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In The News

Feb 06 magazine

From Prairie Business Magazine

February 2006 Volume 7 Issue 2

A year in the life of Bernadine Solwey

The entrepreneur who never stops
By Amy Zuckerman

They don't make 'em tougher than Bernadine ‘Bernie’ Solwey, president and CEO of Tenderfoot Sock Company, Inc. in St. Michael, ND. Solwey, who turned 60 in November, has fought like a demon to keep her company alive in recent years. In 2005, alone, she survived multiple surgeries while managing a number of business crises that ranged from lack of funds to manufacturing snafus and an international trade treaty with China that she feels is tremendously detrimental to the United States hosiery industry. Yet, Solwey is sticking with it. A diabetic who founded Tenderfoot Socks in 2002 when she couldn't locate socks she could comfortably wear, Solwey loves selling her extremely soft, durable socks for diabetics, sportsmen, and just about anyone who wants a high-quality product. This month-by-month account of a life of a rugged northern plains entrepreneur reflects the extraordinary effort it takes to keep a small business afloat in an ever-changing global economy.

November 2004
Solwey turns 59. Tenderfoot Socks inventory was shrinking and the company was having trouble getting stock from its manufacturer, based in the Southeast. Solwey was working on a loan application along with applying to the Government Services Administration (GSA) to be certified as a government contractor. Then, on November 29 she had a second mastectomy. “I was feeling frustrated. Everything was bottlenecked and I couldn't go forward. The surgery was very frustrating, but it had to be done,” she recalls.

December 2004
For six weeks, including the entire month of December, Solwey is laid up, recovering from the surgery. Even so, she attends the Altru Diabetic Department's Diabetic Conference in Grand Forks on December 27 where she and her son, Ed Solwey, run a booth for Tenderfoot Socks. “If Ed hadn't been around to help, I wouldn't have done it. It was a huge effort to get there, but it was fruitful on the business front. It got us more invitations for conferences than we could handle and netted some sales through diabetic educators," she says.

January 2005
Solwey is just getting back on her feet when she and Ed attend the Market Place of Entrepreneurs and Inventors Congress in Bismarck on January 12, 13. It was very trying and very cold. Without Ed, I couldn't have managed it. I had to take frequent breaks from the booth,” she says. But, they get exposure and make initial contact with a website for American-made products that wants to promote Tenderfoot Socks.

February 2005
It is a catch-up month. “I did a lot of paperwork and healing,” Solwey explains.

March 2005
Solwey attends the Minot Air Force Base Buyer's Conference on March 8 to learn about military procurement.

April 2005
It’s tax time and reckoning time. “I was negotiating with my manufacturer to find ways to keep the inventory and cash flow balanced because we either had more socks than money, or had more money than socks. We needed a steady supply of both. I pretty much decided to visit the manufacturer in person and negotiate a solid contract,” she says.

May 2005
Solwey is feeling “sicker than a dog” with a kidney stone attack on May 1. She doesn't have surgery, though, until May 23 and then faces another three-to-six-week recovery. That doesn't stop her from approaching the North Central Planning Council for a loan because she had “nowhere else to go. The business was going down the tubes when I found a friend to co-sign a loan.” And, on May 12, despite feeling punky, she attends a North Central Planning Council seminar in Devils Lake on how to sell on eBay. She discovers that someone else was selling her seconds online, which didn't please her. On an upbeat note, Deva Lifewear USA—a North Dakota manufacturer of cotton, hand-sewn clothing—announced they were putting Tenderfoot Socks in their catalog.

June 2005
Solwey is still recovering from her latest surgery when she learns she is receiving financial assistance from a variety of loans arranged by several regional agencies, including the North Central Planning Council and the Benson County Job Development Authority. The money is applied to purchasing more inventory and means that on June 21 she can hire a graphic designer for new public relations materials. She is in business again. Despite the long drive and physical discomfort, she and Ed make it to North Carolina to negotiate a new contract with her manufacturer. While in the Southeast she also learns about new ‘product-of-origin’ requirements for her sock band label.

July 2005
Exhausted upon her return, she cancels their booth at the Minot State Fair. “The heat and trip got to me. I decided to close down all booths for the rest of the year, stay home, paint the warehouse and work on paperwork.” This is what she calls a vacation.

August 2005
On August 18, Solwey goes in for same-day surgery to repair an incision from the November 2004 surgery. Although not bedridden, it takes her about three weeks to heal. She does manage to attend a roundtable discussion at the FORWARD program, run by the Devils Lake Economic Development Office. She likes “learning from others.”

September 2005
Solwey meets on September 13 with the Australian Trade Mission and North Dakota Trade Commission. She is hoping this will lead to exports in Australia. And on September 27, she is awarded her federal GSA contract number, “which certifies me to sell to federal agencies. This will mean redoing the company PR materials,” but Solwey believes “it will open doors to sales.” Some orders come in from Deva Lifewear, which gives Solwey “hope for Christmas.”

October 2005
Time to launch some outreach to catalogs like The Vermont Country Store, along with reaching national buyers. There is a flurry of interest and samples go out, but nothing definite.

November 2005
But by November she is negotiating prices with two key buyers along with a podiatrist in Wisconsin who want to sell the socks online. She has three shows scheduled for 2006 to hit the diabetic and sports markets. “I'm looking forward to Christmas this year,” she says. “Cross my fingers, this month my health is OK and (right now) it's snowing like a son of a gun.”

January 2006
After all the sickness and near disaster, 2006 started with the bang-up news that www.savemyfeet.com had decided to sell Tenderfoot socks. The deal included handling charges, filling orders and shipping. “I am excited about this . . . at least this will provide more orders; he has the ‘in’ with the medical field and can talk the talk.”