Current Issue -

Chris Jackson of Borah Teamwear

By Benji Nichols | Summer 2024 Inspire(d)

Coon Valley is a picture-perfect village nestled in Vernon County, Wisconsin. Just 20 miles from La Crosse, it’s teeming with bluffs, natural beauty, and miles of rural roads perfect for cycling. The bluffs were a huge part of what originally drew Borah Teamwear owner Chris Jackson to the area as a UW La Crosse student in the 1980s, and they would eventually lead him to put down business and life roots in the Valley. 

Chris Jackson of Borah Teamwear
Borah Teamwear owner Chris Jackson at their facility in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. / Photo by Benji Nichols

From selling copiers to building a successful independent bicycle rep business to creating Borah Teamwear, Chris has always been driven to be his own boss and climb the next hill in front of him – metaphorically, and on two wheels. 

Borah Teamwear, founded in 1998, has now become an iconic brand of active team sports uniforms and clothing – and is, in fact, the only USA manufacturer of Alpine ski racing suits. Through technology advancements in dye sublimation (with all water-based inks), laser cutting technologies, and online team portals, Borah Teamwear leads the way in this industry across the country and beyond.

The company is also a major philanthropic force in supporting high school scholastic mountain biking and alpine ski racing and is also a huge part of large cycling events like the Borah “Epic Bike Fest,” which has made major donations to the Cable (Wisconsin) Area Mountain Bike Association as well as the Wisconsin and Minnesota NICA (scholastic) Mountain Biking leagues.

In Borah’s day-to-day business, it all comes down to people. Chris credits his employees first and foremost and works to treat them right by creating a work culture that folks want to be a part of. Take the multiple miles of single-track flow trails right outside the office door that employees can spin (on the company fleet of bikes!) during lunch, or the extended breaks that encourage walks during work hours. People matter, culture matters, giving back matters. These are the paths Borah Teamwear has forged in the world-wide active sport uniform industry, all from the rural heart of the Driftless.

entry display at Borah Teamwear
Old meets new in Borah’s showroom./ Photo by Benji Nichols

Name: Chris Jackson
Business: Borah Teamwear
Year Business was Established: 1998

Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?

I grew up in the Milwaukee area and ski raced all my young life. I ended up near Atlanta with my mom in the 1980s – had loved skiing– and was a fish out of water. If you had an awesome car, you were super cool, but nobody skied. My older brother got into bicycle racing really early and it was at a peak time in the road racing world – Greg LeMond, Michael King, the 7-11 Team, Jim Ochowicz, Tom Schuler – and I was pretty inspired by that. If I couldn’t ski, I might as well get out and ride. 

I ended up coming back to Wisconsin for High School and then came to UW La Crosse in the summer of 1985. I rode all the time – something about the hills and valleys that has always pulled me in, and I really fell in love with the bluffs. I graduated with a sports psychology degree from UW, did some ski coaching in Colorado, and then went to work in Minneapolis selling copy machines for three months. I tried to sell a copy machine to a friend that was managing a bike shop, and he was like, “Dude, what are you doing? You could be selling bike stuff!” 

I figured out most of the guys doing that were independent reps, and so I discovered the CABDA (Chicago Area Bike Dealers Association) show, literally put on my suit and tie, and on the day of the 1991 Halloween Super Storm (blizzard) drove down to the show from Minneapolis. I got down there and started handing out my resume and kept bugging companies until a couple folks gave me a break. Allsop Softride was one of the first – Sampson fat wrap (handlebar wrap), another helmet line – and I just started driving around the Midwest and calling on shops. In fact, Iowa was always really good to me – Barr Bikes, Bike World, and Rasmussen – all around Des Moines – a lot of those folks were my friends and best customers. 

dye sublimation at Borah Teamwear
Through advancements in dye sublimation, laser cutting technologies, and online team portals, Borah Teamwear leads the way. / Photo courtesy Borah Teamwear

I would attend these annual sales meetings with the companies I was repping, and somehow, I always had it in me that I wanted to do my own thing. And then the category of casual bike wear started to become a thing. I always liked cool sportswear, so I developed a line of casual bicycling wear – baggy mountain biking shorts, which were super new at the time. That was where I really started to leap – 1997 I was producing my line with a seamstress in St. Paul and selling out of my car. Borah came about as I was hanging out with a friend in the Idaho Mountains, and Mt Borah is the highest peak in the state – I just rolled with it! 

It was also around this time that I started to get burnt out in Minneapolis and wanted to get closer to riding and outdoor opportunities. I had ridden all over the rural areas around La Crosse and often stopped in Coon Valley on rides – it always just seemed like a cool little town. One thing led to another – I found two sewing companies in the area, one that made cheerleading uniforms, and then four sisters who ran a sewing business out of Portland, Wisconsin (near Cashton). I moved down to Coon Valley in the fall of 1998 – and the folks on the industrial board knew I wasn’t quite ready for a commercial building – but one of the guys had a space available in an old grocery store for $350 a month. That was it – the leap moment. I said, “Let’s go for it and commit to Borah.” So we did, I successfully handed off my bike rep business, and went all-in. I had one employee, and we came down and fixed up the space and got to work. It was wild – we’d cut parts by hand, send them up for sewing, and then have big “bagging & tagging” parties at the original space until two in the morning so we could get orders out the next day. It worked.

employee sewing at Borah Teamwear
In Borah’s day-to-day business, it all comes down to people. Chris credits his employees first and foremost. / Photo courtesy Borah Teamwear

What’s the best thing about being your own boss?

Mostly, you know, it’s all I really know (haha!) – I’ve been my own boss for most of my adult life. I would definitely say the flexibility, setting my own schedule. 

How about the worst?

The fact that it’s always there – it’s so hard to leave at the end of the day. You live and breathe it and your business becomes a part of your life. It’s always on your mind.

Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?

I’ve never thought that – but I do remember one time having the president of a bank we were working with literally look at me and say, “You know, it’s great to have dreams, but you might want to think about going out and doing something else.” 

But I think a lot of entrepreneurs – you know, you’re going to tell me I can’t do this, and I’m going to show you how I will. I’ve always had a lot of competitive drive from sports and having an older brother – and I’m the kind of guy that’ll figure out a way around it.

working on a jersey at Borah Teamwear
To help foster a positive work environment, Borah employees can participate in Tai Chi class on Tuesdays, or take an extended lunch break to go outside for a 15-minute walk. / Photo courtesy Borah Teamwear

Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?

I had a CPA in Viroqua, Marty McEvoy, who became a really great mentor – both in personal and business life – that was really helpful. I also took some courses with Fred Kush in La Crosse who is well known for his organizational leadership work. Bob Proctor, who is now gone, but a lot of big thinking – just believing you can do it.

 What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?

I think I had to do the process the way I did it, running into all the stumbling blocks. Looking back, would you do it the same?  No way, but the stumbling blocks, that’s how I learned – the school of hard knocks. I had no apparel experience – just figure it out as I go. I knew nothing about printers, once we got into the whole dye sublimation world – printing and dye sublimation for fabric – we definitely had to learn as we go. For every problem there was a solution, and then for every solution there was always going to be another problem – but you just have to figure them out.

Borah Teamwear sewing floor
The sewing floor at Borah Teamwear. / Photo courtesy Borah Teamwear

How do you manage your life/work balance?

The bluffs – ha! When we bring people in – industry people or whatever who might not get why we’re here – we’ll go for a ride, and 30 miles later they totally get it. The roads we have here – the bluffs, the natural beauty we can take in on a lunch ride.

 Our mission is to create a positive and healthy work environment at Borah. I get a lot of enjoyment raising the bar, and I push pretty hard for employees to be their best. Hopefully we inspired them to live a more positive and healthy life. We also incorporate a lot of things into our workdays – we have Tai Chi class on Tuesdays, and an extended lunch break if they want to punch in and go outside for a 15-minute walk. So hopefully people are just a little bit happier and healthier because they work here.

I heard once that if you don’t think you have time to go for a run or a bike ride or a walk, then you definitely need to go for another run or a bike ride or a walk. Carving out that time will make you more productive in the rest of your day. You’re too busy not to!

What keeps you inspired? 

The biggest advantage and thing that keeps me inspired has been the great people that live in this community that we’ve been able to employ – and they’ve stuck with me. There are so many talented people, and that have an incredibly strong work ethic. They’ve been a big part of the success, and they’ve become family. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the people. The Village of Coon Valley has also been so great to us over the years – working with us on land for our facility, and then land for our trails. Also – the bluffs, and amazing road riding – just go for a ride.