Tom Auer strives to put Bearse USA—and the U.S. sewing industry—on a firm foundation.
by Jill C. Lafferty
I believe in the philosophy of partnership with my customers,” says Tom Auer, president of Bearse USA, a Chicago., Ill.-based contract sewer of bags and other non-apparel items. “I think that their success is what we should be focused on all the time. It’s a relationship business. If there is ever an issue with a product we’ve delivered, I want to be sure they know we will own it and correct it. That pays off long term.”
Founded by Auer’s grandfather in 1921, Bearse USA specialized through most of its history on manufacturing soft goods for commercial customers. This included bags and cases for products sold by major brands such as Black & Decker and Porter-Cable®. But when those brands moved the manufacturing of their own products to Asia in the 1990s, the work of manufacturing the bags for those products followed. Auer joined the company in the late 1990s, after getting a college degree in computers and working for the Ford Motor Co. He wasn’t pressured to join the family business, he says, but he felt a strong pull to step in and contribute the skills he gained outside the company at a point when Bearse USA needed help.
“We lost a lot of business really quick,” he says. “It was a stressful time for us. But we had to take on that challenge, and we’ve been able to turn it around.”
The turnaround came by finding new customers who either “desired or required” a product with a “Made in the USA” label, he adds, particularly military and law enforcement agencies that are required to purchase products that comply with the Berry Amendment. Today, Bearse USA is known for producing premium tactical gear, although you won’t find products with a Bearse label on the market.
“The niche where we are most successful is focusing on a subcontractor role,” Auer says. “We’ve been more successful working with companies that design and sell solutions to [military and law enforcement] entities. We step in when it’s time to manufacture the product in volume. There are a lot of opportunities partnering with companies that sell security products that require a bag or a case. Government and law enforcement don’t want to go out and buy from five different vendors to piece together the kit. Those tend to be good opportunities for partnership for us.”
With a new customer base, Bearse USA faced another challenge: finding enough sewers. The lack of experienced sewers available in Chicago began to hold the company back.
“I was out there constantly trying to sell, sell, sell, and we were bumping up into capacity problems in that we couldn’t take on things that we wanted to,” Auer says. “You can’t tell a customer, ‘Well, wait six months and we’ll be ready.’ We had to find an answer to that.”
After some research, Auer made connections in Puerto Rico, leased a facility in 2016 and purchased equipment. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, products manufactured there are Berry compliant, and the island is home to a labor force that includes skilled sewers. Bearse USA now employs about 100 people in Chicago and about 50 in Mayagüez, P.R.
“We were able to get up and running right before Hurricane Maria,” he says. “We made it through the hurricane probably better than most, in that we did not sustain any damage to our building or equipment, which we truly felt blessed about. The major problem for everyone on the island was that we were out of power for approximately 12 to 14 weeks, so we were not able to run an operation during that time. We have since purchased a generator that will run our facility in case the power goes out.
“It was a little bit of a rough start, but we’ve been around for 97 years,” he continues. “It’s just a blip in our history.”
On the floor
Auer credits the company’s success with its longevity and financial stability, which has allowed it to make significant investments into automated cutting machines and other equipment to maintain high sewing standards, productivity and profitability.
“We’ve invested a lot in our software so that we track everything that we do,” he says. “For every product that goes out the door, we know who made it, when they made it, how they made it and how efficiently they made it. If we run an order for 500 pieces, we know exactly how we did. We know exactly what the profit margin is because we go through a very tedious process of tracking our labor efficiency. I know what our most profitable product is, and I know what our least profitable product is. We’re always able to react to that information, and that helps keep us profitable while doing the things we do well.”
Auer’s day-to-day activity revolves around business development and customer support, attending trade shows and keeping tabs on status reports. He’s also known for the time he spends on the production floor, checking progress and communicating details about a customer’s needs on a custom product.
“As a small business owner, I believe you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves in whatever area needs focus,” he says. “One thing I try my best to do is to make sure our employees have all the right resources to do their jobs well. I don’t want them to feel like they can’t do their jobs because they are waiting for a decision from me or haven’t been provided the right tools.”
While the Puerto Rico facility has helped meet the company’s labor needs, Auer is taking steps to support workforce development within Bearse USA and the industry as a whole. The company offers in-house training for individuals who express a desire to learn how to sew. It takes patience, he says, and some people find that they are not cut out for the physical work of sitting at a sewing machine 40 hours a week. Those who do take to it will still require months to become proficient.
“Right now, as people in the sewing business, we’ve got our arms wide open trying to welcome people in,” he says. “We’re going to do our best to help them be successful. If they can make it through the first year, they tend to stay for a long time.”
An incentive-based system of compensation also helps to attract and retain employees. “We do a company profit share with our folks on a quarterly basis,” he says. “It gets everyone on the same page. I want everyone from top to bottom to know how we are doing. I think that helps a lot when people have buy-in to our results at all levels of the company.”
Auer mentors students through an entrepreneur class at a local high school, introducing the possibilities offered by small businesses, especially for kids who don’t fit into traditional academic tracks. Finally, as a board member of IFAI’s Makers Division, Auer is working with others to reestablish a strong sewing industry in the United States.
“It’s important for all of us to give back and to spread the knowledge of sewing so that we can be a robust solution for the military and other companies looking for a ‘Made in the USA’ product,” he says. “There’s a lot of frustration. Some of the companies can’t find people to help them—there’s not enough talent to make the technical backpack they want; they can’t find the fabric that they can easily source in China and Taiwan. I’m trying to utilize my IFAI membership and the Makers Division to get out the word that sewing is back.”
Jill C. Lafferty is associate editor of Specialty Fabrics Review and senior editor of InTents.
Sidebar: Brand partners
When outdoor recreational gear company The North Face® decided to bring back some of its original products for its 50th anniversary in 2016, it went looking for a U.S.-based manufacturer that mirrored the spirit of its own original production workshop. In Bearse USA, The North Face found a company that “embodies that same spirit of craftsmanship and homegrown ingenuity. As a family-run business that got its start making newspaper delivery bags before the First World War, these guys know a thing or two about making sturdy packs,” says a North Face press release.
For the anniversary, Bearse USA manufactured two different waxed canvas and leather duffle bags and The North Face’s original teardrop-shaped Day Pack, the only “Made in the USA” bags the company was selling at the time.
“For a big company like that to pick us and be happy with our work—it was a really big deal for our company,” says Bearse USA president Tom Auer.
It’s also one that Auer hopes to replicate. After attending the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market Show in Denver, Colo., this year, Auer believes that companies like his have an opportunity to bring some manufacturing back to the U.S. for the outdoor gear market. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had any luck talking about even the possibility of supporting some of these companies,” he says. “We may not be able to support 100 percent of their manufacturing needs, but we can often identify some ‘Made in the USA’ options that make sense for them. There are consumers who are looking for ‘Made in the USA’ and appreciate companies that support American workers. It’s really exciting for us as a business to potentially partner with strong, well-known brands.”
What is your biggest business strength?
I often tell customers that the ownership of the business is in its third generation. But our production management is third generation as well. The Ackerley family has been with us for three generations. Bill Ackerley, who is my colleague, is about the same age as me. He took over the job from his dad, who worked with my dad, and his grandfather worked with my grandfather. There’s a lot of tribal knowledge in sewing. If you want to get really good at sewing, there’s no getting around actually doing the work. The uniqueness of our company today is that we have all this experience and knowledge, and it allows us to run a productive and efficient operation because we’ve learned so many lessons from the past.