Gurkee’s finds international success after moving production to West Virginia.

Ray Sickes is a natural entrepreneur. He sold real estate for a while, worked as a wedding photographer, and then ran a web design business while the Internet was gaining popularity in the late ’90s. But his most successful venture literally walked through his door.

“One day my wife came home wearing a pair of these sandals and said everybody at her work wanted a pair,” he says. Sickes took a look at the shoes—they were biblical-looking sandals made from rope. They were called Gurkee’s. He found a distributor, ordered some inventory, and started selling the sandals to his wife’s friends. He also set up a website and in just a few years became Gurkee’s top retailer.

In 2009, the sandal company’s owner asked Sickes to buy Gurkee’s. He jumped at the chance. “All my life I wanted to be in manufacturing. I always wanted to make things.” But when he flew to Tulsa to finalize the deal, the outgoing owner made a startling admission. “He told me, ‘There’s something I didn’t tell you about. These sandals are made in a jail in Mexico.’ I didn’t like that energy. My brain is going instantly, ‘How do I get them out of there and make them here?’”

He started cutting the shoes apart and reverse engineering them, inventing tools and machines to quickly manufacture the sandals. In 2011, he opened a manufacturing facility near Cheat Lake. The company now employs anywhere from seven to 14 people, depending on the season.

Although moving production to West Virginia from Mexico could have been financially ruinous for the company, becoming a U.S.-made brand has only elevated the sandals’ status. Gurkee’s have been featured in major publications including Vogue, Interview, GQ, The Chicago Tribune, Elle Girl, and Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, and have appeared in runway shows from New York City to Singapore. A few years ago, Saturday Night Live ordered 40 pairs of Gurkee’s for a skit parodying the movie 300. “That was pretty cool,” Sickes says. “We have a lot of good publicity going. They call us, we don’t call them.”

Ray Sickes’ Secrets of Success
Soon after moving his operations to West Virginia, Sickes decided to drop $50,000 on rope-making machinery. The company previously bought rope from a manufacturer in North Carolina but Sickes felt that made his supply chain too vulnerable. “We’ve eliminated things that would be possible holdups for the business,” he says. The machinery also allowed the company to do short runs of special colors. “We never had that ability before.”

Sickes often wondered why the company’s previous owner didn’t move manufacturing out of Mexico. “I always asked him, ‘Why can’t you make them in the U.S.?’ And he said, ‘You can’t afford to.’” It turns out, that wasn’t the case. Moving manufacturing to West Virginia forced Sickes to raise his prices but it had positive effects, too. “You have a better product. You have better quality control.” That has helped build the company’s reputation. “I love dealing with international (customers). Japan, Romania, France, the Netherlands—they’re so happy to get a U.S.-made product.”

The biggest challenge for Gurkee’s, Sickes says, is finding good employees—people who are willing to work and take pride in their work. “A résumé doesn’t matter. The interview starts when they start working,” he says. “We look for people with good attitudes. You can’t do something that’s an artistic product with a bad attitude.”

photographed by Carla Witt Ford

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