From the Beginning: An Interview with SPESA Board Member John Stern
Updated: Oct 9, 2020
John Stern, President and CEO of Methods Workshop, has been involved with SPESA since its inception 30 years ago. We chatted with him in September about SPESA, his time in the industry, and advice for the next generation.
Tell us about your path into the industry.
JS: It wasn’t exactly a straight path. Having been active in ROTC early on, I had committed to joining the military after I completed school at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. But after a medical examination at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I learned that I wouldn’t be approved to join due to an eye injury I had sustained years prior.
So instead of heading to the military, I landed a job with Ford Motor Company in Indianapolis. I was eventually relocated to Mahwah, New Jersey, to work at Ford’s manufacturing plant which sat about 30 miles outside of New York City. As a car enthusiast, I loved watching new cars come off the line every day. But eventually it grew old. I was tired of working for such a big company and wanted to pursue something different. My dad had always told me that you start big and work your way down. That’s exactly what I did.
I ended up switching career paths and working for Van Heusen as a senior industrial engineer. This is where my journey into the industry began. I was responsible for setting up assembly lines, and a lot of what I did was grunt work, but it set me up for what I’m doing today. After some time, my boss came to me and said, “John, you’re wasting your time as an engineer. You need to pursue a career in sales.” I took his advice and haven’t looked back since.
At that point, I went to work for Dubin-Haskell-Jacobson, Inc. (DHJ) where I was responsible for selling interlinings. My job at Van Heusen exposed me to the frontlines of the industry, but DHJ exposed me to the world. I traveled, I learned, and I quickly worked my way up the totem pole, making lifelong connections along the way. Using my engineering background, I helped DHJ develop the very first conveyorized fusing machine, something we later debuted at ITMA in Paris.
The next few years saw significant changes as DHJ was sold to Dominion Textiles, and Herb Haskell attempted a new business venture called Cheltex to replace DHJ which wasn’t particularly successful. After working alongside a few business partners in interlining sales, I found myself living in Atlanta and out of work for the first time in 40 years. It was a tough time, no doubt, but eventually opened the door to a whole new opportunity. After about three months of being out of a job, I received a call from my mentor, Manny Gaetan, who presented a potential sales opportunity with Reliance Holdings company RCG Productivity Services selling General Sewing Data (GSD). While the company was based in New York, they offered me the job and allowed me to stay in Atlanta, the center of the industry.
After starting Methods Workshop and selling GSD from the early-1980s to the early 2000s, I found myself in a room with my business partner and good friend Bob Craig (who sadly recently passed) coming up with the plans to create Engineered TruCost. We spent a couple years crafting the system, and eventually unveiled it at the 2002 Bobbin Show in Orlando. We sold five systems in just a couple days, something of which we were very proud.
Not only have you dedicated decades to the sewn products industry, you have also been a part of SPESA since the beginning. Why did you initially want to be a part of SPESA?
JS: There were a lot of movers and shakers in the industry during that time. Many of whom wanted to come together as a centralized voice against the Bobbin Show. Beyond that, we wanted to give a voice to the supplier side of the industry, which was something that didn’t exist at the time. Our industry has changed a lot over the past 30 years, but SPESA’s commitment to its members has not faltered.
What is one thing the industry has lost over the past few decades that you wish it hadn’t?
JS: Strong, domestic supply chains. I can remember vividly when businesses started to move operations offshore as a means to save money. They were committed to profit margins but not to the people in the industry. I’m a firm believer in the Made in America movement. I understand that it comes at a higher investment, but to me, the benefits outweigh the costs. By focusing efforts on reshoring, we can build a stronger workforce, create a shorter supply chain, and better support the U.S. economy.
If we could solve one issue as an industry, what would it be?
JS: Simplifying the supply chain. This really goes hand-in-hand with my answer to the last question. If we prioritize the Made in America movement, we can establish a more cohesive workforce that can move quickly to respond to the demands of the market. This is hard to accomplish when you have a long and complex supply chain, which is something we’ve witnessed on the retail side of the industry. Consumers want products faster, and a shorter domestic supply chain would support that response time.
What advice would you give someone entering the industry today?
JS: Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. I know that is a quick and simple answer, but it’s important. During my career, I tried to do every menial job and task to help me learn how systems worked. No job was too small for me. And as I advanced in my career, I made it a priority to show respect to every person with whom I worked.
Would you encourage young adults to join the sewn products industry?
JS: Absolutely! This is an exciting industry and one that I would be happy to promote.
We would love to see more industry newcomers at SPESA events. What is your favorite memory from a SPESA event?
JS: It was the Annual Meeting in 2000 in Puerto Vallarta. It was the first time we held the Annual Meeting in a different country. It was genuinely one of the best times I’ve ever had, and I commend Dave and Benton Gardner for the incredible attention to detail that went into that event, along with all other SPESA events.
I remember standing on stage with a bunch of other SPESA members, looking out into the crowd, and thinking this is what fun looks like. The drinks, the dancing, the friends — it was perfect. If there is one thing that makes SPESA unique, it is that we know how to have a good time.
Methods Workshop LLC is a leading developer and provider of engineering and costing software solutions for the global fashion and sewn products industries.