Jeff Coffey's dream was simple: to launch a business selling flies, the lures used by fly fishermen. What he didn't anticipate was the profound sense of purpose to go with it.
"I was going to open a fly shop in Oregon," says Coffey, founder of Zoe Angling Group (ZAG), inside the Hamilton County Business Development Center. "I went to buy some flies, and I'm with the guy in his warehouse, and he says, 'Don't buy them here -- we'll go over to Thailand, where they're made, and they'll show you a good time.'
The man was referring to sex trafficking.
"I got out the door, but it was all I could do not to throat-punch that guy," he says. "I'd heard stories, but I didn't believe them until I was propositioned."
Coffey says he started his business the next day. He had wanted to become a distributor for "ethically sourced" flies but says he quickly came to realize there was no such thing.
So he decided he'd have to be a manufacturer, but refused to conduct business as usual in a region where many women and children employed in the fly-tying industry were and are being trafficked.
"In our industry, which claims to care about the environment," he says, "why would people be okay knowing that kind of exploitation is happening in production of our product?"
ZAG partners with the Chattanooga-based Maclellan Foundation and similar groups, not only to rescue women and children from sex trafficking, but to offer protection and support to keep them out permanently. Coffey says half of ZAG's workers in Southeast Asia come out of "exploitative positions" and are paid $15 daily -- double the $7.50 that's considered a "good, living wage" there.
"Ninety-two percent of women rescued from sex trafficking wind up back (in the same situation) in 18 months because nobody will hire them," he says. "(Fifteen dollars a day) doesn't sound like a lot to most Americans, but it changes the value equation for (those workers). They have money they can spend at the corner store, or to send their kids to better schools.
"If we can create double living-wage employment," he adds, "we can start to change their lives and our industry."
Zoe Angling Group
Coffey's company is able to meet its mission due in large measure to the buzz being generated by an environmentally-friendly lure it has developed over the past five years through its PIVOT company spinout from Zoe Angling Group. As of August, ZAG had already attracted $1.5 million in investments, and they are working on raising $2.5 million more to go to market.
With adequate funding, Coffey projects his company could generate nearly $200 million in sales by 2027 as it markets its fishing lures and broadens its product line.
Instead of the lead, battery acid and toxic dyes found in most lures, ZAG uses bismuth, a non-toxic metal, and bio-resins instead of plastic. The company unveiled its innovative lure this past summer at a large trade show in Orlando, Florida.
"We got a Walmart vendor agreement before anyone bought a single lure," he says. "Our environmental approach is winning with major retailers."
Coffey says he moved himself, his wife, Lori, and their business to Chattanooga in 2020, in part because of what he called "almost an anti-business climate" in his native Northwest. He'd enjoyed a 2017 trip he made to Chattanooga to teach a fly-tying class.
"I just fell in love with the people and the culture," he says, "and it's much better strategically. The cost of doing business is so much more reasonable, and Chattanooga is the most bio-diverse region north of the Amazon.
In a presentation to potential investors at a recent "Gathering of Angels" at the University of Tennessee at Chattnaooga, Coffey said operating in Chattanooga's business incubator is only one-fourth the cost of operating a comparable facility in Portland, Oregon.
"I've been all over the country," he adds, "and Chattanooga's a pretty special place."