When New Era Cap announced in mid-November that it intends to close its Derby plant, the reactions ranged from harsh to heartbroken. Politicians got angry. Some workers cried as they walked to their cars.
But where many saw a tragedy, manufacturers saw an opportunity, to hire workers and grow their businesses. One of those was Will Bargar, CEO of Sewing Technology Inc., a small but fast-growing manufacturing firm in Buffalo.
“I was looking at the silver lining,” he said. “Hopefully we can provide some jobs to some of those folks that will be without a job come March.”
The 219 workers at the Derby plant stitch, pack and ship up to 4.5 million baseball caps every year. But on Nov. 13, they learned that the company plans to close the plant. Those plans were reinforced when they showed up to work Tuesday, to find that New Era’s management posted a notice for employees that the plant is targeted to close between March 15 and 29.
That will be followed Wednesday by a WARN notice that formally announces the company's plans to close the plant. (WARN is the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, which in New York requires employers to give workers a 90-day notification of plant closing or large layoffs.)
For the workers, that means the beginning of a search for a new job. The good news for some is that there is a market for their skills.
Bargar's company cuts and sews fabric for military, aerospace and medical device customers. They make helmet coverings that are worn on the flight decks of aircraft carriers. They construct anti-gravity vests for fighter pilots. They stitch components for life rafts and coverings for prosthetic limbs.
It’s not baseball caps, but it’s sewing. He could step in and help some of those workers. They could help his company, too.
Bargar’s sentiments are shared by many area manufacturers. New Era officials told The Buffalo News this week that approximately two dozen companies have reached out about the possibility of hiring workers. Beginning later this month, the state Department of Labor reached out as well and will be providing a range of job placement services at the plant, including resume writing, workshops on interviewing skills and hosting a job fair with prospective employers in early 2019.
In a statement, New Era acknowledged that the company continues discussions with the Communication Workers of America, which represents 192 of the employees in Derby. While union officials and many others, including several politicians, hoped those talks would result in New Era reconsidering its decision, the closure is near certain. New Era officials, speaking on background this week to the News, reinforced that point.
The decision to close the plant, they said, was driven by a shift in the company’s business model. Once a manufacturer, New Era is now operating as a brand, driven by design and marketing, and with revenues of approximately $750 million. Most of the 65 million pieces of headwear the company produces each year are made overseas by third-party manufacturers. With the closing of the Derby plant, now nearly all of it will be manufactured in other countries.
Their sole exception: New Era's contract with Major League Baseball to be the exclusive provider of on-field headwear requires that players' caps be made in the United States. The manufacture of those caps, which had long been done in Derby, will shift in 2019 to New Era's facility in Miami.
That leaves New Era's plant workers, many of whom have worked there for decades, looking for new work. While it's unclear whether there's enough demand locally for most of the workers to land new positions, there are ample possibilities.
Besides Sewing Technologies, other companies that have reached out to New Era are the dog treat manufacturer Milk-Bone, which has a plant in Buffalo, as well as DiVal Safety Equipment and Buffalo Games.
Terry Galanis Jr., owner of Sealing Devices in Lancaster, told The News his company was the first to reach out to New Era. Sealing Devices, which makes products such as O-rings and gaskets, is looking for press operators, finishers, assemblers and quality inspectors. The company has 16 open positions.
“Our company has experienced exceptional growth this year, especially in the military and aerospace market sectors of our business,” Galanis said in an email to the News. “We expect this growth to continue for a long period of time. We need to strengthen our infrastructure, not only to manage this growth, but also to provide the customer with first-class delivery and technical support.”
Growth in the manufacturing sector is a theme among potential employers who have contacted New Era. A representative from DiVal, which has 300 employees, said the company is looking to fill between 12 and 15 positions that include sewing and screen printing, labor, warehouse work, quality control and supervisory roles.
“We’ve been growing for the last five years — every year we’ve been adding on a couple dozen new employees,” said Beth Mazza, DiVal’s marketing manager. “It’s important in this climate to find good people and keep good people here.”
Buffalo Games CEO Nagendra Raina said in an interview that his company, which makes puzzles and board games and more than $40 million in revenues last year, is "short-staffed" at only 75 employees. The company, he said, has quintupled in size over the past few years, and needs more workers in production, maintenance and mechanics.
"If there is a group of maintenance machinists that would come to our facility today, we would hire every single one," Raina said. "We are certainly short-staffed given the growth at Buffalo Games."
Sewing Technologies is growing too. When Bargar purchased the company in July 2015, it had 12 employees. Today, he has 32. Bargar told the News that Sewing Technologies revenues “have increased in proportion to our workforce,” and he’s hoping to continue growing at a steady rate of 20 percent annually.
So far, Bargar has found the Buffalo area to be rich in workers with sewing ability. Some of them, he said, are people who have come here from abroad and developed a sewing skill in their home countries. That diversity is reflected in Sewing Technology’s workforce: Barger said six languages are spoken on his shop floor.
“They used to sew in their home country, so they already have a lot of the skill sets that we would need,” Bargar said. “Even if language might be a barrier for them in other jobs, their sewing ability makes them a really good fit for working here.”
Bargar is looking to hire between 10 and 15 people in the next two to eight months, and he’s looking for workers with experience in industrial sewing, product inspection and those with supervisory experience, among other areas. Some of those will likely come from New Era, which also has a diverse employee base with specialized and valuable sewing skills.
“Some of our customers will say, ‘Wow, you get people in, and you don’t have to teach them how to sew? That’s amazing. You’re so lucky to have that,’ ” Bargar said. “And we are.”