How Fossa Apparel became the little company that could

In the famous children’s picture book The Little Engine That Could, an unlikely little locomotive engine agrees to try to pull a long train over a high mountain after bigger engines refuse, by motivating himself with repetitive, positive thoughts: “I think I can, I think I can.”

Mother, father and daughter trio Judy, Andy and Michelle Chen, who founded Fossa Apparel (UPIC: FOSSA) in 2006, are the little engines of their own success story—one that has evolved to employ 20 full-time employees and 12 multi-line representatives around the country.

Michelle Chen and family

The Fossa family team (from left to right Will Tang, Michelle Chen, Andy Chen, Judy Chen and Eric Chen model Fossa Apparel items.

The Chens moved to California from Taiwan in 1996 seeking better opportunities for their children. “My parents have always been in the textile industry,” says Michelle Chen. “My mother was a broker/agent in Taiwan and dealt with retail and private label brands. When we came here she tried to work [the business in Taiwan], but it was too hard and eventually she sold her portion of the business to my uncles.”

Michelle says her parents stopped working for a number of years; eventually, they realized they needed a steady source of income.

Stumbling Into The Industry

Judy and Andy tried a number of different jobs before stumbling into the promotional products industry. “A family friend who sold electronic gadgets led us to discover the promotional industry. Using what savings we had left, we decided to give it a shot and start Fossa,” says Michelle, who agreed to manage sales even though she was already into her first year as a kindergarten teacher after getting her master’s degree in early childhood development. “Teaching was what I wanted to do for life, but this opportunity came along,” she adds.

Judy used her design background to create the entire Fossa line of outerwear, fleece, vests and polos and they started the company with seven styles. Michelle took the designs to the SAAC [Specialty Advertising Association of California] show—her first trade show—in Long Beach. “We set up a booth and displayed our products. We had a single-page brochure. I knew nothing. I checked out other companies’ catalogs, like SanMar, and I was thinking, ‘What are we doing here?’”

Uphill Climb

Michelle embraced the challenge of finding a space for Fossa in the industry and quickly figured out that her target customers were PPAI- and ASI-affiliated distributors. She went to work cold-calling them.

“I called this man who said, ‘Why are you calling me? You’re going about this all the wrong way!’” That man was veteran industry salesman Nowell Wisch. “I think he could sense from my voice that I was sincere but that I was desperate and clueless, because he offered to have lunch with me and explain the structure of the industry and how I should verbally present my company.” That encounter proved to be a major turning point in the company’s success. “When you have knowledge and foundation, you sound more confident and people take you seriously because you know what you’re talking about,” Michelle says. And it turned out that she enjoyed sales and was good at it.

Perseverance Pays Off

Michelle says she and Judy spent many nights in tears of frustration at the slow progress, but she continued to call on distributors. “I had thick skin,” she says. “When you’re put in a situation where, literally, you have to make it work, you just make it work. It doesn’t make it easy.” On a positive note, when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the company was lean enough to survive and, slowly, continued to grow. But the real growth has come about only in the past few years.

“You do the legwork and build your foundation and you’re this iceberg that’s underwater until one day you hit that breakthrough point and you come above water and create a ripple effect. Now people are talking about Fossa. At The PPAI Expo, we were busy constantly. We’ve made enough customers happy that we now hold our own space in this industry,” she says, crediting her mother’s expertise in retail-inspired fashion design with the company’s product popularity.

“She has an eye for things and her experience in the clothing industry became very helpful in creating the Fossa line. People think of us as a very urban, trendy option for corporate apparel. A good analogy would be ‘affordable Patagonia,’” Michelle says.

Fossa is now a one-stop shop that offers retail-inspired products, competitive price points and full decoration services. And the entire family is now involved, including Michelle’s younger brother, Eric, who manages human resources, and her husband, Will, who serves as accounting manager. Her dad, Andy, manages the warehouse. Her uncle’s factory in China manufactures the entire line. “The factory has a social compliance certificate, and our customers like that—and the fact that we have full control and that we’re a vertical manufacturer,” Michelle emphasizes.

While the experience of building Fossa from the ground up has been difficult, especially since Michelle was also caring for her two children, now ages three and six, during the company’s early years, she says it’s been worth it. Recently, Fossa—in a partnership with Staples Promotional Products—became one of only two apparel suppliers to have products featured on the Super Bowl 50 host committee’s website. The Downtown Jacket, one of their top sellers, is featured, along with their Cerrado moisture-wicking quarter-zip and a sporty polo shirt. “It was a high honor and great accomplishment,” she says. “I’m pretty proud. And I am truly thankful that my parents brought us here. With hard work and perseverance there is a chance for any immigrant to have a shot at living the American dream.”