If you’ve bought an inexpensive sleeping bag emblazoned with a Disney character or Spider-Man for your kids, chances are it was made in the United States by Harry Kazazian’s Exxel Outdoors. Kazazian made headlines when he stopped manufacturing sleeping bags in Mexico and ramped up operations at a plant in Haleyville, Ala. That was in 2000. Now, 11 years later, Exxel makes 90 percent of its bags in the United States and is expanding its headquarters in Southern California. The company recently moved out of a 60,000-square-foot office and warehouse in Irwindale and into a space more than twice as large in City of Industry. That growth mirrors Kazazian’s rise, from the son of a Soviet political prisoner to a chief executive. Kazazian met with the Business Journal in his temporary office at Exxel’s new headquarters to discuss how his parents shaped his work ethic and how a kid from Armenia who didn’t camp much became America’s biggest domestic maker of sleeping bags.
Question: Growing up in the city, did you do much camping as a kid?
Answer: I went to summer camp once or twice. Truthfully, no. I grew up in the city. I respect people who do it. I think it’s a great adventure and a great thing to do. But no, I like the business aspect. I like that part of it.
You don’t like the idea of sleeping on the ground, or what?
I’ve tried; it’s not that I’ve never gone. Other things just interested me more, indoor sports.
Basketball. I played college baseball and high school baseball. I played first base in high school, then moved to the outfield in college. I made all-league in high school. I thought I was pretty good, but, you know, you hit a wall. When you get to college, they’re looking for bigger guys. I’m 5 foot 8, so I realized professional sports were not in the cards.
So how does a kid who doesn’t like camping get into making camping gear?
When I was in college, I was working for my uncle’s company. My uncle barely spoke English and had a government contract to make duffel bags. That’s how I learned about sewing. It was good. I owe a lot to him. I was a kid in college and all of a sudden I got to run a business. School is great, but nothing replaces on-the-job training.
What about college. What did you study?
Political science. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer.
I think I was doing it for my parents. My brother was in dental school at the time. They were always pushing us. Not going to college was not an option in my family. My dad had only a third-grade education, my mother sixth. They just didn’t go to school back then and they got married when they were real young. But they understood the importance of education.
So what kinds of things were you doing for your uncle while you were in school?
When you make a product, you have the irregulars, the seconds. So we had these seconds and my uncle asked me to get rid of them. Someone told me about the Army/Navy surplus show in Las Vegas. I went there and sold all the seconds. “I’m like, wow, this was easy. I made some quick bucks.”
So that’s when you struck out on your own?
People started asking, can you get us this kind of clothing, like army clothes? I was thinking, well, my uncle makes stuff for the military and he has seconds, so other people who make stuff for the military probably do, too. But I couldn’t buy enough irregulars to meet the demand. So I’m like, let me start making the sizes that I can’t get. That’s when I opened up my first little factory.
What did you call it?
Prestige Manufacturing. It was on Santa Fe in Vernon. I still remember the address: 4481 Santa Fe.
What happened to Prestige?
I moved it to Texas probably like early ’90s. Back then, they had this program where you could cut the fabric in the U.S., sew it in Mexico and bring it back to the U.S. It was called the Maquiladora program.
Was it hard leaving Southern California?
That was probably the toughest decision. But I knew it was the right choice, and it really was at the end of the day. It was my first big come-up. I got there before the Gulf War; it may have been late ’80s. Then the Gulf War – they were so unprepared. People used to call me, going, “I’m about to be deployed, I don’t have an outfit.” I got a big order from the actual Kuwaiti army. They were in exile – they’d already been overthrown, but they were in Saudi Arabia. Some guy called and said we need so many pants, so many shirts, so many jackets.
The Kuwaiti army, in exile, calling Harry Kazazian?
It was just somebody called someone else and said, “Do you know someone in Texas?” And some guy said they’d heard there’s this factory in Laredo, Texas, that makes military clothing. Everybody else was backlogged. They’re calling and people were saying, “Get lost.” They called me and I said I’ll take it.
Where did you get your spunk? Your parents? They were immigrants, right?
One thing I learned from them: They never made excuses. They were always happy, they never complained. You’re going to be dealt a lot of bad cards in life, and what matters is how you make the most of it.
Did they instill that in your childhood?
My dad, he’d never give a free ride. School, books, food, that was taken care of. But if you wanted to go to the movies, you had to work for it.
Where did they emigrate from?
Originally originally, I’m Armenian. So they came to the states when I was 4 years old.
And your dad was a political prisoner, I understand.
He’d spent probably six or seven years of his life in Siberia under Stalin. They locked him up as a political prisoner. When Stalin died, they let out millions and millions of political prisoners. My father was one of them. Things weren’t as bad as they were under Stalin, but things still weren’t rosy. I had an older sister who never made it because we just couldn’t get penicillin. So my parents had brothers and sisters in Lebanon. We left Russia and went there. That’s where they went to the U.S. Embassy and applied for immigration. We were shocked that we got it, and here we are.
What did your parents do?
My dad worked six or seven days a week; he worked five as a janitor at a church, and two days on the weekend painting people’s houses. Then he just took that as a full-time job and started his own little painting operation – as blue collar as it gets. My mother worked at a sweatshop, a sewing factory. I don’t know how my mom did it: four kids and she worked full time.
Were things tough for you growing up?
Looking back on that now, we were pretty damn poor. But I don’t remember an unhappy childhood. We had food, we were loved, we had a family. I remember we had an apartment, seriously, the size of this room, two of them, on Western below Santa Monica. We had two beds on the floor. Me and my brother would sleep on one, my sisters on the other and my parents in the living room on the floor.
Did things improve for your family?
Yeah. They worked hard, they invested, they bought some properties. They just grinded and saved up. They bought a little house and then an apartment building. When I started my business after college, my dad borrowed money on the house to give me the first $200,000 to start my first shop.
When you look back on it, what do you think?
What they sacrificed, man. They were true pioneers. I’ve been rewarded off their success. That money my parents gave me to start out, for them to have that money to give to me, it’s mind-boggling. They started out working for minimum wage and they were able to get me going. That says it all.
Are your parents still around?
They both passed away about four-and-a-half years ago, within six months of each other.
Getting back to your business, how specifically did you get into making camping equipment?
I was in Texas and I saw an opportunity. I called (my friend) Armen (Kouleyan, Exxel’s co-founder), asked him to come down to Texas, and we opened our own factory (in Mexico to make sleeping bags). And like any startup business, it was a disaster.
What made it a disaster?
What do you mean?
I ran into a buzz saw in Mexico. It didn’t stop. Right when you cross the border doing business, if they know you’re an American company, they try to make your life difficult. One day, there was no power at the shop. The guy said the transformer was down. We asked, “Can you get it back up?” He said, “Yeah, 16 weeks – there’s a backlog, but somebody knows of someone that has one in Monterrey. We know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.” So for $5,000, they said they thought they could expedite it. That transformer on the street didn’t look any different after. They probably went up there and someone unhooked it. That’s just a snapshot.
How did you decide to bring your operations back to the states?
Armen had heard Brunswick was divesting their camping division. They wanted to get rid of their plant in Alabama. At the time, I just wanted the equipment and the fabric; I was looking for a sidewalk-sale type of thing. I wasn’t thinking about opening a U.S. factory. I thought it was impossible.
What changed your thinking?
We went to Alabama and we started seeing what the workers in the plant were doing. Let’s say a zipper-setter was doing 120 a day in Alabama. The same person was doing 25 in Mexico. We were thinking, “We’re paying them a lot less, but when you did the math it wasn’t really less.” So we shut our Mexican operations and moved back. We moved the plant to Alabama, and Armen and I moved back to L.A. That was in 2000. It’s been the best move we’ve ever done.
What made it so great?
When we bought that business, we got Wal-Mart as a customer. That was a big break for Exxel. We had a big customer to run the volume, we had a big plant.
What’s next for you?
On the business side, I want to create a company that is a player in American industry. One of my goals is to continue bringing jobs back to this country. My favorite part of what I do is hire people, and I want to do more of it.
What about personal goals, like family?
I want to have kids. I really feel like I’ve built something, and I want to leave it behind to someone.
You’re single, right?
I’m dating someone. I like her. But, you know, I’ve been kind of married to my business. There’s a price to everything. There was a price to pay for moving to Texas and traveling. But I do want to have a family and kids.
Do you still travel quite a bit for work?
When I started off, I was probably on the road six months a year. Now I’m on the road maybe three months. It’s still a lot, but now I’m able to hold a girlfriend.
TITLE: Chief Executive
COMPANY: Exxel Outdoors
BORN: Yerevan, Armenia; 1962.
EDUCATION: A.A., business administration, Los Angeles City College; attended Cal State Northridge.
CAREER TURNING POINT: Moving to Texas to expand business.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: His father, Haikaz Kazazian. “He taught me to work hard and to not expect gifts.”
PERSONAL: Single, lives in Glendale.
ACTIVITIES: Golf, poker, concerts, L.A. Kings.