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Former M. Gemi Execs Bring the DTC Model to Work Boots: On Brand

The events of 2020 have brought more businesses online than ever before. As some stores remain shuttered and consumers remain wary of returning to their normal routines, many are spending time—and money—on digitally native brands.

This accelerated shift is no surprise, as the DTC boom has been in full force for some time. But a sector that once catered chiefly to well-off, tech-savvy millennials is growing to include consumers of all walks of life.

Boston-based Brunt Workwear took its cues from the general population’s growing dependence on online shopping—and its love for social platforms that often drive engagement. But as its name suggests, the company is catering to a customer traditionally underserved by businesses of the internet age.

The birth of Brunt

Co-founding CEO Eric Girouard is a veteran of DTC footwear darling M. Gemi and Trade Coffee. Alongside partner and fellow M. Gemi alum David Chernow, the self-described serial entrepreneur decided three years ago that he wanted to create products for consumers who reminded him of the friends he grew up with—many of whom had pursued trade vocations.

“I grew up in a blue-collar town in Connecticut—not Greenwich,” Girouard told Sourcing Journal. He described the experience of trying to unload luxe M. Gemi samples onto his less-than-enthusiastic buddies. “They were like, ‘You don’t understand, we wear our work boots all day,’” he said.

Examining his friends as consumers unlocked a realization for Girouard. They returned to the same brands for the same boots about twice a year, and had done so for as long as they could remember. “My e-commerce antennas went up and I thought, ‘That sounds like an incredible business.’”

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Nearly 14 percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of construction workers, mechanics, electricians, plumbers, warehouse workers, welders, landscapers and others who spend long, physical days on their feet, according to Brunt’s research. And with many joining their trades directly out of high school, Girouard decided that he wanted to focus on a younger consumer than the legacy workwear brands on the market.

Brunt’s commissioned consumer research revealed that trade consumers ages 18-37 wanted “the antithesis of heritage—they wanted innovation,” Girouard said. Modern trade consumers see their footwear as a tool that helps them do their job, and they want it infused with the most up-to-date technology available.

Despite the propensity to return to what works, research also showed that younger shoppers are less loyal to brands than older generations. “They’re open to experiment,” he said, noting that there are very few modern workwear companies cropping up to tempt this shopper demographic. “The incumbents are over 100 years old, and no one has tried to challenge them.”

“All this venture capital was going into building businesses for the high net-worth millennial customer, all this entrepreneurship was going into it as well,” he added. Consumers who represented the backbone of American infrastructure were “missing out on modern technology and innovation and business models because it wasn’t the sexiest category to go after.”

A new class of workwear

Setting out to find a strategic sourcing partner for his new venture, Girouard was able to court an Oregon-based firm that works with many of the workwear industry’s most well-known names. The organization has operations across the globe—from the U.S. to Mexico, China, Vietnam, Korea and the Dominican Republic—lending flexibility and agility to brands looking to avoid tariff complications and supply-chain disruptions.

Brunt has also looked to its partner for help crafting its introductory styles to the specific needs and regulations set forth by trade industries like construction, Girouard said. “We were able to lean on them to make sure our instincts were correct.”

The brand’s pre-launch in August featured four boots, each designed to meet the needs of dozens of vocations. “We want to hit the meat of the market and then longer term, hit the niches,” he added.

Brunt’s moc-toe Marin boot is a classic style with mass appeal. According to Girouard, the shoe would ideally serve iron workers, electricians and plumbers because of its soft toe and casual look.

The Bolduc boot, by contrast, features a safety toe made from composite plastic materials, rather than traditional steel, which conducts cold and heat with sometimes uncomfortable results. The high shaft and pull-on styling make it a favorite of ranchers and those in water-related trades, and it has pre-sold strongly with consumers in Texas and California, which boast the highest per-capita number of tradesmen.

The lightweight Perkins lace-up boot harnesses many of Brunt’s technical features, while the Ryng represents “the future of the market,” according to Girouard, with its technical uppers made from abrasion-resistant mesh. “It doesn’t look like a grandfather’s boot,” he said. “Younger customers are gravitating to stuff like that, because they grew up wearing Flyknit sneakers instead of their fathers’ heavy leather shoes.”

The Bolduc boot features a protective toe and pull-on styling.
The Bolduc boot features a protective toe and pull-on styling. Brunt Workwear

All of the styles have four-millimeter rubber-skinned soles for lightness and slip resistance, as well as waterproof, seam-sealed uppers. They also feature proprietary adjustable width systems, Girouard said, in the form of an insert that can be removed to provide a more generous fit. Brunt also overnights replacement laces to customers for free should they break on the job.

Forging relationships in the digital age

In polling the trade community, Girouard came to understand that the new class of trade workers are incredibly active on social media channels like TikTok and Instagram, which have become indispensable vehicles for new DTC brands looking to find their audiences.

“They’re voracious on their phones,” he said, and an unexpected group of construction and trade influencers has emerged on these online platforms. “They don’t look like Kim Kardashian, and they don’t have 100 million followers,” he said, but their impact is undeniable.

Welding influencer Sean Flottmann, known by his handle @DabsWellington, has more than 120,000 followers on Instagram, Girouard said by way of example. “When he recommends something, his audience is incredibly loyal and invested because he’s at the top of his trade.”

Brunt plans to connect with influencers like Flottmann, hoping tap into the sizeable audience he’s amassed. The company is also building out its own online presence under the name Bucket Talk, with an Instagram account and two podcasts run by Girouard, Chernow and their team.

“When our customers aren’t buying from us, we want to keep them engaged and provide value,” he said.

A podcast called Trading Up provides insight into the daily lives of trade workers in different vocations. “Some people want a career change, and they want to do more with their hands,” Girouard said. Unlike professions like accounting or marketing, there aren’t many forums to read about the ins and outs of a career in a particular trade. The show “opens up the kimono to things that aren’t normally shared.”

Another podcast called Down to Business focuses on interviews with owners and operators of trade businesses, treating listeners to their perspectives on “hiring, firing, marketing and selling” their services.

“We’re trying to provide different touch points throughout the year,” Girouard said of the podcasts. “It’s a non-salesy version of creating loyalty.”

Covid’s impact

While the brand’s launch has been in the works for three years, there was a moment in the spring when Girouard explored the idea of hitting pause on his new business. “When Covid hit, we had no idea what the next day brought,” he said.

But insights from the brand’s sourcing partner as well as an unnamed investor—which happens to be “one of the largest construction developers in the New York and New Jersey area”—gave Girouard and Chernow the confidence to move forward in a year filled with unforeseen challenges.

The Perkins lightweight lace-up boot.
The Perkins lightweight lace-up boot. Brunt Workwear

Construction may have stalled during the spring, when the world came to a near standstill as the pandemic reached its peak, but soon, essential workers were sent back to their posts. “Some markets lost 50 percent or more [of their workforce], but our customer was back to work fast,” Girouard said.

The company also received assurances from its production partners that e-commerce and omnichannel options like curbside pickup were proving popular, even with a group of consumers traditionally accustomed to shopping in person. “A lot of the stores that people shopped at were shut down,” Girouard said, “and folks who weren’t comfortable with e-commerce—and might have gone the rest of their lives without it—were forced to use it.”

Ironically, speed to market became less of an issue than it might have been during any other year. Larger labels had canceled orders when the virus began to spread, anticipating a downturn in consumer spending. That pullback helped elevate the small DTC’s purchase orders, and curried favor with suppliers burned by big-name brands. “We were placing POs in the middle of a pandemic, while factories were trying to stay afloat,” Girouard said.

Now that it has entered the pre-sale phase of its launch, Brunt is all in on its mission to reach consumers swiftly during a time of unexpectedly high demand. “We hit the accelerator and moved as quickly as we possibly could,” he said. “These aren’t discretionary purchases—they needed these products to do their jobs.”

In a year when retail has floundered as most homebound shoppers tighten their purse strings, the Brunt customer is back at work. “It’s unexpected, but they actually need the product and our solutions now more than ever,” Girouard said.