Fessler USA, Made in America Proponent, Closing Down

The family-owned company specialized in better knit tops.

In the end, Fessler USA apparently could no longer swim upstream.

This story first appeared in the November 6, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

For many years, the family-owned state-of-the-art knitwear manufacturer seemed at once a vestige of a bygone era, as imports drove U.S. production jobs offshore, and a symbol of a revival of U.S. apparel manufacturing. Its 155,000-square-foot facility in Orwigsburg, Pa., on rural Route 61, owned by the Meck family, served as a company headquarters, a manufacturing plant, a warehouse distribution site and a hub for shipping goods to satellite sewing factories in the area.

The factory featured a computerized design and patternmaking department, cutting rooms for its array of knit tops and medical and health-care goods made and packaged on site, and a bar-coded inventory control system that integrated functions from shipping and receiving to sales and manufacturing. Last year, the company invested in an array of 160 solar panels that provided the full energy capacity for the plant.

Interviewed last summer at the site, Walter Meck, chief executive officer of the firm, proudly said, “At times, the meter runs backward,” and that leftover power went back into the East Coast grid. Noting that the solar panels were paid for in part by a federal grant in the form of tax credits, Meck said, “We did the solar project to keep jobs in the area, and as a commitment to sustainability.”

His son, Brian Meck, said at the time, “We also did it to remain competitive with foreign manufacturing by keeping costs down in the long term.”

The company is set to wind down operations this month, and Brian Meck, who was vice president of sales and marketing, has already left the company, after seven years. Sources said Fessler couldn’t get a loan needed for continued operations.

David Sasso, vice president of international sales at Buhler Quality Yarns Corp., which counted Fessler as an important customer, said while business is difficult for U.S. manufacturers, he feels it is a case of one company’s problems and is not indicative of the push for Made in USA falling flat.

“Walter had indicated that a big problem was that demand has dropped, and that is true for everyone,” said Sasso. “There’s also a problem that when people hear bad news about a company having problems, and that was the word in the market, then they get nervous and business dries up.”

Sasso also thought that Fessler has tried to “be all things to everybody,” such as spinning yarn and making knit tops at the same time, which he noted can be expensive and require an investment in manpower and equipment.

“I think in the U.S. today, it’s better to be smaller and agile and careful in your growth,” Sasso added.

Fessler employed 130 people directly, and another 150 to 300 indirectly at any given time, including sewing shops in nearby Allentown and Reading, and contracted dyeing and other service jobs in the area. Fessler USA began life in 1900 as Meck & Co., producing cotton underwear at a factory in Schuylkill Haven, about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Meck’s father sold it to the Fessler family in 1960. Meck joined other family members to buy the company back in 1994.