March 27, 2011

The Bottom Line: Duck, duck, goose
They're down with that

Cuddledown takes flight by focusing on the high end of bedding.

By J. Hemmerdinger
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Scott Braman swiped his box knife across a plastic sack inside the Portland headquarters of Cuddledown.

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Bobby Hipsher fills a colored baffled comforter with down at the Cuddledown factory in Portland.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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This machine from Denmark fluffs and mixes down and fine feathers, making it easier to fill the pillows.

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HISTORY: Cuddledown was founded in 1973 by Ellen Manson and purchased by Gerry Parker in the mid-1980s. Chris Bradley bought the company in 1988, paying less than Parker's purchase price a few years earlier.


EXECUTIVES: Cuddledown's president and CEO is Chris Bradley of North Yarmouth. Production is managed by Scott Braman, who lives on Peaks Island and bikes daily from the ferry to Cuddledown's Canco Road headquarters.

WORTH NOTING: Most of Cuddledown's down comes from large, mature geese raised for food in countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, where geese are popular holiday fare.

FINANCIALS: Bradley declined to discuss revenue or profits but said sales have increased 30 times over since he bought the company. Cuddledown makes roughly 16,000 comforters and 65,000 pillows a year, said Braman.

He reached into the gash, retrieving a handful of snow white, European goose down.

"Look. It's not like feathers," said Braman, Cuddledown's production manager, carefully opening his hand. "(Down has) a three-dimensional structure, like a dandelion. Feathers have a curve."

For Braman and Cuddledown, that's a critical distinction.

The remarkable growth and continued expansion of the nearly 40-year-old Maine company, which makes high-end comforters and pillows, is due largely to the caliber of the goose and duck down stuffed inside the company's products.

"We are not trying to cut corners," said Chris Bradley, Cuddledown's president and CEO, adding that his company -- and his customers -- focus more on quality than price.

Cuddledown was founded in 1973 by Ellen Manson, who sold the company in the mid-1980s to Gerry Parker.

In 1988, Cuddledown changed hands once more, purchased this time by Bradley, a former Wall Street executive who had recently moved to Maine.

Bradley said Cuddledown had flourished under Manson's leadership, but under Parker's lead lacked strong branding and only printed one catalog yearly.

Bradley declined to discuss the purchase price but said he inherited a troubled, 10-employee company operating in the red.

"My first step was to lose a lot of money," he said.

Though he knew little about fabrics and textiles, Bradley came to Cuddledown with years of business experience and an MBA from the University of Utah.

He immediately began producing and shipping more catalogs, and personally wrote all the product descriptions. He also expanded Cuddledown's product line,

Today, Cuddledown makes a variety of bed and bathroom goods, including pillows, sheets, duvet covers, feather beds, pet beds, pajamas and bath towels.

But at its core, Cuddledown is a pillow and comforter company, and its prime raw material is the ultra-soft down of ducks and geese.

Braman said the company's down and feathers typically come from geese and ducks in Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

But some of Cuddledown's priciest products are stuffed with eiderdown, which is harvested from eider duck nests by Icelandic farmers.

Unlike a bird's longer outer feathers, Braman said, down feathers are smaller, lighter and softer. They are found near the skin, typically on a bird's breast, and don't have long quills.

The fluffiness -- and the warmth -- of down is measured in so-called "fill power" -- an industry phrase for the number of cubic inches occupied by one ounce. The higher the number, the better.

Cuddledown's comforters have fill-rates between 600 and 900. Prices start at roughly $140 for twin-size comforters, but climb as high as $13,559 for king-size, eiderdown comforters.

Braman said Cuddledown's storage room houses roughly $300,000 worth of down, enough for about a month's worth of production.

When the down is needed, workers dump the bags into troughs connected to air ducts. Fans suck the down from the storage room to the production room, where it is dumped into Dutch-made silos.

Inside the silos, which are roughly 10 feet high and have clear windows, the down is stirred, agitated and aerated like cotton candy.

Then it's blown into so-called goose necks -- German machines with curved pipes that fill empty pillow and comforter shells with down.

Next, a worker sews the shells closed and adds a required government tag.

The comforters then need one last step. They are stretched across a "lift table," which rolls under a quilting machine for further stitching.

Braman said Cuddledown, which has roughly 100 employees, makes some 16,000 comforters and 65,000 pillows at the plant yearly.

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Additional Photos

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Patrick lambo fills a contour pillow with a down and feather blend from the mixing silo, giving a firmer feel during use, at the Cuddledown factory in Portland.

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Nicholas Richard slides under a comforter quilting machine and uses a batonlike device to make sure the down is distributed evenly before the fine stitching is completed.


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