FesslerUSA faced a crisis a decade ago when offshore sourcing picked up in Mexico and the Caribbean Basin, and major retailers told the company they would no longer buy its traditional American-made knit tops.
Instead of jumping on the global outsourcing bandwagon, however, FesslerUSA decided to figure out a way to continue making products in its five plants in Pennsylvania. The firm determined that the solution was to reinvent itself around a market niche that CEO Walter Meck describes as "small volume, quick turn, high-end and leading edge," with a focus strictly on private label goods.
Easier said than done. But FesslerUSA stayed focused on mastering this complex niche, and has experienced great success at it.
The ultimate juggling act
The family-run company, based in Orwigsburg, PA, typically makes about 75 unique styles each week in order quantities of about 1,000 units. Its average weekly production is 75,000 units, but it has the capacity to make up to 120,000 units per week. Its turnaround time is a speedy four weeks.
What's most challenging is coordinating the production and design needs of about 75 different customers on a weekly basis, says Meck. From season to season, the firm must manage a tremendous variety of requirements, from a customer who wants 200 different styles to another who needs one style in 100 different colors.
But perhaps the bigger feat is meeting the unique needs of each client's design team.
"Some customers give us a great deal of information, such as tech packs and patterns," says Meck. "But others don't want to be bothered. They have an idea, and they give us a photograph, a sample or sketches, and they're counting on us to turn that idea into a garment."
That's why Meck ranks design support services as one of FesslerUSA's three must-have capabilities, along with strong production and fast cycle time.
The firm's design support services department includes multiple design and production teams, which work with its clients. FesslerUSA has invested heavily in solutions on the Gerber Technology platform to help it organize, store, retrieve and adjust design and production data, says Meck, and to "basically service the low-volume market."
The technology has enabled FesslerUSA not only to handle its weekly workflow but also to store more than 10,000 patterns and continually make adjustments to them. "They're filed and organized very efficiently, and every time a different fabric comes in, if the shrink changes, we have to adjust those patterns before we produce them again," says Meck.
Meck, who has his grandfather's diary detailing his purchase of FesslerUSA's first knitting machine in 1900, says he believes the company's investment in technology has been a major competitive advantage."Technology is something that people like to invest in once, but if you're really going to succeed, you need to invest in it continually," says Meck.
The focus on quality, faith and people
While technology has certainly helped FesslerUSA succeed in its quick-turn, small-volume business model, a strong commitment to quality is the biggest differentiator for the company, Meck says.
"We've established a first-class quality system with input from major customers," says Meck. "And the quality of our garments and the fabric we knit in-house is one of the reasons our customers return, time and again."
Besides product, Meck says he believes the cornerstone of FesslerUSA's success stems from investments in its employees. Members of the management team have benefited from courses with Dale Carnegie Training that have enabled them "to think forward instead of just thinking about today or tomorrow," says Meck.
Turnover at its plants has been extremely low because of a positive working environment, including a strong benefits package and a pay-for-performance plan, says Meck, who notes: "We recognize there are ups and downs in the market, and if there are ups, and our employees respond to the upturns, [they] deserve to share in the benefit of that."
Meck also attributes FesslerUSA's success to strong relationships with its suppliers, including Gerber, Buhler Quality Yarns and knitting machinery maker Vanguard Supreme, among others. "When you create partnerships like these, you can react to changes in market conditions quickly," he says.
Finally, FesslerUSA benefits from credibility with customers, not only in providing consistent, high-quality work but also in preserving their trust that it won't share their design ideas with others.
Meck says he believes part of this trust emanates from the faith in God of the firm's founding family. "Customers are stunned when they start working with us, and they find out we're serious in our faith. But it defines us," says Meck. "There are garments we won't produce and screenprints we won't put on shirts. But we have earned the respect of our customers and the trust of our customers for that."