It’s not all bucolic, tra la la,” says Eric Flaxenburg, 49. “This is still a business run in the cruel, cruel world.” Protestations aside, his business is quite unlike most others. Some of his raw material is raised in the backyard, the product is handmade and expensive and half his business is done by mail.
Flaxenburg, his wife, Jean, and a staff of 35 operate the French Creek Sheep and Wool Company on a 40-acre ranch in Elverson, Pa. It’s a million dollar mail-order and retail business in sheepskin coats (averaging $400) and wool sweaters (ranging from $50 to $150). “The greatest single struggle,” says Eric, is not selling at those high prices but “keeping up the quality. There is so much shoddy workmanship in the world.” He adds, “If something isn’t done right, I take it personally. It keeps me awake at night.”
On their farm, which is bounded on three sides by the French Creek State Park, the Flaxenburgs raise 45 white-faced Corriedale sheep. They produce only a fraction of the wool used in the nearly 2,000 sweaters sold every year. Eric and Jean buy more than 10,000 pounds of raw wool—insisting that it be as lightly washed and combed as possible to retain its natural oils—plus some 150,000 feet of tanned sheepskin for the annual production of 3,000 coats. “One woman sews an entire coat and signs it,” Eric boasts. “The job takes up to eight hours. And in a good day we might turn out six sweaters.” Is all this fastidiousness sensible? “I could earn a lot more money making cheaper coats and sweaters,” he admits. “But I don’t want to. I keep telling myself ‘psychological income’ is worth a great deal.”
Eric first exhibited his independent ways by dropping out of school at 16 to join the Navy. He later returned to academia with a vengeance, getting an A.B. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s from Mexico City College. After teaching English for three years at the University of Puerto Rico, he returned to Philadelphia and was working on his doctorate when the employees at his father’s packaging plant went on strike. He asked Eric to fill in as a truck driver. “My advice for anyone who wants to get ahead,” Eric cracks, “is start at the bottom, work hard and make sure your father owns the company.”
One morning at 5:30 Flaxenburg was out walking his Kerry blue terrier and met Jean Salzburg, in the company of her German shepherd. Jean, now 38, who was born and raised on a farm, had graduated in 1964 from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art and was working as a designer for three local boutiques. “We knew we were meant for each other,” Eric says. “We’re both early risers and we go to bed when it’s dark.” They were married in 1966.
By then a vice-president in the family firm, Eric was anxious to move out on his own. “My job,” he says, “was really to be a son. My father thought I was a ne’er-do-well.” For years he had dreamed of going to agricultural school; instead, he and Jean drove into the countryside and bought a farm. “We thought it was a sheep farm,” Jean recalls. “We stocked it with six sheep and then discovered the owner had raised chickens there. We acted like city slickers.”
After the birth of Seth, the first of their five children, Jean bought some sheepskins and made a bunting. “He was very colicky,” she says. “But when we laid him on the sheepskins, he stopped crying.” Eric decided to try the idea on Bloomingdale’s in New York, which bought a dozen at $20 apiece and sold them for $75. That same winter, when a sheepskin coat Eric had bought locally gave way at the seams, Jean took it apart and designed a new one. People admired it, and the business was born—with $2,000 and a sewing machine. From the beginning the Flaxenburgs avoided big city retailers in favor of selling by catalogue and in their own showroom. “Everyone said it was impossible to sell a high-priced item through the mails,” Eric recalls. “Nobody was doing it. Now 10 years later, everyone is.”
These days the Flaxenburgs still rise with the sun—Jean to start lunch for all those children, Eric to cook breakfast. “I can sit on top of a bale and watch the sheep for hours,” he muses. “They are such wonderful animals. They bring out everything that is good in us. Life would be impossible without them.”