J.C. Egnew builds a business where the community and company support each other.
By Sigrid Tornquist
Success? “It’s about assessing risk. One of the things I spend a lot of time doing is looking for opportunities and assessing risk,” says J.C. Egnew, founder and owner of Outdoor Venture Corp., which manufactures custom tent systems in Stearns, Ky. Egnew, who began working for NASA in 1961, first as an engineering student, then as a rocket test engineer, began Outdoor Venture in 1972. Before and since, he has had plenty of experience in assessing business and community risks—and moving forward based on those assessments.
As a young man, Egnew was caught up with Werner Von Braun’s vision of peaceful exploration of space. And when NASA offered him a permanent placement after graduation, Egnew seized the opportunity to work there full time. He started out his engineering career testing components of a first-stage rocket engine that powered the Saturn booster, which put the Apollo capsule on the moon. As time went on, Egnew grew concerned about the demand for liquid rocket test engineers, based on a diminishing need for testing in a maturing program that was ramping up to flight mode. He entered grad school to retool as a businessperson, watching the first manned moon landing from his student apartment in Knoxville, Tenn. in 1969.
From rocket scientist to entrepreneur
It was a pivotal moment for the space program and for Egnew’s career. He graduated that fall and returned to NASA briefly. “After a month and a half … there just wasn’t anything for me to do,” Egnew says. “I decided I was wasting my time and the government’s money so I resigned, paid them my tuition back and took
a job with a [recreational tent] company in Tennessee.” After a few years working as a plant manager, he decided that his best possibility for advancement lay in starting his own business. Egnew began minimizing his risk by asking advice of professional peers. “I started talking to my friends, one who was an investment banker and the other a lawyer,” Egnew says. “My lawyer friend said he’d help me set up the business structure saying ‘If it works, you can pay me stock or something; if it doesn’t, then you don’t owe me anything.’” And the investment banker directed him to a source for venture capital.
That was in the spring of 1972; by summer he had a business plan for a company manufacturing recreational tents, and had located what he thought would be a great environment for the business—Stearns, Ky. “I knew intuitively that I had to get out of the big city,” Egnew says. “The city was not the place for a cut-and-sew business because there were so many other employment opportunities that we could never really have a stable labor force.” As it turned out, this decision proved to be a major catalyst for the company’s success as well as the success and health of the Stearns community.
In ’72, the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co., in effect, owned the town, and the coal business was in an almost vertical decline. “The unemployment rate was probably officially about 18 percent,” Egnew says. “Unofficially, it was probably about 25 percent.” The Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. offered Egnew an abandoned 17,000-square-foot warehouse to use rent-free for two years in an effort to create jobs and stimulate the local economy. “The county judge sent some folks down from the county jail to hose the place out with a fire hose, and they whitewashed the walls,” Egnew says. “We moved in in September—and the journey began.”
Risk and reward
The beginning of the journey, however, was the continuation of risk and opportunity. “All of my thoughts from the day we started were: How do we survive?” Egnew says. “There are always potholes and surprises.” Some of those potholes and surprises included an influx of imports from Korea and Taiwan in the late ’70s, a shift that threatened the company’s market share. “[Industry stakeholders] worked together to get a lobby group to work in Washington, D.C., which eventually became the United States Industrial Fabrics Institute (USIFI), formed to protect the interests of U.S. manufacturers,” he says.
Despite lobbying efforts, Outdoor Venture experienced a downshift, and by the early ’80s, the company was struggling to stay afloat. Egnew shifted the company focus from recreational tents to government contracts for military tents. “We got our first [government] contract in ’83,” he says. “It was a small contract that came at a time when we were being put out of business.” It took the company a year or two to get a toehold, since getting a piece of that particular pie is extremely competitive, according to Egnew. But the move to government contracts has paid off for Outdoor Venture and for the Stearns community.
Egnew gives back to the community
Egnew and his family decided from the beginning that if they were going to try to run a business in Stearns, they were going to live there too—and invest themselves in the community. When the company celebrated its 35-year anniversary, the forward-looking Egnew was reminded to look backward at the impact the business has had on the town and vice-versa.
In the last six years, Outdoor Venture has invested $500,000 in the community in terms of donations to organizations, including a county park development, adding a children’s section to the county library, and a historic preservation initiative. The initiative—The Heritage Foundation—owns the downtown historic buildings, a scenic railroad that runs eight miles into the gorge in the national park, and a steam engine that they’re looking to restore with the hope of generating tourism in the area.
Perhaps the most compelling testament to Egnew’s holistic approach to business and the community is that, in addition to many other positions within Outdoor Venture, four of the company’s six-person management team positions are held by people who grew up in Stearns. “These four women were in grade school in 1972,” Egnew says. “Now they’re a part of the top management team.”
Egnew echoes the sentiments of Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, who retired to Huntsville, Tenn., because he viewed his hometown as the center of the universe. And for Egnew, that place is Stearns, Ky. “I say, make where you live the center of the universe.”