Sportcap name, our intention was to continue to build that brand from its origins in California. However, we found that it was easier said than done. The West Coast business didn’t develop enough to justify a continued presence there, so we ended up bringing everything back to Houston. It was disappointing because we lost the identity they had built out there and had to regrow the brand from scratch. We now focus on our strong presence in the Southwest and the Midwest.

How has the company evolved over the years?

In the early days, our catalog was five pages of a few basic cap styles, and 80 percent of our sales were foam front caps. The golf cap (today’s “dad cap”) first became popular back then. Styling became more important and more diversified, and caps quickly became an item worn just as much for fashion as for function. Now, our catalog has 200 pages of caps and bags. We carry 17 brands, 309 styles and over 2,500 SKUs.

Where do you source your products?

When I started out, there were limited cap manufacturers, and we found factories in Taiwan and South Korea that were our only legitimate option for quality products. In response to price pressure, eventually these companies moved production to China. We continue to work with these same factories today, and we enjoy a mutually beneficial, loyal relationship. They have grown with us as we have moved from a very simple product line to the vast number of styles we now carry.

Ten years ago we also entered into a partnership with the Sportsman network, which includes all the major labels such as Adidas, Champion and Flexfit. It’s given us the ability to carry these brands, and in return, Sportsman sells Kati products. It’s a win/win for everyone.

How do you identify new styles for caps and bags?

Our team does a great job keeping up with retail trends, and we’re always searching for new looks and styles to incorporate into the product line. Coming from a fashion background, I’ve always tried to stay ahead of the trends. One of our biggest successes in the late ’80s and early ’90s was a cap called “the jagged edge,” which was similar to the style of caps that football coaches and players wear on the sidelines. It was new and on-trend, and it pushed us to the next level of success.

The evolution of fashion and the demand for diversification have made the business grow. It’s still an industry of categories that are getting hot. The mesh trucker hat is a good example, and we’ve had a long run of camo being a major category in our business. We have more styles and SKUs than any other cap company around.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I play golf on a regular basis and carry a 15 handicap. I do yoga to stay in shape, and occasionally, you’ll find me at the gym. I mostly enjoy time with my wife of 56 years, our three grown kids and three grandkids. But my wife, Doris, makes it clear that I am still needed at the office. She tells me, “I agreed to ‘for better or for worse,’ but not for lunch.”

What does the future hold for Kati Sportcap & Bag?

Six years ago, I sold the business to my daughter and son-in-law, Shari and Danny Spier, and my longtime employee Gary Mosley. I have mentored Gary since he joined the company in 1984, and he became a top sales executive for us. As co-owners, Danny and Gary handle the daily operations, but when they took over, I made them promise that I would still have a job.

Kati’s revenue growth is steady and, in general, flows with the [promotional products] business. Sadly, very few companies make it through the second generation of family ownership, but I believe we will continue to thrive. My hope is that I can leave this legacy for my grandkids.

Terry Ramsay is associate editor for PPB.