Kris Matheson is obsessed with socks. He brags about the drawers full of them he has at home, and the fancy materials they’re made of, like merino wool and something called Coolmax; he ogles the rows of sewing machines that knit them; he shows off the dozens of new designs displayed inside the Cabot Hosiery Mills in Northfield, where Darn Tough socks are made. “I love this place,” he says—as if he needed to.
Matheson is in his early 30s, with a warm smile and a cool swagger. All it takes is a handshake to see that he possesses a gentle, genuine earnestness—and a serious love of his job. He grew up in a military family in Maryland, but his roots are in Northfield, and he returned to Vermont almost ten years ago to care for his grandmother. He found Darn Tough, fell in love with it, and hasn’t left.
He’s loyal because Darn Tough is loyal to him. “I started in a lower position, and they’ve helped me work my way up.” He became a team lead, and is now the second shift production supervisor. Last year, he took part in the Applied Supervisory Leadership program, a professional development training opportunity created by CCV and offered to Darn Tough employees.
Rick Carey, Darn Tough’s human resources manager, said the training met a need for leadership as the company experiences a huge growth spurt. “We had a number of people that I saw sort of raw talent that could use some more expertise in the area of supervision, so as a company, and as a business, we felt that it just made sense to train these individuals and try to nurture them so they could grow within our organization.”
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Matheson can’t say enough about how much the class helped him grow. He says the most important thing he took away is confidence. He learned skills, such as problem solving and conflict resolution, that he could immediately apply on the job. Many of the employees under his supervision were also in the class, and he watched their confidence grow alongside his own. “The next generation has to be prepared. I went in there thinking like a lead by example thing, and then I took away a lot more than I thought I was going to.” Kris has both professional and personal motivations for being a good leader; he has a real affection for his coworkers. “The second shift has always been a great shift, I love my team.” Not surprisingly, the feeling is mutual: Carey says, “he’s really a guy that is so key to this operation. The second shift that he’s on, they all love him. He’s a great leader.”
And there was another unexpected benefit of the class. “What it did was it broke down barriers,” Matheson explains. He developed strong bonds with many of the people he’d previously considered mere acquaintances. “I know these guys and girls, but I’ve never sat down and been able to work with them on things, and this definitely broke down barriers and made connections with people.” (He also discovered that he was related to two coworkers: “I found out a guy was my cousin! Two of them—they’re brothers.” Turns out his great-grandmother had almost two dozen children, earning the family a bit of Northfield notoriety. “We found out we had the same great-grandmother. I called my father and he’s like ‘yeah, that’s so-and-so’s boys.’”)
Indeed, Matheson returns again and again to the theme of family. He says Ric and Marc Cabot, the father and son pair who own Darn Tough, make it a point to shake his hand every day and ask how things are going. “They’re very family oriented,” says Matheson. And that, he believes, is at the foundation of their success. “I think Darn Tough is one of the companies that can keep the Vermont workforce very strong.”
The Cabots look out for their own. “We want our people to grow,” says Matheson of the company philosophy. “Which is awesome. That’s one thing that I really love. So we’re not just taking these classes for no reason. We’re [providing] advancement opportunities.” Matheson worked his own way up to a team lead and then into his supervisory role just before the training was offered; he says the timing was perfect for his own development as a leader. “I’m still a new supervisor,” he says. “I’m still learning every day.”
Matheson started studying at a community college in Maryland after high school, but gave it up. “I come from a family that I have to work. From the beginning I had to work. I’ve worked since I was 13 years old…it wasn’t an option for me to go right to college; my family didn’t have money for it…so it’s great when a business opens up that opportunity to learn, then it gets your wheels turning and makes you want to continue.” Being in the ASL class was nothing like high school, which he recalls feeling like an obligation. “I don’t have to be here,” he remembers thinking during the training. “I’m here for me.”
Matheson is committed to Darn Tough. “I want to be here, and I want to keep on growing. I’d love to step into the highest position I can, and help. I like helping people.” Plus, there’s that sock obsession. “I love the product,” he says. “When you love something, and when something’s so good, it sells itself.”
He’s also committed to Vermont. “People look out for each other like crazy,” he says, comparing his Northfield community to the one he knew as a kid. “There, people look out for people you know. People here will look out for everybody. I love Vermont. I absolutely love it.”