Toxey Haas’ Great Outdoors

Photo of Toxey Haas by Whitten SabbatiniStory Birney Imes | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

It’s just after 9 o’clock on a Thursday morning when Toxey Haas walks into the conference room of Mossy Oak’s headquarters in West Point, Miss. At a time of day when many are just coming to work, Haas has been at it for more than five hours. Work for Haas — much of it, anyway — is a life some men dream about.

At quarter to five that morning, he put a customer on a deer stand. Since then, he has watched another day begin in the woods, contemplated media buys he’s going to make for his television production company and walked through one of his more recent creations, a nursery that grows and sells native trees.

Like those throughout the building, the walls of the conference room are covered with cloth printed in one the company’s many camo patterns.

Same for most of the furniture. Hanging against the camo wallpaper are handsome posters picturing smiling fathers and sons clad in Mossy Oak camo enjoying the outdoors.

Lannie Wallace, a marketing specialist for the company, is explaining to a visitor a chart showing the companies that make up the Mossy Oak universe. Haas pulls up a chair, takes a seat and leans back. The mood is relaxed: small-town, good ole boys, jeans and flannel shirts, easygoing. Think again.

“The brand is about connecting human beings with the outdoors,” interrupts Haas, 51, the company’s founder and guiding light. Just over six feet and trim, Haas exudes the youthful enthusiasm often found in men who are able to spend their days working at something they love.
Riding on a single idea fueled by determination, unwavering faith and lots of family support, Haas created a company 25 years ago that has grown to become what is arguably the most recognizable brand of outdoor and hunting apparel in the country.

Mossy Oak no longer produces camo outdoor wear; it licenses the patterns. What was once camo is now intellectual property.

“We create brands,” Haas explains. “The only thing we produce now is trees.”

A Mossy Oak company with offices in West Point, Nashville and Shanghai, China, provides what Haas terms global supply chain management for close to 1,000 licensees of the brand. Want to get your sweetie a pink lace-trimmed camisole, evening dress or slouch purse in a Mossy Oak pattern? No problem. Get yourself a bow tie while you’re at it.

In addition to camo, Mossy Oak companies develop and sell real estate, manage retail stores, produce and market television and video, develop and market wildlife nutritional products, grow native trees and offer land management consulting.

The bulk of the privately-held company’s income still comes from fabric, and Haas estimates products bearing the Mossy Oak name generate annual retail revenues of more than one billion dollars. He’s quick to add his company only sees a sliver of those revenues.

Like a tree itself, the idea of being invisible in the woods is one that grew slowly in Toxey Haas. The seed was planted during boyhood hunting trips with his father and nurtured by a mother who understood her son’s restless nature.

“He stopped taking naps when he was 6 months old,” Evelyn Haas recalls, laughing. “He was wired then; I would just pick him up at night and put him in his bed after he fell asleep.”

Relief for mama came when daddy took their active little boy hunting.

Toxey speaks of those outings with his dad in reverential terms. Fox Haas grew up in Mobile and went to school at Mississippi State. After college he married a Starkville girl, bought a piece of land in Clay County and began a farm and a family.

Occasionally Fox would return home to hunt with family and friends at a hunting club in south Alabama founded in the 1920s. The club’s 25,000 acres were divided into territories, and hunters were assigned plots noted on a big chalkboard. The elder Haas and his young son favored a territory named for a massive bearded white oak growing in the center of the place. It was called The Mossy Oak.

Like his father, Toxey attended Mississippi State. By then Fox was in charge of procurement at Bryan Foods, and upon graduation, his college-educated son went to work on the kill floor helping process more than 5,000 hogs a day.

Two years later Toxey had moved into an office in the marketing department of the company. There he came to fully understand the process by which an idea becomes an item for sale on a store shelf.

Haas found a mill in Georgia willing to print a small run of a camo pattern he had developed. Juanita Crowder is familiar with that chapter of the Mossy Oak story. Twenty-five years ago Crowder was vice president of sales at Crystal Springs Print Works in Chickamauga, Ga., when she fielded a phone call from a young man, whose dreams exceeded his pocketbook.

Photo of Toxey Haas by Whitten SabbatiniIn the course of their conversation, Crowder told the caller her firm had a 10,000-yard minimum. He replied he only had enough money for 800.

“I remember the call like it was yesterday,” said Crowder, who is now 78 and retired 10 years ago. “He knew what he wanted and was determined to have that very thing.” Crowder made a case for Haas to her boss, who, as it happened, was a hunter. The mill rounded up some remnant fabric and printed the 800 yards. “He called me almost every day after that,” Crowder remembers. “He was going to make sure we got it right.”

A West Point seamstress made a jacket and pants with the fabric, and Haas began wearing them into the woods. Fearing it might jeopardize his job at Bryan, he let few in on what he was up to. One of these was Bill Sugg, a turkey-hunting friend, who sold insurance in West Point.
The young entrepreneur — he was 25 at the time — enlisted Sugg as model and had photographs made of the two of them in the woods. Sugg wore conventional camo, and Haas the new design that looked more like the leaves, branches and dirt beneath them. The resulting photographs make a case for the new camo like no words could. Haas took out ads in a couple of regional hunting magazines, got an 800-number and two weeks before the birth of his first child, quit his job at Bryan.

Sugg, who would later become president of Mossy Oak, began selling for the fledgling company on his days off. Toxey and his wife, Diane, lived off her teacher’s pay from Heritage Academy in Columbus. Both men ate lunch every day with their mothers.

A story on the outdoor page of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger titled, “Haas guilty of cover-up in West Point,” got the phones ringing.
Bob Dixon, Ronnie “Cuz” Strickland, Cindy Cliett and Carsie Young joined the cause early on. Dixon and Strickland sold and marketed; Cliett kept the books, and Young managed order fulfillment.

“My mama raised me — I sound like Forrest Gump — that we’re all kind of limitless,” says Haas. “I guess I’m dumb enough to believe I could do anything. I remember believing when we started this, ‘Well, somebody’s doing it, and if they are doing it, I can figure it out.’”

Another something Haas has worked hard to figure out is the corporate culture of his company.

“I love ’em so much,” he says about the people of Mossy Oak. “I want a place where it’s so much fun that working your butt off is the most fun you can have. … It is not my brand; it’s our brand.”

That said, few would argue that Mossy Oak is and continues to be an extension of Toxey Haas. As his personal relationship with the outdoors has evolved, so has the company’s. Once an avid hunter, Haas now takes pleasure in conservation and creation of habitat that provides the basis for his enterprise.

Those interests have given rise to BioLogic, Nativ Nurseries and GameKeepers — Mossy Oak companies devoted to the improvement of wildlife habitat.

“It all stems from communing with the great outdoors,” Haas effuses. “Nobody loves those animals more than hunters. That is the paradox of hunting.”

Toxey Haas is one of those rare, unstructured leaders who manage from the gut, relying on intuition and instincts nourished by time alone in the woods.

“My best day — I’ve started it outside somewhere and seen the sun rise,” he says. “My really quiet time, time to think is really, really early in the morning.”

As for what’s ahead, Haas isn’t saying.

“I’m so guarded when people start saying you gotta know where you’ll be in three years, five years. It’s more important to put your head down and create.”