Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ice cream and Ed

I never would have guessed ice cream would work its way into one of our blog posts, not that I'm complaining. But this day tasted better than ice cream. Better than ice cream with sprinkles on top.

I'm in Raleigh, North Carolina with Sandy Martin (founder of our partner Green 3 Apparel) to visit the facilities that produce our organic US-made tees. I met so many workers like these today, each one with a different story of how they came to work for Ed. Their sincere smiles were contagious.
Too many stories to tell in one post. I want to focus on one today. The story of a man who has gone against the proverbial grain. A man who boldly and confidently marched against every awful trend in American manufacturing, and succeeded.

Born in upstate New York, Ed worked for a large apparel manufacturer for nearly two decades in the 1960's and 1970's. This was a time when brand names owned their own factories, much of them in the Northeast and the Carolinas. A time when t-shirts weren't considered one-season disposables. Ed made quite a name for himself as head of operations. But something gnawed at him the higher up the ladder he moved. He had always believed companies viewed workers as assets. But over time, Ed thought more and more companies, including his own, viewed them as liabilities, something to minimize. In 1984 he watched the movie Wall Street. It hit home for him. The movie memorably exposed a "greed is good" mantra (stock prices go up when companies lay off workers) and and Ed decided then and there he wanted no part of it.
In 1984, apparel factories in North Carolina were leaving in droves, but, at 40, Ed decided to do something about it, starting his own clothing factory in tiny Wendell, North Carolina. He was called crazy (his wife supported his decision but thought it might be related to a mid-life crisis). Today his company is thriving...one of the very few success stories in US apparel manufacturing we've found.

How? The question was burning up my notebook from the moment I started listening to Ed talk. But the answer would have to wait. It was time for us to visit his other plant in nearby Middlesex that does all of the fabric cutting. (And when Ed heard we were taking pictures, he said he wanted to stop home to get a tie, southern gentleman he.) He asked if I wanted to accompany him on the drive so he could continue his story. After some back and forth with office staff, he said we were taking the company's delivery truck (the truck they use to deliver fabric from facility to facility). It's not an 18-wheeler, but it's quite a bit bigger than your standard U-haul. Yep, Ed drove the truck. I also helped him load a gurney full of what I assumed were supplies into the back of the truck.

So there I was driving along the beautiful green North Carolina countryside with the president of the company in the driver's seat, operating a stick shift as big as a baseball bat. I commented "wow, you drive the truck in addition to your presidential responsibilities?" He said it only made sense.  We and the fabric had to get to the other plant at the same time so we may as well take the truck and save a little gasoline. I'll get to the rest of his story soon.

It was time to unload the gurney from the truck. I watched with awe and, I'll admit, a lump in my throat as Ed wheeled the gurney of supplies through the factory. Along the way, lots of smiles, waves, and "Hi Ed!"s. This was decidedly not a "boss is here, look busy" kind of place.
And what was in the gurney? Ice cream! Ed decided since it was so hot outside, it was a good day for ice cream. Shortly after we arrived, the lunch hour bell rang and Ed played the leading role of head scoopsman.
By that time I had heard Ed's story in the truck, so the ice cream was no surprise. Ed, with a twinkle in his eye (I swear, I saw it), told me his secrets. First, a solid business plan. Second, no corporate overhead staff (everyone is productive). Finally, a modest salary for himself. He actually told me what he pays himself each week.  I won't report it here, but it almost made me blush. "There's no reason I need to make 100 times what my people make." That was it. A good business plan and upper management that doesn't demand outrageous compensation. When I dug a bit deeper on what makes a good business plan, he could only respond "put your ducks in a row." Ed is a capitalist, not a charity. But his flavor of capitalism seems to be in as short supply as strawberry ice cream on a scorching day.

Not only does Ed's model work on the basic stuff. He can also afford to provide an amazing benefit to his employees that few Fortune 500 companies even do. If an employee's child is accepted into one of the four nearby state universities, the company will pay 100% of tuition and books expense. "The only hope these kids have around here is getting an education. So many in this area can't afford it." He added, "when I lay in bed at night, this is what makes me think I've done something good today."

With 350 workers today, close to a new high, Ed's made a big difference in a small town and once again proven that going against the grain can not only feel good, it can be good for business too. We are honored to be associated with such a visionary. Thank you Sandy for introducing us to Ed and thank you Ed for your determination to make a difference. Onward!