The graveyard of American businesses is receiving another occupant. Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania-based apparel manufacturer FesslerUSA, over 100 years old, is closing its doors. The company, founded in 1900, began by producing cotton underwear, and most recently has marketed private-label fashion knitwear. Its all-American approach to business reflected the values and ingenuity that made American capitalism thrive.
Third-generation owner Walter Meck and other family members bought the company back from the Fessler family after Meck's father had sold it in 1960. After the advent of “free trade” and NAFTA had claimed its three biggest customers, the company shifted from high-volume mass-market apparel to higher-end products made with more expensive fabrics produced quickly in small quantities. The company adopted a policy of offering organic cotton, and fabrics made from bamboo.
FesslerUSA thrived. So much so that five years ago the company doubled its capacity and moved into a new factory. But it finally fell victim to the Great Recession with its tighter credit standards, Asian competition, and weak consumer spending.
The Detroit News, itself a part of a dying industry (the printed newspaper), quoted Meck as observing, "We knew that it was change or die. We had to reinvent ourselves."
So reinvent they did. Meck laid off half his workforce and maintained a leaner, more profitable company until 2010, when sales again plummeted. New markets and new product proposals were promising, but not in time to avoid the bank calling the company’s loan.
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Photo of FesslerUSA CEO Walter Meck standing in front of idle sewing equipment at the Orwigsburg, Pa., plant: AP Images