Vested interest: Hilton Head man starts multimillion-dollar apparel company from bedroom

dburley@islandpacket.comOctober 6, 2013 

Transportation Safety Apparel president and owner John Trimble is shown in his company's new showroom at its warehouse and office building on Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

John Trimble still lives in the Wexford Plantation home where he started his safety-apparel business a decade ago.

Back then, his wife, Beverly, would answer the phone in their guest bedroom-turned-office:

"Transportation Safety Apparel. How may I help you? ... You'd like to speak with Mr. Trimble? Please hold while I transfer you."

Beverly would put down the land line, and John would pick up his cellphone.

"I'd say, 'TSA, this is John,'" John Trimble said Wednesday. "We had to pretend like we had more than one employee."

From those humble beginnings, Transportation Safety Apparel has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar company, selling high-visibility vests, reflective neon jackets, steel-toed boots and other safety gear.

The firm outfits American Airlines' baggage handlers, Delta Air Lines' ground crews and Waste Management's employees. It ships apparel around the world from its distribution center on Hilton Head.

Now, nearing its 10th anniversary, Transportation Safety Apparel is looking inward.

"We've really made no local effort," Trimble said. "It hasn't been in the plans. We've always been national. But now, we're trying to sign city and county governments and local businesses."

Monday marks the grand opening of the company's new showroom on Beach City Road. For the apparel firm, the showroom highlights its effort to localize its products on the island it's always called home.

A REFLECTION OF HIS LINEAGE

Trimble grew up in the safety-apparel business.

His father owned Galls Inc., a Lexington, Ky.-based company that was the country's largest distributor of public-safety equipment, Trimble said.

When the company was bought by Aramark Uniforms in the late-1990s, Trimble and his wife moved to Hilton Head, where he had vacationed as a kid.

"My dad selling his business gave me a little financial independence," said Trimble, who is 53. "It gave me the nugget I needed to find out what I wanted to do."

Trimble taught physical education at Hilton Head Christian Academy for three years. Full of energy, he had no trouble keeping up with the kids. But he was a salesman at heart, he said.

He'd come home at night and hash out his business plan. He traveled to trade shows, looking for the right niche.

Then came his light-bulb moment.

In the early 2000s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration changed its regulations and set square-inch requirements for the reflective material on clothes worn by roadside workers.

Trimble noticed that no one was mass-producing reflective gear.

He rented a 10-by-10-foot storage unit on Arrow Road and went to work.

He designed yellow, orange and pink reflective vests and started making cold calls out of his bedroom/office.

"I called the Waste Management guys every day for two years," he said. "Oh gosh, we were begging for a sale."

Exhausted, Trimble needed help.

He hired Bonnie Saunders as his chief financial officer. A friend who went to Bible study with his wife, Saunders had worked for 30 years at AT&T, and her calculated management know-how blended perfectly with Trimble's charisma and spontaneity.

"Bonnie helped dot the I's and cross the T's," Trimble said. "I focused on chasing the big fish. She made sure everything was OK on the back end."

Eventually, Trimble scored some small deals, then won an exclusive account with Waste Management.

"It's just persistence," he said. "Everybody's got a supplier. Either they love them and you can't get your foot in the door, or they hate their supplier. If you keep calling, maybe they'll give you a trial run."

Today, the company's warehouse is stocked full of shipments of sweatshirts to Delta Air Lines and jackets to Virgin Atlantic. The firm even shipped vests to Fallujah during the Iraq War.

DEVELOPING LOCALLY

A few years ago, a water main burst outside the apparel company's office. Saunders saw the water-company workers in ratty orange vests and poked her head out to chat.

"I told them, 'You know, we can give you something better than that,'" she said.

After that successful sale, the company decided to see what other local companies it could land.

It secured deals with Hargray Communications, Beaufort County recycling and the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division.

Trimble said a few more accounts are in the works, but wouldn't reveal details.

Still expanding, the company is moving its inventory warehouse to Asheville, N.C., in early 2014.

The offices and showroom will stay on the island, Trimble said.

As for the company's acronym, TSA, Trimble said he didn't give it a second thought a decade ago.

"I have people come up to me all the time at trade shows, angry because they think I'm actually with the TSA," Trimble said. "But it's great for the Internet."

Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.

Related content: Company's website: http://www.tsasafety.com

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