Innovative Ganz makes Lion world's No. 1 emblem maker

August 19, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

IF IT ISN'T blood running through Susan Ganz's veins, it must be thread - blue thread.

Ganz's life for nearly two decades has been woven tightly to a century-old textile business that by all rights should have died long ago.

The business is an anachronism, a manufacturer in Owings Mills that operates in a squat, gray 1950-ish building next to a Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

"I fell in love with it," said Ganz, the chief executive of Lion Brothers Co.

Oddly, this dowdy, 106-year-old company with 640 employees is responsible for keeping alive the images of some of the world's coolest, hippest and best-known brands.

Lion makes emblems and patches - not cheesy iron-ons for torn jeans or worn-out elbows but elaborate creations that give shirts, hats, jackets and uniforms that sense of, well, cool.

It makes the Nike "swoosh," the Champion "C" and the white and red Tommy Hilfiger logo. It makes patches for the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Harley-Davidson, Corona and Miller.

Major League Baseball buys patches from Lion; so do the NHL, NFL and Olympic teams. It has even made patches for the astronauts who traveled into space on Apollo missions.

"Not everybody can say their stuff has gone up in space or on the field or on the ice," Ganz said.

Lion wouldn't be around if it weren't for Ganz, a 45-year-old mother of three who likes to get out on the factory floor. It would have been sold or died years ago, ravaged by imports.

But Ganz, who has run the company since she was 28, has kept Lion the world's leading emblem maker.

"She is just one tough lady who is very innovative," said Aris Melissaratos, the state's secretary of business and economic development. "She is just a great thinker."

"I think she has done a great job," said Margo Lion, producer of the Broadway version of Hairspray, whose family founded Lion Brothers and later sold it. "I think my father would be tickled pink to find a woman running it."

He'd probably be impressed, too.

Over the years, she has pumped money into high-speed equipment to make patches faster and more cheaply, pushed to come out with new products, such as emblems for athletic wear that stretch and breathe or are intricately designed by lasers, and upgraded the company's Chinese plant in Shenzhen.

Like many manufacturers, she has cut costs by using cheaper labor overseas. Lion employs 140 people in Owings Mills and 500 in other countries, including China.

She has gone outside the industry to hire talent to improve Lion's manufacturing, marketing and design.

"If you don't think that way you are going to die," said Bill Bensel, director of engineering, who joined the company two years ago from Carrier, the air conditioning and heating company. "The reason it [Lion] is still here is Suzy's dedication to this business."

The sprawling factory in Owings Mills is a hive of activity.

A line of embroidering machines pounds away like machine guns with rapid-fire thump-thump-thumps pumping out orange thread to make the image of dozens of Maryland crabs come alive on Scout patches.

Nearby, a group of women - middle-aged and older - work quickly over whirring high-speed sewing machines. They take patches from a pile at their workstation and stitch the edges to make them smooth.

Another woman operates a hydraulic press that cuts shapes out of fabric for patches with a loud clunk.

You'd think the Lion Brothers name would be as big as Nike's since it works with so many large companies, but it isn't. "We create the brand and yet we are the last people to be thought of," Ganz said.

Brothers Albert Lion Sr. and Ben Lion started the company in 1899. They passed the business down to Albert Lion Sr.'s son, Albert Lion, who expanded it. But he and his wife were killed in a plane crash in Egypt in 1963.

Albert Lion's daughters inherited the business and sold it. (One Lion daughter, Patricia, who died in 2000, was married to Buzzy Krongard, the larger-than-life executive who ran Alex. Brown and was a top CIA official.)

The business was sold a second time in the late 1970s to a group of investors that included Ganz's father. He died in 1987, while she was working on a master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Ganz, who worked on Wall Street as an equities trader, was picked by her family to see if the company was worth salvaging.

After a full day's work, she would head to the factory floor to learn how to run the looms. She discovered that the top two executives bickered with each other and didn't think through plans to enter new markets. It was losing touch with customers and had piled up debt.

In customer service, where she sat at a metal desk in a closet, conversations bounced off the linoleum floors and she heard employees grouse about their jobs.

"You could hear everything," Ganz said. "You could hear the dissension. It was a nice business. It needed a lot of attention."

She has given Lion that attention. One day she may pass the company down to her children, but Ganz wants it to be their decision.

"It really does get into your blood," she said. "It is wonderful when you see people wearing your product."

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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