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What You Missed in San Juan - 2023 SPESA Executive Conference Recap

Updated: Apr 21, 2023


At the end of March, SPESA and many of our favorite sewn products industry colleagues traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for the 2023 SPESA Executive Conference. This was our first time hosting this event in Puerto Rico, and the first event in a very long time that we have held outside of the contiguous United States. It was also a new format for us, devoting just as much time to factory tours as educational sessions. The whole thing was a risk. But, boy did it pay off!

Our Board Chairman, Ed Gribbin, told the audience in San Juan that this was the best SPESA Executive Conference he had ever attended. And we can't ask for much more than that.

The 2023 SPESA Executive Conference was held at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 30-31. The event included educational sessions, factory tours, and two networking receptions. We had about 75 attendees, including spouses who joined us for the exciting evening receptions. Of those attendees, 27 were SPESA members, 22 were manufacturers (from mainland U.S., Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Guatemala), and 33 people were new to SPESA events.

Details are available at the links below:

Photos from the event are available on our Facebook and Instagram pages.

Below is a brief recap for those of you who were unable to attend the conference or would like a refresher on the events.

Keynote: Jonathan Fantini Porter

Our keynote speaker at the 2023 SPESA Executive Conference was Jonathan Fantini Porter, Executive Director and CEO of the Partnership for Central America (PCA). PCA is the coordinating body of the White House public-private partnership launched by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021 to mobilize investments across the public, private, and social sectors to advance economic opportunity and hope in Northern Central America. In its first six months, the partnership mobilized $1.2 billion in foreign direct investment and launched programs supporting 20 million people, including nearshoring more than $150 million in manufacturing supply chains to the Americas.

Starting off, Jonathan noted that he understands and appreciates the importance and power of the textile and apparel industries in the Central American region. During his remarks, he discussed opportunities for investment in Central America, as well as efforts to streamline customs processes and trade between Central America and the United States. Jonathan explained PCA's goals of mobilizing investment, addressing policy barriers to streamline growth, creating economic opportunity in the region, and supporting large-scale investment. Success in these areas will be determined not by PCA alone but by its ability to support its corporate partners, like the companies attending the conference.

Panel Discussions

Featuring Nicole Bivens Collinson, Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A.; Andrea Maribel Mansilla Salazar, Vestex (the apparel and textile association of Guatemala); and Emilio Penhos Mougrabi, CANAIVE (the national chamber of the clothing industry in Mexico), our first panel discussion in San Juan was titled: “Friends with Benefits: How the U.S. and Its 3rd Border Countries’ Sewing Industries Can Be Mutually Beneficial.” Panelists discussed opportunities related to trade, nearshoring, and manufacturing capabilities as well as the power and influence of foreign investment in the sewn products and manufacturing industries in Central America and Mexico.

Discussing sourcing and manufacturing in the region, the speakers emphasized the importance of building and maintaining long-term relationships to support growth and stability along these important supply chains. "We don’t just want to be seen as a alternative when you have trouble in paradise in Asia. We want to be there for you, truly your friend with benefit," said Emilio.

Andrea, while hailing from Guatemala, underscored the importance of working together as region. As she so beautifully put it "We cannot move forward thinking of ourselves as just one country, we are stronger as CAFTA-DR." And, as always, Nicole provided excellent guidance on the trade and policy issues of which the sewn products industry needs to be aware to succeed. We agree with Andrea: "I hope that Nicole will be the next president of the United States. It would be very helpful for everyone." #NicoleforPresident

Our second panel discussion was led by Michael Penchansky of CGS, Inc. Michael, along with Mario Alberto Canahuati, Grupo Elcatex; Jimmy Haygood, Delta Apparel, Inc.; and Simón Medina, Capaz International SAS and Zona Franca Pro-Industria, S.P.M., engaged the audience in a technology-focused discussion on the capability, demands, and opportunities of the sewn products manufacturing base in the Western Hemisphere.

Mario's family business has been operating in Honduras for 70+ years and is one of the country's largest employers. In addition to its textile and garments factories, Grupo Elcatex focuses on energy and technology, allowing Mario to address challenges related to energy and infrastructure concerns with our attendees. Jimmy shared his experiences working with apparel manufacturers across multiple brands and countries. Delta Apparel, where he now works, produces garments in the U.S., Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador. Expanding the conversation outside of Central America, Simón discussed manufacturing in the Dominican Republic, as well as the benefits of working within industrial free zones, leading to input from all of the speakers on trade and supply chains.

Continuing the conversation once we returned home, Michael Penchansky penned an article, previously shared in Behind the Seams, outlining his key takeaways from the discussion and how to be successful in manufacturing in the Western Hemisphere: collaboration is key, technology is essential, workforce is vital, and sustainability is priority.

Our third panel brought together three young, energetic, and innovative visionaries to discuss how the sewn products industry is evolving, and share their personal and professional experiences operating within the industry. Puerto Rico-based designers Auralís Herrero-Lugo, Bluewater Defense, Inc. (who also shared her experiences as a consultant with Auralís Studio), and Karla Lopez, Isleñas, were joined by Detroit-based entrepreneur Milton Putman, Complete Image Manufacturing. The conversation was moderated by SPESA president (and fellow millennial) Michael McDonald.

Despite having different backgrounds, all three panelists agreed that their individual success was shaped by the community and mentors that supported the work they were doing. This is something we’ve heard in conversations before and one of the many reasons we love the sewn products industry. There’s always a helping hand (or hands) to support the work you’re doing.

One of the biggest and most interesting takeaways for us was on the importance of the manufacturing process. Auralís, Karla, and Milton are all designers, yet they understand and appreciate the work being done behind the scenes. Or seams, in this case. They recommended for anyone interested in pursuing a career in design, to spend some time in manufacturing. Familiarize yourself with the intricacies and processes that go into the things you’re making. It paints design in an entirely new, and clear, picture.

Our final panel discussion in San Juan fittingly focused on Made in America’s Best Kept Secret: Puerto Rican Manufacturing. Why is Puerto Rico Made in America’s best kept secret? Puerto Rico has solidified itself as one of the largest and most creative manufacturing bases for the U.S. apparel manufacturing industry. We asked our panelists — all local manufacturers, Humberto Zacapa, SNC Technical Services; Gabriella Graves, M M Manufacturing, LLC; and Greg Gimble, Va Bien, who graciously filled in at the last minute — to discuss what drives the industry in Puerto Rico. The short answer right now is government contracts. The majority of apparel production in Puerto Rico consists of military uniforms and tactical gear which are required to be made in the United States under the Berry Amendment. Working for one of the largest American producers of uniforms and related gear for the U.S. Department of Defense, Humberto kicked off the discussion explaining the current capabilities of the Puerto Rican industry.

However, there are a number of companies who have chosen to make Puerto Rico home for other, more personal reasons. Greg, for example, shared why his family chose to set up shop on the island producing intimates. All of the speakers explained that their production would be less expensive outside of the United States, yet they had no plans to move any time soon. As we all know, manufacturing in America is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. Supporting their own community and the industry as a whole – that’s what these panelists do.

As it usually does, the conversation quickly shifted to workforce. The speakers noted the challenges they have experienced finding employees as well as their efforts to support training internally. All of the factories have a higher percentage of women workers, although the divide is slowly reducing. Notably, M M Manufacturing is also woman-owned with a mission to become the best woman-owned small business prime contractor of apparel and equipment for the Department of Defense. We have to give a special shout out to Gabriella who told us this was her first time ever speaking on a panel, and who did a wonderful job!

Factory Tours

On Friday, March 31, after our Puerto Rican manufacturing panel, we loaded up the busses and took 50 attendees to visit factories on the north side of the island:

At Bluewater Defense in Corozal, attendees spotted a few recognizable logos (American & Efird thread, Gerber cutters, Juki and Dürkopp Adler sewing machines, among others), while getting an up-close look at the production of both military uniforms and private label consumer goods. The manufacturer's sprawling factory contains a mix of manual operations and automation, with the addition of technology such as mobile phone-based product tracking.

Thank you so much to Elizabeth Machuca-Dones, Ivan Nuñez, and all of the team at Bluewater for not only providing us with wonderful hospitality at the factory, but also helping connect SPESA and our attendees with other contacts across Puerto Rico!

Our second tour was at the women-owned Cooperativa Industrial Creación de la Montaña in Utuado, the factory where the Concalma handbag line has been manufactured since 2006. Concalma is a distinct, fair trade fashion brand that prioritizes transparent supply chains. The factory is known for employing rural workers from its surrounding communities, thus supporting their traditional lifestyles, healthy working conditions, no child labor, and fair wages. The brand has undergone several transformations and remarkable growth under its founder Matilsha Marxuach. Attendees were able to see the pieces and production that go into making a Concalma bag.

Our final stop was at Original Footwear in Arecibo. We were so fortunate to receive a personal tour from Original Footwear founder Kevin Cole. While production had stopped for the day (the workers' shift ends mid-afternoon), it gave attendees a nice (and quiet) opportunity to explore the details of the factory, and again spot a few familiar names (we quickly recognized an Eastman cutting machine, PFAFF sewing machines). Original Footwear designs and builds high-quality footwear for law enforcement officers, military operators, first responders, and other uniformed professionals.

Thank you to all of the factories who hosted our group!

Networking Events

In addition to our meals and networking breaks during the conference, we hosted two evening receptions to give attendees opportunities to make new connections and reconnect with old friends. On Thursday, we hopped outside to the Caribe Hilton's Hammock Garden to enjoy a lovely, yet windy sunset cocktail reception on the beach.

After a very long day of factory tours, busses, and Puerto Rican heat, we were more than ready for a night out on Friday. We traveled to an amazing restaurant venue in Old San Juan for our traditional closing night dinner and reception. Between cocktail hour and dinner, our fearless leader, Ed Gribbin borrowed the microphone from the guitar player (our evening's entertainment), to say a few words of thanks to our sponsors, speakers, and attendees, and wrap up a wonderful week of learning and excitement for our membership.

Thank You

The 2023 SPESA Executive Conference would not have been possible without the support of our membership, Board of Directors, and, of course, our Executive Conference sponsors! Please be sure to check out these outstanding companies:

And thank you to all of the speakers, moderators, and attendees who helped make the 2023 SPESA Executive Conference a success!

Looking Forward

We are happy with the way this event turned out, but we are always looking for ways to improve. If you have any constructive feedback from this event or recommendations for future events, please email or

If you are interested in sponsoring a future SPESA event, please email

Following San Juan, we have turned our focus to the quickly-approaching Texprocess Americas 2023. Co-produced by SPESA, the trade show will be in Atlanta May 10-12. This show is a great resource for the sewn products industry in the Western Hemisphere.

After Texprocess Americas, our next event will be the World Fashion Convention in Philadelphia October 22-25, in partnership with the International Apparel Federation. Registration for this event is now open and information is available here.

And, finally, here are a few more resources for anyone who needs them:

We hope to see you all again soon!

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