A Homer business known for its fleece clothing, outdoor gear, upholstery and fisheries products and a full-service boat shop has been named Made in Alaska’s “2013 Manufacturer of the Year.”
NOMAR, located on Pioneer Avenue, will be honored in Anchorage later this month at the same time the Small Business Administration announces its businessperson of the year. NOMAR, a 20-year Made in Alaska permit holder, will receive a wooden bowl created by a Made in Alaska permit holder in Fairbanks and engraved with NOMAR’s name.
“We look for companies that show a ‘can-do’ Alaskan spirit, have survived adversities, have grown their business and become an important part of the community,” said Bill Webb, director of the Made in Alaska program.
“NOMAR does that in spades. They also provide quite a few jobs, full-time, steady jobs.”
Award nominations solicited by Made in Alaska were reviewed by a committee who then interviewed the nominees.
“It was absolutely unanimous this year for NOMAR,” said Webb.
NOMAR got its start in 1976, when owners Ben and Kate Mitchell were living in Ketchikan.
Ben Mitchell was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard at the time. Kate Mitchell, who served in the Coast Guard from 1965-1969, developed her interest in sewing as a child playing with fabric scraps from upholstery projects her mother completed.
The Ketchikan incarnation of NOMAR was known as “Mitchells’ Boat Tops.”
“Then we were transferred to Homer with the Coast Guard in 1978 and it became ‘Mitchells’ Marine Canvas and Upholstery,’” said Kate Mitchell of the business she operated out of a remodeled bus.
“We were living in Coast Guard housing and you couldn’t do any kind of business in the housing, but I was bound and determined to find something to rent to get started,” said Mitchell. During a visit to Anchorage, Mitchell spotted a bus for sale. “An airman had stripped it out and made it into a camper. It even had a little pot-bellied stove with a chimney out the top of the bus.”
Moved to Homer, the bus was parked at Lou’s Storage, a business on Kachemak Drive. An electrical connection was installed and the Mitchells were in business.
“When Ben retired from the Coast Guard in 1980, we bought Lou’s Storage Yard and changed the name to Homer Boat Yard,” said Mitchell.
Wanting an all-encompassing logo, the Mitchells settled on the outline of a Bristol Bay sailboat.
“That’s just Alaska’s history, that old boat. It tied it together — the boat yard and the canvas work,” said Mitchell. “We knew it was just what we wanted. It was a way of identifying us as being of the water.”
When fishermen shared their need for brailer bags that wouldn’t leave their mark on fish — “no mark ’a the fish” — the Mitchells came up with a design and “NOMAR” became the resulting bag’s trademark.
When the canvas sewing shop needed a more professional sounding name, the name NOMAR stuck, but as a reference to the business’s new name, Northern Marine Canvas Products.
In the spring of 1993, NOMAR moved into its current location at 104 E. Pioneer Ave. It has 15 full-time employees, as well as the family members, which include, in addition to Ben and Kate, their adult children, Richard and Jennifer.
NOMAR continues to cater to commercial fishermen, but the expanded line of products available in the retail store also attracts customers from the Kenai Peninsula and beyond.
“People come here on vacation and either bought something or saw it and made a mental note and then they get home and get on the web and order it,” said Kate.
“We ship jackets, bags and stuff all over the world.”
A shipment might carry such far-away addresses as Germany or Austria.
“We often get little letters that say, ‘I’ve had this jacket for 12 years and it’s still fine, but I would like it in a different color,’” said Mitchell. “It’s about quality. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here. Our stuff isn’t cheap, but it’s quality and it’s quality priced. (Customers) know they’ll have it for a long, long time.”
Of all the years NOMAR has been in business, Mitchell is most proud of the potential that developed NOMAR into a family enterprise that has benefited the surrounding area.
“To be part of a community and contribute to a community and provide jobs is satisfying,” said Mitchell. “And those that choose to work, we train them up and they have some self-satisfaction that they’re part of a nice product.”
Webb said NOMAR reflects exactly Made in Alaska looks for in an enterprise.
“It’s one of the companies we’re really proud of,” he said.
“They have certainly made their livelihood here and that of a lot of other people, and been a big part of Alaska. That’s the type of companies we’re looking for to honor.”
For more about NOMAR, visit nomaralaska.com.