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Apocalypse Design: far north outfitters.

Dick Flaharty reaches across his cluttered office desk to grab an Alaska atlas so he can explain where the name for his business, Apocalypse Design, came from. He pulls out a zippered Cordura atlas case, which he custom-designed and decorated with an Apocalypse logo.

"Our newest product," he says, smiling.

The Fairbanks mountaineer/entrepreneur uses his Alaska Atlas and Gazetteer so often that he decided to create a carrying case for it. The zippered case has hidden pockets for extra maps and sleeves for pens and pencils. "It only took minutes to whip it out," Flaharty says.

Since the new statewide atlas is such a hot seller in Alaska, Flaharty has decided he might as well make a few more carrying cases and see if other people need it as much as he does.

It's an example of why Flaharty, 34, in the past 10 years has been able to turn a home-sewing business into a full-blown manufacturing firm whose only obstacle is finding room to grow.

Flaharty points to a spot in the atlas, which turns out to be The Apocalypse, a 9,345-foot mountain in the western Alaska Range. Flaharty was there, but he didn't climb the peak.

"It took us a week just to get up to Revelation Glacier," he says. The mountain is under-appreciated by climbers because its peak is under 10,000 feet. "But if you were to see the thing, it would just blow you away. That is some mountain," Flaharty adds.

To remember the mountain, Flaharty borrowed its name for his business -- and he's used the same energy it took to reach the mountain to build Apocalypse Design.

The Fairbanks company's growth and popularity are blowing people away. Flaharty now employs 12 to 25 people, depending on the season -- winter is the busiest -- and enjoys an annual sales volume of $500,000. The little company has done contract work with more than 70 Alaska companies, has 30 regular in-state accounts, 25 accounts in the Lower 48, and close to 20 more spread overseas. This summer, Flaharty plans to open a seasonal outlet, joining other stores at the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve.

But the company needs more room to grow. "We outgrew this place three years ago," Flaharty says of his cramped quarters on the corner of College Road and Illinois Street in Fairbanks. He and his shareholders are discussing expansion possibilities, but so far no definite plans have been made.

Flaharty's desk and computer are stuffed into his office among file cabinets and stacks of paperwork. All available nooks, crannies and corners in the sewing rooms are used to store rolls, folds and spools of material. The company goes through about 25,000 square yards of fabric per year. Racks of clothing and specialty equipment in the showroom are so close together it's impossible to walk between them without rubbing against the garments.

Flaharty keeps on hand a variety of hats, parkas, mittens, jackets and other specialty cold-weather gear. But he will make just about anything imaginable -- from shorts to atlas cases to reindeer diapers and customized creations.

Growing up in northern California and climbing mountains at the tender age of 11, Flaharty made most of his own climbing gear, and, over the years, learned how to make things right. He uses materials and thread the way an artist might use ink and paper.

The bearded businessman's usual work-a-day garb is a pair of shorts (made by himself) and a T-shirt bearing some sort of mountaineering logo. "We're pretty casual around here," he admits.

Flaharty has become known by fabric manufacturers who send him new materials for testing. Usually he makes some sort of garment and tests the materials personally. "We're the perfect cold-weather test market," Flaharty says. "And I'm hard on my gear. I destroy everything I get my hands on. If I use it and it holds up, I'll recommend it."

The custom-order side of his business gets credit for the remainder of his success. "We keep on hand what we think people want most of the time, but then we can make anything else you want -- if you want one or 10,000," he notes.

He has two different types of employees: "boring" people who know how to sew, and "creative people" who have basic sewing skills. He likes to take the creative people and train them to do things his way.

"I have my own weird way of doing things. It may or may not be wrong, but it works for us," he says.

Perhaps it takes weird ways of doing things to create some of the weird things people need.

For example, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists come up with all sorts of strange requests. Flaharty's favorite was fixing a net gun the biologists had purchased. It didn't work the way biologists needed it to, so Flaharty exercised creativity in mechanics and fabrics to make the thing operational.

"That's the sort of thing that makes this business fun," he says.

Scientists are some of Flaharty's best clients. Foresters collecting leaves once asked for dozens of tiny bags made of sheer material. He has also created cold-weather gear for both Arctic and Antarctic explorers and scientists, and collars to hold radio-transmitters on caribou and moose. The company made hundreds of utility vests for oil-spill-response workers, and creates first-aid kit carriers for forest fire fighters.

On the more conventional end, they created 400 matching pairs of pants and jackets for athletes participating in the Arctic Winter Games, and also designed a support jacket for a dog with a broken back. The snug-fitting jacket contained seven steel rods to help hold the dog together.

At no time has Flaharty's skill and experience been more useful than during the 1992 climbing season on Mount McKinley, when 11 climbers died. Flaharty, a member of a mountain rescue group, saw an area where Apocalypse Design could help out. "We made body bags that would work better with a helicopter," he says.

Only a climber would know that the contorted, frozen bodies of fallen mountaineers would not fit into a conventional body bag. "These guys usually don't die lying prone," he explains.

He made the bags bigger but added compression straps to hold the victims in place and then positioned handles on the bags to make helicopter hook-ups easier and safer.

Flaharty's most recent weird request came this past winter from a man who owns trained show reindeer and races them in winter for local entertainment.

Some hotels had asked if the man could bring the reindeer into their lobbies for promotions, but the reindeer were not "hotel trained." So the man came to Apocalypse Design for specially-designed reindeer diapers.

"It kind of looked like a diaper, but it had a pocket on the inside where the guy would put a regular, extra-large disposable baby diaper and then he could change that out," Flaharty says.

Weird ideas. In the case of Dick Flaharty and Apocalypse Design, it's the secret for building success.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Bostian, Kelly
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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