A seamless commitment Clothier: Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. is a industry throwback, continuing to make its own clothes and staying in Baltimore to help stem corporate flight.

March 30, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

If he was keeping up with industry trends, Timothy Finley would have done the sensible thing.

He would have closed the old Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. sewing factory on North Avenue next year when his workers' union contract expired, sending 409 employees packing, and turned to the Caribbean or Mexico to make 200,000 pairs of pants and 124,000 coats.

After all, the nation has lost half its apparel manufacturing jobs -- from 1.5 million in the 1970s to 822,000 today -- to foreign manufacturers as retailers searched for cheap labor, where theoretically one can save about $15 on every pair of pants or jacket.

And the trend is for businesses to move out of Baltimore. About 60,000 jobs were lost in the last decade as one company after another relocated, was acquired or closed.

Most of all, closing the plant would have saved the company at least $1 million a year, helped shareholders and increased profits.

But he didn't.

Last month, Finley promised to keep the factory open at least until the end of the century and signed a contract with Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees guaranteeing the workers their jobs.

Why?

"This was not a dollar and cents decision. It is a good labor force," Finley said.

Plus, he added, Baltimore couldn't afford to lose that many jobs. "The population has been good to us," Finley said.

At a time when even profitable companies often cut their work forces to make the bottom line better, Finley decided that as long as the company was healthy and the factory efficient, he would keep it open.

It's not that Finley is an executive afraid to lay off workers -- he's done it in the past as a fix-it man for failing companies -- and he would do it again if that's what it took to assure the survivability of Jos. Bank.

But Finley has just engineered a second turnaround for the clothier, taking the company from a loss of $13.2 million in 1995 to $300,000 in earnings last year.

And the sewing factory, along with the company's cutting factory off Reisterstown Road, provides Bank with manufacturing flexibility. If a particular type of clothing is selling well, Bank can respond quickly and deliver it to its retail stores faster than if the clothes were made overseas by a contractor. Keeping manufacturing at home also insulates the company from any changes in the value of the dollar, he said.

Workers at the factory, of course, have greeted his decision with joy.

"I was really concerned then. [Now] we feel a lot more positive," said Theresa Watson, 55, a vice president of the shop.

"I am surprised they guaranteed a three-year contract. They were very happy," said Carmen Papale, regional manager of UNITE. Bank, based in Hampstead, didn't make a big to-do about the decision; it simply announced that it had signed a new contract with its union.

These are not high-profile, high-paying jobs. The employees are paid by the piece, with the average worker earning about $8 an hour, plus pension and health benefits. The most skilled can make as much as $12 an hour.

But the factories are a vestige of the once large and profitable apparel industry that used to be in Baltimore and across the nation.

With the two factories, Bank is the last men's tailored clothing retailer in the nation that still manufactures its own clothing. "They are absolutely unique in the United States," said Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Lord West, the formal wear manufacturer, and chairman of the Clothing Manufacturers of America.

Industry of independents

Most retailers have their clothing made by independent contractors. In some cases, they buy the material from a textile factory -- often in the southern United States -- and then have it shipped to the Caribbean, where it is made into an article of clothing and shipped back to the United States for sale. But Bank makes 40 percent of its own clothing in Baltimore, cutting the fabric at the Reisterstown Road plant and then sewing the pieces together at the facility on North Avenue.

It also sells the clothing only in its own stores. "It's very unusual. They are still a true haberdashery," said Alison Wolf, spokeswoman for the American Apparel Manufacturers Association.

Bank's four-story brick building on North Avenue is nearly all that remains of a burgeoning garment industry in Baltimore that represented one quarter of all industrial jobs in the city in the 1920s. Names like J. Schoeneman, L. Greif & Bros. and Henry Sonneborn were hung on warehouse buildings between Greene Street and Howard streets.

Bank moved its factories around the downtown area -- from Fayette Street to the Candler Building on Marketplace to its present address -- always trying to escape high rents, said Alessio Mattucci, who made the moves as he made his way up the ladder. The Italian immigrant came to the United States in the 1950s with a skill in tailoring. He joined Bank in 1959, grew up in the business and now directs Bank's design.

Seven hundred coats are produced on North Avenue each day, but they can do more if needed.

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