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What You Missed in Boston - 2021 SPESA Executive Conference Recap

Updated: Dec 15, 2021


One month ago, we were in Boston reveling in all things lobster, fall weather, and the opportunity to reunite with friends and colleagues at the 2021 SPESA Executive Conference. This year’s event was understandably smaller than most, but nevertheless packed with eager attendees and three days of industry education and networking.

Photos by Devin Steele

Our team didn’t really know what to expect going into this conference after the past two years of ups and downs, but we’d argue it was our best one yet!

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the conference. We also want to take this opportunity to once again thank our wonderful speakers for sharing their time and expertise, and our sponsors, CGS, Lectra, and Messe Frankfurt, for helping make this event possible.

For those of you who were unable to attend, please see below for an overview of what you missed.

Chairwoman’s Address

SPESA Chairwoman Nina McCormack kicked us off on October 27th, welcoming attendees, outlining the goals of the conference, and sharing her observations of the sewn products industry over the last year and a half and her thoughts on the future.

“Over the past three years that I have been Chairwoman of SPESA, the industry certainly has gone through a lot of changes in reestablishing itself. The industry is riding the momentum and we are just at the beginning. The future holds so much more. It is such an interesting and exciting time to be in the sewn products industry in the Americas.”

Welcome to Massachusetts

Despite a wealth of manufacturing history and textile innovation in the New England area, SPESA doesn’t travel North very often. So, we were very excited to bring the Executive Conference to Boston and tap local resources to help educate our attendees.

Vasundhra Sangar of Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) welcomed us to the commonwealth and noted a few of the policy issues that are currently important to Massachusetts businesses: workforce development, unemployment insurance, PPP taxation relief, and assistance for businesses dealing with added costs and declining revenues due to Covid. While AIM’s services are specific to Massachusetts companies, these issues are not. Vasundhra encouraged attendees to take a look at the resources available to them within their own states to alleviate some of the pressures facing companies today.

“Become aware, become engaged, and become active because everything is definitely shifting and it’s only right for employers and manufacturers such as yourselves who keep entire industries going in your regions to make your needs and struggles known and heard by the men and women making these decisions in state houses across the country and Capitol Hill in D.C.”

Opening Keynote: Agents of Innovation

We asked our opening keynote, Bill O’Connor, to energize the audience and get people excited for the rest of the sessions, and boy did he deliver! Over the past 10 years, Bill has worked with 250+ corporations — including Google, Apple, Tesla, Nike, Starbucks, Twitter, GE, IKEA, and the U.S. Department of Defense — helping people to improve and expand their innovation mindsets, toolsets, and skill sets. During his presentation, he addressed the concept of “Innovate or Die” and how the tech startups and giants of Silicon Valley nurture innovation. Drawing on his team's research interviewing Nobel Laureates, Bill also presented best practices for collaborative innovation and the benefits of working together as an industry.

We definitely did not expect to have a recurring llama theme throughout the conference, but the running joke started with an example from this session. Bill shared a hypothetical idea to bring llamas into dentist offices to calm patients, something that in Boston or New York or North Carolina, would likely be laughed at. But, in Silicon Valley, all ideas, even fluffy, spitty bad ones, are considered and built upon by others and can often be turned into something genius.

SPESA Presents: Business for Business

Jeremy Wall, Co-founder & CEO of GoalMakers, kicked us off on Thursday with an interactive session on setting measurable and effective goals for your company. He instructed attendees to focus on the process, not a plan; start with the company’s vision; and ensure all employees understand that vision. Jeremy explained the importance of company-wide goals such as financial, customer, or employee goals, as well as department and individual goals to help you achieve your vision and how goals and vision are intrinsically tied.

“A strong vision will lead to the creation of strong company-wide goals that your entire organization will work towards for the year.”

While Jeremy, a graduate of North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles, does have a background in the industry, the lessons he teaches apply to all companies. This session was designed to fulfill a request to include business best practices for SPESA members or anyone looking to improve their day-to-day operations. It is something we will continue to explore during future events and as an added benefit for our members.

Workforce Development Case Studies

“What I like about SPESA is the things we learn at meetings are actionable right away.” - Sarah Krasley

The Shimmy Technologies CEO seamlessly continued the conversation of vision and goals into our next session on workforce development, noting “vision provides context and allows companies to evolve.” She then shared examples of the public vision statements of many well-known companies and asked attendees to share their own. She highlighted a common thread among all of them, not profit or even sewn products, but people at the forefront. Sarah explained that vision and a sense of purpose inspire extraordinary human effort, which is why it is so important to workforce development. People are at the heart of what we are trying to solve with workforce development. (By the way, Shimmy’s vision is to make the global sewn products supply chain a gleaming example of how to automate without leaving people behind.)

Sarah spoke at our recent SPESA Advancements in Manufacturing Technologies Conference (August 2021) and provided a few recommendations for employee engagement, building a sense of culture in your company, and developing a career path for your employees. Bert Feinberg of Frontier Distributors/Phillocraft took those recommendations back to Texas and implemented them within his company. Joining the Executive Conference virtually, he shared the steps he followed and the outcome so far. Read about it here.

The discussion underlined something said by Brenna Schneider in a previous discussion: “If you want to attract young talent then show them a pathway to a future.”

Daniella Ambrogi of CGS also joined the workforce discussion, putting Bert’s findings into a global context: “There is a big synergy in the industry right now, making sure we are taking care of people.” One of CGS’s main goals is to empower sewing operators through creating visibility in the workforce and creating pathways for employees to improve and succeed. Not only is this vital for the individuals who work within the sewn products industry, it is also a key factor in whether companies can be successful in bringing manufacturing back to the United States. Daniella encouraged attendees to think about the brand value component: “No one wants to work with a company that exploits their people.”

Panel Discussions

Made in Massachusetts Manufacturing

Brenna N. Schneider, 99Degrees; Charlie Merrow, The Merrow Group Companies; Kevin McCoy, New Balance; and Matthew Wallace, DXM Inc. spoke on our first panel on manufacturing. As they discussed supply chains, reshoring, PPE, and other pressing topics related to domestic production, the conversation ultimately circled around one question (the first one Matthew asked): What makes Massachusetts different?

Brenna explained that she chose New England in part because there was a sense of ecosystem in the area. She noted a combination of demand, resources, manufacturing expertise, thought leadership, and innovation, as well as a large immigrant population and workforce. Plus a history of innovative, gritty women. Charlie added that, with 60 universities within a short distance from Fall River, access to a broad spectrum of remarkably educated people is what makes Massachusetts special.

“I think our industry has some of the best potential for explosive innovation in the country,” Charlie stated when discussing manufacturing specific to the sewn products industry. “To scale production in the U.S. we need to innovate, we need to fuel investment to grow. We need to create commercial value here that is differentiated here.”

We often talk about reshoring in relation to U.S. manufacturing today, but Matthew argues we should be calling it new-shoring: “It’s not the thing that left. It’s something brand new.” To this, Kevin added, “The only way we are going to survive is if we start to evolve the product platforms that provide better products to our consumers.” New Balance is targeting automation, robotics, and putting employees in a more value-added position. The company’s goal is to produce more with the same amount of people.

Kevin also provided one of the best quotes of the event: “Making what we make here is a drug. It’s addictive and all you need is a little taste to get hooked.”

Wicked Smart: Textile Research and Innovation Cheryl Gomes, University of Massachusetts Lowell; Katya Roelse, University of Delaware; Arnie Kravitz, Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing; and Lloyd Wood, Lloyd Wood Group led our industry research discussion, touching on the research opportunities in the sewn products world that are attracting the most funding and intellectual attention.

The panelists covered a variety of research initiatives across the apparel and sewn product sectors, with an overarching theme centered on the importance of useability. Advancements in the industry must pair innovation and functionality to be effective, the panelists all agreed. The same thing goes for sustainability. With the ongoing threat of climate change, it is crucial that any new technologies and advancements be constructed with sustainability in mind.

“We don’t fund cool projects, we fund useful projects. If you want to win a project, you don’t win on just a good idea. You win with a good idea that also has a good value proposition,” said Arnie.

While our speakers joined us from all over, Boston was the perfect place for this discussion, surrounded by some of the country’s greatest research facilities. Several of our attendees were even able to see one in action during the Friday tour.

Government Engagement Kelly Floyd, Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Clothing and Textiles, and Steve Lamar, American Apparel & Footwear Association, discussed government engagement and military procurement as it relates to the textile, apparel, and sewn products industries. The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) manages multiple supply chains that contract for material and services across the U.S. military classes of supply, including clothing and textiles, personal demand items, and medical material and equipment. It also supports other federal agencies, and state and local governments with items like uniforms. Kelly’s presentation (linked below) introduced attendees to DLA’s Industrial Capabilities Program, Warstopper Program, and Defense Production Act Title III Program. He highlighted opportunities for both industry suppliers and manufacturers to work with DLA.

Steve, whose organization represents several companies that make up the Defense Industrial Base, pointed out a few of the struggles faced by companies that rely on the Berry Amendment (the section of U.S. procurement law that requires military clothing and textiles to be sourced from the U.S.) and the efforts being undertaken by the industry to resolve them.

As Steve explained it: “The Defense Industrial Base is under assault — not so much from foreign competition but from years of contracting processes, underfunded budgets, and domestic predatory activities.”

Why Am I Still Paying Tariffs?

Nicole Bivens Collinson, Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A., and David Trumbull, Agathon Associates gave attendees a crash course on the trade, tariff, and policy issues affecting the sewn products industry. In regard to the China 301 Tariffs, Nicole told attendees to be prepared for tariffs for the long haul, don’t bank on them being removed by the Biden Administration. However, there are options to mitigate the effects of the tariffs, including exclusions, tariff engineering, and the First Sale Rule. Nicole and David also discussed the legislative initiatives related to the Generalized System of Preferences and the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill, as well as how large trade agreements may change the dynamic between the United States, China, and other trading partners.

These issues move and change so fast, we recommend you read our monthly Trade & Policy Update for more information. You can also subscribe to the ST&R Daily Trade Report here or the Agathon Associates Textiles and Trade blog here.

Mergers & Acquisitions: The Shifting Sewn Products Landscape Ketty Pillet, Lectra; Lonny Schwartz, Former President of Superior Sewing Machine & Supply, LLC; and Mike Fralix, [TC]², included the audience in their panel discussion. Ketty and Lonny were each involved in two of the sewn product industry’s largest maneuvers in 2021. Ketty, a previous Gerber Technology employee who now falls under the Lectra umbrella explained that the transition has been smooth as the two companies find their way forward as one. However, she noted that Gerber still has incredible product lines and the Gerber name won’t be going away anytime soon.

Lonny was in the sewn products business for 33 years before deciding to sell Superior Sewing Machine & Supply this year, a decision he struggled with. He explained that he ultimately felt it was better to be the master of his own destiny and pass it down while he could help the next team take over. His goal was to find the right fit for his staff, customers, and suppliers, which he did with the Merrow Group.

But Ketty and Lonny weren't the only conference attendees to have been part of an industry merger or acquisition of some kind. The last hour of the conference consisted of audience members sharing their experiences of changing organization structure, adjusting to new company cultures, and other challenges related to our ever-evolving industry.

Lonny ended the conversation on a positive note: “SPESA is an amazing organization. It is amazingly energetic, enthusiastic, constantly looking toward the future and how to build a better mousetrap. The companies are the same. I think everybody’s going to be just fine.”

SPESA Business Meeting

The Executive Conference ended with the annual SPESA Business Meeting, during which the SPESA membership voted to approve the following candidates for the SPESA Board of Directors Class of 2024:

  • Jill Coleman, Alvanon, Inc.

  • Mike Fralix, [TC]²

  • Mark Hatton, American & Efird, Inc.

  • Frank Henderson, Henderson Sewing Machine Co., Inc.

  • Rick Ludolph, Productive Solutions

  • Michael Rabin, Morgan Tecnica America, Inc.

Charlie Merrow also joined the SPESA Board of Directors, filling Lonny Schwartz’s vacated seat in the Class of 2022.

In addition to the Board election, SPESA announced its new slate of officers. Ed Gribbin will serve as Chairman of the Board; Mark Hatton as Vice Chairman; and Daniella Ambrogi as Secretary/Treasurer. Read the press release here.

The meeting closed with a “State of SPESA” address from SPESA President Michael McDonald, a video tribute to Nina McDonald for her years of service as a SPESA Officer, and remarks from incoming Chairman Ed Gribbin. Minutes from this meeting will be shared with SPESA members to review.

Networking Events & Tour

As is our tradition, SPESA hosted multiple networking events during the Executive Conference. The SPESA Board of Directors kicked us off on Tuesday night with pasta and mystery cocktails in Boston’s North End. Conference attendees then joined the party on Wednesday night for a welcome reception in the historic Parker’s Bar. We ended the conference with a one-of-a-kind Mobsters & Lobsters Tour of Boston and, of course, an Irish pub. Who knew grown adults would be so excited to wear lobster hats?

Thank you again to our sponsors for helping us keep things entertaining! CGS sponsored lunch during the conference. Lectra became our official “Lobstah Sponsah,” supporting the evening receptions. Trying something new this year, we added on a Friday tour to the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) and the Merrow facility. Those who attended enjoyed seeing topics discussed during the conference (technology, research, and manufacturing) up close in action. We will plan to include similar activities in our next Executive Conference.

Thank you to Messe Frankfurt for sponsoring the tour!

Looking Forward

Overall, we are proud to have hosted a successful event, despite unusual circumstances. We are extremely grateful to everyone who supported us along the way. If you have any suggestions on how we can improve in the future or topics you would like us to explore, please complete our event survey or feel free to email the SPESA team.

We look forward to seeing you at our next Executive Conference (someplace warmer) in 2022!

View pictures from the event here and here.

Additional Reading:

  • We shared our initial takeaways from the conference in Behind the Seams here.

  • Devin Steele drafted an article about the conference in the CGS Blog. Read the post here.

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