Stuart Wilson unplugged the company phone about a year ago.

“It was ringing nonstop,” he said. “If we had a phone now, we’d be on it all day. We gotta work.”

Wilson and his growing stable of employees have plenty of work to do manufacturing highly sought tactical gear at Wilson’s Stanwood-based Esstac. The homegrown firm now averages about 50 orders a day from Esstac.com, but that can surge to 150 during a sale or from a dealer order.

But that wasn’t always the case.

“It was rough that first year (2003),” Wilson said during an interview last month. “Really, the first 10 years were rough. I didn’t start making a paycheck until two months ago. Until then, any profits were poured back into the business.”

Esstac, short for Essential Tactical, was born in Wilson’s garage on Camano Island and slowly grew into a larger shop near Elger Bay grocery. Last year, Esstac moved to a storefront next to Subway near Haggen Food and Pharmacy, only to outgrow the space in a matter of months. Earlier this summer, Wilson moved his 25 employees into the long-vacant east downtown Stanwood building at 8809 271st Street NW.  

“When I first started, I had big plans to grow quickly,” Wilson said. “But reality set in.”

In 2002, Wilson was working a construction job building a Target store near Seattle when he was crushed by 2,500 pounds of sheet metal. 

His doctor was blunt.

“‘Find a new line of work,’ he told me,” Wilson said.

Injured and confined to home, he used part of his settlement to buy an industrial sewing machine on eBay to make some tactical gear for himself.

Esstac

Esstac employees fulfill orders last month in the new production facility in east downtown Stanwood.

“Growing up, my mom was always sewing and cooking,” he said. “I learned to do both. I’m kind of a mama’s boy.”

Wilson, who enjoyed the sport of shooting, started with a simple pouch to hold extra clips. More comfortable and intuitive than items on the market at the time, his friends began to take his gear.

“So, I started making more and selling to them,” he said. “Then I decided to put it up on eBay.”

No one bid on the pouch. 

Instead, he received 20 emails asking to buy the pouch directly.

The business was born, slowly and steadily consuming his garage. 

“In the early years, buying a sewing machine was a big deal,” he said. “I would be up late on eBay bidding on used machines.” 

But Wilson and his four to five employees had tapped into a large and growing market for his quality tactical gear. In the US, sales of tactical and outdoor clothing and gear have increased between 6% and 10% a year during the past 15 years to about $3.3 billion, according to data from market researchers.

“One driver in the market is wide product mix and product assortment,” according to a report by ResearchandMarkets.com. “In addition to offering military and tactical clothing, manufacturers are offering tactical clothing for civilians. Vendors are expanding their product portfolios to cater to the huge demand for civilian tactical clothing.”

Wilson’s customers vary from military units, police departments and government agencies — such as the FBI and homeland security — to sport shooters and airsofters.

“I design things I want to use,” said Wilson, who regularly travels the country for shooting competitions. “For example, I never wanted to make a belt. People were asking for it, so finally when I decided to make one, it was going to be one that I would use.”

His belt, which adjusts on two sides as opposed to one and has 6 inches of adjustability instead of 4, is now a top seller. 

That’s the common theme with all his products. 

“They’re designed with comfort in mind,” Wilson said. “Can you wear this thing for a year solid and not be annoyed? That’s what I’m after.”

Word spread and Esstac grew to about 12 employees, including Ryan Halwick.

The now 27-year-old met Wilson in 2016 while playing a video game 2,700 miles away at Penn State University in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania.

“We talked online, and he convinced me to work on photos and his website,” the 2017 Penn State grad said. “Then I came out here to work with him in 2018.”

That’s about the time Esstac ran out of room in Wilson’s shop – a converted three-car garage – and moved to the 1,500-square-foot space next to Subway.

“I thought that’d be good for a few years,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t.”

He could have moved the business to Arlington or Mount Vernon, but said he wanted to stay local for his employees. He found the large, open building in downtown, which formerly housed Darrow’s Carpets about eight years ago. 

“It all grew a lot faster than expected,” Halwick said of the business. “Just six months ago, it was Stu, me and another employee fulfilling orders until midnight.”

Esstac has since doubled the number of sewers, and could add 10 more employees soon, said Halwick and Wilson. They also regularly engage in target practice together and travel to shooting competitions around the country to promote their gear.

“We take immense pride in quality,” Halwick said. “For example, we melt the frayed nylon threads to lock them in place, burn them so they never fray, like many cheaper versions do.”

They craft their own supplies out of raw materials, such as Cordura, including for their most popular item: KYWI pouches with Kydex inserts.

The pouch holds two magazines without external cords or snaps, they are compatible with numerous attachment systems, and they feature an insert made from molded Kydex that flexes enough to allow magazines to be inserted and removed by squeezing it tight.

Wilson boasts that he’s never increased prices, largely because he and his team have become more efficient manufacturers during the past several years. 

But next up is a small showroom at the new location where customers can put their hands on the different products.

“I try to limit the custom stuff,” Wilson said. “I create something I want, then I figure out how to make it profitable. I’m stubborn. But so far, it’s working.”

Esstac

Friendly dogs wander the new production facility in east downtown Stanwood.

Contact reporter Evan Caldwell at ecaldwell@scnews.com and follow him on Twitter @Evan_SCN for updates throughout the week and on Instagram @evancaldwell.scn for more photos.

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