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Ralph Peters is a regular columnist with the New York Post. Register here for access to the Post's Online Edition.



A Cut Above The Competition

by Ralph Peters [author, novelist] 4/16/07

Different media myths infuriate different people. Personally, I get angry with a certain anchorman's ravings that we can't compete without barricading ourselves in the 19th century.

American business can compete - as long as leaders make the right decisions. The problem is management, not our workers.
Ralph Peters - Contributor
Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications. [go to Peters Index]

That message was driven home to me a few weeks ago, when I went back to Pennsylvania's anthracite country to help raise money for the Boy Scouts and bunked with a high-school classmate, Walter Meck.

No U.S. industry has been as devastated by cut-rate competition from the developing world as textile and garment manufacturing. Yet a small firm back in Schuylkill Country, Pa., exploded the lie that Americans just can't be competitive.

FesslerUSA serviced bulk orders of cut-rate clothes at cut-rate prices for cut-rate stores. It was struggling along, still profitable but doomed. Sooner or later, China, India or Honduras would put hundreds more Americans out of jobs.

Then, in 1994, a visionary came home. Walter Meck's family, seeing the handwriting on the wall, had sold their stake in the company in the 1960s. But a new generation of Mecks risked all they had to buy it back.

After working as a chief financial officer and turnaround specialist in a variety of industries, Walter had become convinced that the problem wasn't American workers, but a management culture resistant to change.

He saw that the prevalent model - trying to compete on price - was wrecking one American industry after another. So the reborn Fess- lerUSA would compete on quality, speed and service.

* In a "dying" industry, Walter and his family invested in state-of-the-art, made-in-America knitting machines and computerized cutting equipment.

* They opted to use made-in-America yarns - which are consistently higher-quality than imported yarns.

* They created an in-house design shop - one floor away from the seamstresses. It's something global competitors treat as a needless luxury - but it allowed Fessler to transcend an old disconnect, where designers didn't understand production challenges and manufacturers lacked follow-up input from designers.

The result: Where traditional textile companies wait for customers to tell them what they want, FesslerUSA could be pro-active - studying customer needs and offering cutting-edge fashions more swiftly than could the overseas competition.

At first, progress was slow - the shift overseas had been shuttering U.S. firms for decades and seemed irresistible. Upscale American chains had to be convinced that they could get what they needed - better and faster - in their own country.

Ultimately, the company won through - by offering clothes that didn't come apart in the washing machine and delivering high style at fair prices.

The firm didn't try to do everything. It concentrated on making its core products better than anyone else - items such as luxury t-shirts and trend-setting knitwear. And its quality control is ferocious.

The result? Today, the company is prized by chains such as Nordstrom's and Urban Outfitters that constantly update their wares, instead of buying bulk loads to last a season. And the quality of the goods produces a high sell-through rate.

FesslerUSA even exports fashions to Europe.

Instead of assuming that the world's a one-size-fits-all place, the design team recognized that European fashion favors elegance and greater "stiffness," while American women want tops that are "softer and more feminine." Revolutionary idea: Give the customer what she wants.

Oh, and a Chinese-owned company turns to FesslerUSA when China can't deliver the goods.

The firm now operates six plants in depressed areas, providing 450 jobs to its direct employees and contractors. As Bonnie Meck, Walter's wife and business partner, puts it, "That means we're feeding 450 American families."

Benefits on offer are well above the industry average and, during a plant tour, I noted that Walter knows every employee's name - the way a military commander would. And he actually listened to what the line-workers had to say, instead of pretending to care.

In the early days of the turnaround, a warehouse worker came in drunk and drove a forklift into a knitting machine. In any other firm, he would've been dead meat. A devout churchgoer, Walter read him the riot act, sent him to rehab and gave him another chance. Today, the man counts as one of the firm's most-dependable employees.

Of course, this home-town-boy-makes-good story wouldn't matter if it didn't tell us a great deal about our industrial base. Walter Meck's model - compete in quality and service, not just in a price race to the bottom - may sound obvious, but it wasn't obvious enough to Detroit automakers who tried to beat Asian rivals on price alone, after Toyota and Honda had shifted their focus to quality.

What applies to the textile industry could apply to everything from consumer electronics to furniture. Even in this age of high-end skills, when so many are willing to write off American blue-collar workers, the real message is that the failure isn't theirs. Complacent management let them down and put them out of their jobs.

As the Army taught me, the best soldiers in the world are worthless unless well-led.

Just as Walter Meck was jumping back into the textile business - and swimming against the global tide - another garment-maker back home in Schuylkill County collapsed. The owner of those mills had decided to work cheaper than the Chinese.

We have to stop competing with labor-degrading firms in the developing world. We need to make them compete with us. Ask Walter Meck. CRO

Ralph Peters' latest book is Never Quit The Fight.

This piece first appeared in the New York Post
copyright 2007 - NY Post

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