Made in New Bedford: A Suit Designer Retools

Made in New Bedford: A Suit designer Retools – Abboud Factory bucks US Trend
By Jenn Abelson, Globe Staff | January 7, 2007

NEW BEDFORD — Last year the Joseph Abboud suit factory did something not seen in at least a decade in this old textile capital: It added jobs.

The men’s suit designer expanded its workforce nearly 20 percent to 590 employees and is investing millions of dollars in a sleek new production system at a time when other apparel makers have shrunk or disappeared from the struggling seaside city.

The strategy also bucks a nationwide trend of clothing manufacturers moving operations abroad where labor is cheaper, tax incentives abound, and US companies can avoid the rising costs of healthcare and energy at home. Over the past decade, jobs in apparel manufacturing have dropped from 443,200 to 196,500 across the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Abboud executives say they needed to go against the grain to survive in a fashion industry that has come under increasing pressure to get products more quickly to the stores and to meet growing demand for custom-made garments.

“When everyone else was pulling away from unions and American production, we made a strategic decision to embrace the factory,” said Marty Staff, chief executive of Joseph Abboud, the high-end menswear-maker carried in select retailers including Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. “We couldn’t find a place outside our factory where we could get the quality and flexibility to satisfy our needs.”

In 2004, Abboud executives considered shifting its suit manufacturing abroad — where workers would earn $1 an hour instead of $12 in New Bedford. But they decided part of the company’s appeal lay in its cachet as a custom designer whose $700 to $1,000 suits are made in America. They also realized that outsourcing production, the favored strategy of many retailers, carried with it hidden costs. Chief among them: the company would lose control over the shipping time and probably be forced to make more merchandise than needed because of production minimums mandated at many overseas factories.

Committing to a future in New Bedford, however, has required some big changes. Over the past year, Abboud has begun implementing lean manufacturing, a concept promoted by automaker Toyota, which aims to move products more quickly through the factory. In 2004, it took Abboud about five weeks to make suits. Now, it takes about a week.
“What Joseph Abboud is doing is counter to the market,” said Marshal Cohen , chief retail analyst at NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. “It allows them to be more nimble and separate themselves and be in control of what they’re doing. Their destiny is in their own hands. It’s better than relying on traditional forms of importing.”

For New Bedford, the creation of jobs is much needed. “It’s a real confidence booster,” said Mayor Scott W. Lang . “It was an industry that looked like it was going to be wiped out from New Bedford.”

Large brick mill buildings surround Abboud’s factory, many vacant, others getting redeveloped. At the turn of the 20th century, New Bedford had more than 50 textile factories, including Wamsutta Mills, one of the world’s largest cotton weaving plants at the time. Many of these factories shut down or left the city for cheaper regions of the country, and increasingly, overseas.

More than 4,000 workers made men’s apparel in New Bedford less than 15 years ago, including a large plant that supplied menswear for JC Penney stores until the plant moved to Southeast Asia several years ago. Today there are fewer than 600 men’s apparel employees in New Bedford — all working for Abboud.

The company, founded by Boston native Joseph Abboud and now headquartered in New York, has grown to $400 million in annual sales over the past two decades. The hope is that the eventual savings from adopting lean manufacturing will justify keeping its only suit factory in the world in a high cost region.

Lean manufacturing is an entire way of looking at production to eliminate waste and increase efficiencies throughout the system, from receiving orders to shipping. For Abboud, it’s required everything from retraining workers to moving its distribution center to New Bedford. (Relocating the facility from New Jersey shaved nine days off shipping time to customers.)

The biggest change for Abboud came in realigning the work flow, developing a collaborative process that organizes workers into groups that assemble, for example, one jacket at a time. A worker stitches a single sleeve or pocket, and then passes the garment to the next person in the group. This saves time compared with the conventional system in which employees work individually on batches of garments doing one single task, such as sewing buttons on the jacket. Suits often get backed up because workers are waiting for fellow employees to finish their batch of 20. For the lean process, however, workers are trained for more than one skill, so they can jump in and help prevent a backup if other stations get behind.
Under the new system, Abboud can better manage its inventory so that it makes suits customers are buying, rather than guessing six months ahead what they want. This agility is important to meet growing pressures — created, in part, by cheap chic merchants like H&M and Zara to provide consumers new fashions every week.

Inside the brick Abboud factory in New Bedford, fluorescent lights hang from the ceilings as the employees — the majority of Portuguese descent, reflecting the large community here — work at stations on hardwood floors.

The company plans to have one-third of its production using the new team system by the summer to help accommodate the growing custom business, which took in $1.3 million in 2006, the first full year it operated, according to Anthony Sapienza, Abboud’s chief operating officer. That segment is expected to grow to $5 million in the next two years.
Some employees used to working by themselves have been resistant to the new format, where incentives are based on group performance. For now, employees have volunteered to test the new system, and only one has asked to be transferred back to the individual batch process. The company plans to switch entirely to lean manufacturing over the next several years, Sapienza said.

“It’s a big difference, work goes much faster. We help each other,” said Odette Almeida , 35, of New Bedford. Almeida works at the end of an eight-person team sewing and reinforcing buttons on jacket sleeves. There’s a sign above her setting the goal at 380 sleeves a day for the team.

The group meets that goal about 90 percent of the time, better than other teams working on different parts of the suit. The transition to lean manufacturing hasn’t paid off yet, and it isn’t expected to for another few years, Sapienza said. But executives are confident that the decision to stay in New Bedford is the right one.

“We want to keep these jobs in America,” Sapienza said. “But you have to be creative, you have to be unique.”

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.