Walter Meck had no sooner sat down in his chair as CEO at FesslerUSA in 1994 than he was forced to reinvent the Orwigsburg, Schuylkill County, apparel manufacturing company his grandfather had founded in 1900.
The North American Free Trade Agreement had just gone into effect, Mr. Meck had to restructure FesslerUSA from the ground up — all while maintaining the family’s commitment to its American-made products.
When NAFTA was approved, garment companies started going out of business, Mr. Meck said. “We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to stay in business? How could we change to keep us successful?’” he said. “We had to completely change how we did business.”
“We had never before offered design services,” Mr. Meck said. “Our customers come to us with a design in mind. We try to bring their designs to life. In this market, we are not competing for price; we are competing for value.”
Now, the company specializes in custom-made, high-end clothing with a “Made in the USA” label inside it, as well as a number of other, well-known labels. Fessler-USA has 275 employees and annual sales of $25 million. With sewing facilities also in Reading, Berks County, and Emmaus, Lehigh County, the company produces 4 million T-shirts every year.
Business has been so strong, the company is moving gradually into the 130,000-square-foot former Dixon Ticonderoga pencil plant on Route 61 in Schuylkill Haven. FesslerUSA now operates on four floors of the Independence Street building, which it plans to vacate by next summer.
NAFTA was just one of several challenges the company had to overcome in its long history — a history that includes surviving two world wars, the Depression and two recessions. “We have survived because we have identified a niche market,” Mr. Meck said. “Also, we are willing to do smaller (merchandise) lots. And we offer flexibility in fabrics and styling.”
FesslerUSA weaves its own fabric from cotton that comes from California and Georgia. The cotton is made into yarn, sometimes bleached and dyed, and then sent to FesslerUSA, where computers cut the fabric. It is then sew it into finished products: knitwear and fabrics.
“Fessler employs five of the best and brightest designers in the country,” Mr. Meck said. “Big designers in the city want designers with experience. So we offer them a place to get experience and then try to convince them to stay.”
Designer Ashley Haak, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Moore College of Design, has been with FesslerUSA for six months. “I’m learning all the aspects of the company,” she said. “Because of its size, it is more intimate. I like working with the customer.”
One of the designers who has stayed on with the company is Holly Carnes, a native of Bangor, Northampton County, who has been with the company for more than eight years since her graduation from Bradley Academy of Visual Arts in York.
“I get to work one-on-one with the customer,” she said. “The biggest satisfaction I get is when I open a catalog and see my work. I can tell it’s mine because the fabric catches my eye.”
If a customer wants a design on their clothing, they go to Marilyn Lehman, Fessler’s artist, who decides how to place it on the clothing.
“To get employees involved, we practice lean manufacturing,” Mr. Meck explained. “Instead of the old-fashioned sewing floor, they are divided into teams. They negotiate among themselves who is the fastest and the best to do a particular job.” Team members pick a name for their team — like the Magnificent Seven or the Dream Team — and collaborate closely to find the best way to complete an assignment.
“We each do something different,” said employee Emmaline Sickinger of Orwigsburg. “That way, the work gets done faster.”
Even Elaine Reichert, the company’s longest-term employee who has been with them for 55 years, likes the team concept. “The teams seem to be working out well,” she said. “We have a better idea of what we have to do, instead of waiting for the forelady (boss) to give it (the work) to you.”
All of the sewing machines are equipped with a vacuum, which collects the scraps that are then recycled so there is no waste.
FesslerUSA is a family-oriented company, said Mr. Meck. His wife Bonnie, who like Mr. Meck is a certified public accountant, is the chief financial officer, chief sustainability officer for recycling and corporate controller. The Meck’s son Brian is vice president of sales and marketing and holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and marketing from Kutztown University.
FesslerUSA has a deep-rooted family history, he said. Mr. Meck purchased the company from its former owner, Robert Fessler, whose father Henry had purchased the company from Charles Meck — Mr. Meck’s father — in 1960.
“The most important ingredient of our success is the employees’ attitudes,” Mr. Meck said. “They have taken ownership of their work. We regard our employees, customers and suppliers as being equally important.”
Read more about FesslerUSA’s story at The Times Tribune.