Engineer to Pantyhose Salesman

A Most Unusual Career Transition:
From Civil Engineering to Selling Men's Pantyhose?

Steve Newman of ActivSkin/Men's Legwear Advocate
Steve Newman, former Director of
Marketing & Publicity - ActivSkin
Legwear for Men                              

Readers of The Nylon Gene have enjoyed my musings and rantings on various aspects of the men's legwear trend for some time now. It might be of interest to some to learn just how I became the primary spokesman for men's legwear in the U.S:

There are millions of stories, all around, of people whose lives have been upended as a result of the economic crisis we've been enduring in the U.S. for several years now. My personal tale is probably one of the more unusual career transitions of which you’ll hear. Some may find it interesting or instructive--others, amusing. I went from civil engineer to men's pantyhose marketer almost overnight. That sentence alone is enough to get most people's heads to snap around. Read on…

March 2nd started out like most days at the engineering firm where I worked, until the department manager called me into his office and informed me that there were going to be layoffs--20% of the staff--and I was one of them. The company's fortunes had turned around drastically since the previous December, when the year-end meeting had painted a not necessarily rosy picture, but a relatively sound one. My head was spinning as I began to clear out my office.

Fortunately, my wife and I had been making provisions for an undefined 'emergency' since the middle of the previous summer, so we were not without resources. We had saved about half of what we estimated we might need to sustain us with no other income for about 6 months, and we were glad to have made such decisions, despite not having had time to complete our preparation.

Previous experience taught us that six months is about what it takes to find new employment in good economic times. How long might it take given the dire circumstances facing the country in Spring 2009--and still today? I knew from conversations with colleagues that the civil engineering market was in dismal shape in Central Ohio. Many firms had been laying off engineers for several months, and several of my acquaintances had been unemployed since the previous October. So, prospects for finding an engineering position to replace my former one appeared grim. Where was I going to start looking first?

This is where the story takes a unique turn...

First, some background for those not familiar with how I first became acquainted with men's legwear. I've experienced leg pain and chronic 'heaviness' due to poor leg circulation since my late 30s, and had worn support hosiery at the recommendation of a doctor for more than 10 years.  Thus, I prevented the early signs of varicose veins from advancing, and contributed significantly to my daily comfort level. Early on, I learned of a company called Comfilon (later, ACTIVSKIN), launched in 1999 to sell an unheard of product, pantyhose and tights made for men. Since their support styles provided such good leg support, I became a customer and eventually befriended the founder, Steve Katz and his wife.  The company's home in Granville, Ohio is only 35 miles from my home and over time, I did some 'pro bono' publicity work here and there, to help promote the emerging, but still small, trend of men wearing nylon hosiery for leg support or added warmth. I also did a bit of part-time work on the side in 2002-03. 

In Feb. 2002, I agreed to take part in a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal on the emerging trend of men wearing pantyhose.  Being quoted by name in a national publication brought no negative fallout to me among colleagues and friends, showered favorable acclaim on ActivSkin, and represented a major turning point in the evolution of the men's legwear concept. 

Cut to the present... The day after I was laid off, I called Steve K. and asked if there were anything I could do to help him out, and earn a little supplemental income to get us through the job search period. We met for lunch the next day, and he informed me that the business had grown such that he needed someone to take over the marketing responsibilities, since they left him little time to attend to the many other tasks of running a business. Being already familiar with my writing abilities and enthusiasm for promoting men's legwear, he was eager to have me come aboard as his director of marketing.

Although the initial pay was less than I was making as an engineer, this offer had two major pluses going for it. First and foremost was that it was A JOB! Only two days after becoming unemployed in one of the worst economic downturns in recent history (never mind whether we call it a recession or a depression), I had found steady employment. Secondly, this opportunity afforded me the chance to pursue the rewards that can come from taking a small, but growing, company to a much higher level while at the same time advancing a trend that I truly believe in. There are many men like myself who complain of leg problems but don't realize their social programming is eliminating a solution that's right under their noses. If successful in my efforts, those men who have already taken the leap and tried men's support hosiery will be supported in their choice, rather than ridiculed for it.

Of course, there were minuses to consider also. If successful, I would be turning away from the engineering profession in which I had been educated and spent 25 years working. Since we have four children, two of whom will be entering college within the next few years, there was the issue of making do on a lower salary until such time the business experiences the sort of growth that will bring me closer to my former salary. Fortunately, this is where our prior prudence in preparing for a rainy day was crucial. The savings we had built up for such a purpose would allow us to supplement the lower income, so we could make ends meet. The decision to forego actively pursuing engineering jobs was aided by the recognition that I was probably not missing out on any plum job opportunities in the first place. That left the door open to pursue this challenging but exciting opportunity.

A secondary, but not insignificant, concern was my wife's feelings about it becoming general knowledge that "her husband wears pantyhose." Although I had made no secret about wearing legwear for leg health reasons, most of our friends and acquaintances were probably unaware because it just didn't come up in conversation on it's own. Even though I’ve often worn tan-colored hose with shorts in warm weather, they usually escape notice if one is not looking for them. Nevertheless, my wife feared that friends would harbor negative impressions of me--and her, by extension--if they became aware of it. My personal experience had shown me in no uncertain terms that most people who were aware of it did not jump to unsavory conclusions about cross-dressing and the like. They know and respect me, and generally assumed I wore them due to medical reasons, which is exactly why I do. However, no matter how much I shared this with Mrs. Nylon Gene, she had always had great difficulty accepting it as true.

Steve Newman of ActivSkin attends a LinkedIn workshopTaking this new career path would not only present us with the uncertainties of making our way in the totally uncharted waters of a brand new product concept, which seemed to be on the verge of 'catching fire', but held no guarantees. It also presented my wife with the uncomfortable proposition of being thrust into the limelight over something that had previously been a source of embarrassment for her. The good news here is that all of her fears and misgivings were soon shown to be completely unfounded. Without exception, all of her/our friends were completely supportive of the idea (other than occasional musings from a few over whether it's wise to forego actively pursuing engineering work while pursuing this new direction). Most thought it has the potential to really take hold as men become more open-minded about adopting unorthodox solutions to improve wellness, and people continue to pursue wellness in favor of treatment.

The bottom line is that she witnessed firsthand the readiness of so many people to be open to this emerging trend, and the disappearance of negative connotations that may once have been more prevalent. Therefore, she was open to the prospect of me taking what is no doubt a radical change in career direction. Today, I wear them everywhere we go together--sometimes in darker shades such as black--and she has witnessed firsthand how people take men's legwear completely in stride. Nine months ago this would have filled her with dread. In fact, when I was scheduled to appear on a show Oprah was planning in January on the men's pantyhose trend, she was extremely relieved when it was canceled at the last minute due to a breaking news story. Today, however, she takes the publicity completely in stride.

Unfortunately, in the intervening time the economic conditions have continued to worsen.  ActivSkin has been in the news and this blog grew in popularity rapidly as a result of my publicity efforts in 2009 and early 2010, but as much as the media attention brought new customers, tightening household budgets and growing unemployment have depressed sales about as fast as new customers have arrived.  Thus, we were forced to eliminate my role as a salaried position.  We maintain an informal relationship to this date, and I continue to serve as an advocate and spokesman for media issues relating to the men's legwear concept in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. 

Public perception of the mantyhose phenomenum has evolved considerably as a result of our work during my employment with ActivSkin.  I continue to work toward the goal of male legwear becoming a truly unisex garment, as time and finances permit.  I value the relationships that have grown from this effort and hope for a time when conditions improve--and I could one day pick up where I left off with ActivSkin


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