Believe it or not, but there’s a new textile plant in Tylertown making shirts sold throughout the nation. Its existence sheds light on our ever changing economy and how the entrepreneurial spirit is a key to success.
Tylertown, and many other small Mississippi towns, used to have a vibrant stich-and-sew industry, employing tens of thousands.
Then NAFTA came and those jobs moved quickly to Mexico, then China, as price pressure forced manufacturers to seek the lowest possible labor costs. The industry was quickly wiped out.
But that was then and this is now. Labor costs have risen rapidly in Mexico, China and most other developing nations. Picky consumers are demanding more customization and quicker delivery. These trends are making it less advantageous to manufacture halfway around the world. And so we have a new factory in Tylertown called Factory on Main.
The individual in this story is Nathan Pearce, a graduate of Millsaps who embodies the entrepreneurial spirit.
While at Millsaps in 2012, Pearce came up with an idea: Two-toned shirts with a pocket the color of your favorite football team. A fad was born. College students throughout the nation, and especially in the SEC, wanted this cool shirt for game day.
“Nobody else was doing it. We were in the right place at the right time. It exploded,” Pearce told me in a telephone interview.
Using social media when it was still cheap, the orders came in so fast they couldn’t keep up. There was no time to ship from China. In addition, each shirt had to have a different colored pocket. With hundreds of variations, they couldn’t risk communication problems that came with overseas production.
“Because we had so many combinations, the only way to make it work and ship on time was a just-in-time inventory system. You’re waiting months from China. It’s a month for production and a month to ship it over here.”
On the 90th page of a Google search, Pearce found a 1995 article about a plant in Tylertown that was making government postal service uniforms. Running out of time, he hopped in his car and went down to check them out, not even knowing if the plant was still open.
“Most of the textile manufacturing had dried up and we were shocked to find a plant still in operation.”
He found cars in the parking lot and walked in and asked to talk to the plant manager.
“I had a shirt and a pocket in my hand. I asked if he could sew this on and he laughed and said, ‘I could do that in my sleep.’ I said, ‘Good because we have thousands of orders and they need to ship quickly.’ ”
Within a few days, the shirts were being produced and orders were being filled. Just like that, Nathan Pearce was a stitch-and-sew entrepreneur.
It wasn’t as easy as the plant manager first thought. “It’s easy for a factory to sew 50,000 white postal uniforms over and over again. What’s not easy is having these little pockets that go on different shirt sizes with 45 colors and hundreds of pockets to choose from. You’re talking millions of skews.”
And millions of dollars.
As the orders mushroomed with Christmas around the corner, it was elation followed by panic. “It was a nightmare. We literally built a system from scratch so that we could organize the orders as they came in, as they were manufactured and as they were shipped out. It was do or die. I guess you could credit that back to Millsaps.”
Pearce’s success with local manufacturing got the attention of the big shirt brands. They started calling him asking how they could manufacture in the USA. Pearce decided to start his own plant.
South Mississippi was perfect. There were still thousands of skilled workers who knew the stitch-and-sew industry. Most had all moved on to other jobs, but many were still there.
“We hire plant managers, mechanics and sewing machine operators and put them back to work.”
Getting the equipment was a challenge. Most of the equipment had long been sold to other countries. The companies who maintained the textile machines were gone. More modern equipment took intensive training and could be complex.
“Apparel manufacturing literally died in the USA. And when it died all the support services died. We are a generation behind on sewing machine equipment in the USA.
“We are doing the most difficult cut-and-sew apparel work you can imagine. We’re making dress shirts. There are tons of pieces of equipment you have to have to make a good quality dress shirt. There’s less than seven dress shirt manufacturing companies left in the country and we have one of them in south Mississippi.”
So why are shirt companies using Factory on Main instead of China?
“The real reason they are switching is the quicker turnaround time,” Pearce told me. “They can check on us at any time. They can fly in and come to the building. If you have a factory in China and they screw you, how do you hold them accountable? You can’t sue them. You don’t even know who’s making them. Yes, it might be a little more expensive here but at the end of the day, those trade-offs, the risk factors, it’s worth it for them.”
Tackling one problem at a time, Pearce’s company has grown, outgrowing two previous buildings. Now they have 70 employees and are growing rapidly.
Factory on Main shows that you can’t ever predict industry trends. Just when an industry seems dead, unique factors can lead to its revival. Our economic system is incredibly complex, involving thousands of interacting variables that are constantly changing.
One thing that won’t ever change: The need for visionary entrepreneurs willing to take a risk to make things happen. Without them, we are nowhere.
Not all entrepreneurs are as fortunate as Nathan Pearce. Most start-ups fail. But without start-ups, nothing will progress. We need a culture and society that encourages initiative. That means we should not look negatively on the entrepreneurs that fail, but instead praise them for being in the arena and encourage them to keep trying.
Wyatt Emmerich is publisher of the Northside Sun in Jackson and owner of Emmerich Newspapers.