HAVERHILL — Yesterday, more than 300 employees of Southwick Apparel, Haverhill's newest and largest manufacturer, stopped sewing the pieces of fabric they turn into fine men's suits and Navy officer uniforms.
They all wanted to hear what Gov. Deval Patrick had to say when he visited the new facility in the Broadway Business Park to celebrate both the company's 80th anniversary, and a new beginning.
"What a great day," Patrick proclaimed, drawing a standing ovation by a large crowd that included local, state and company officials. "Welcome Southwick to Haverhill."
Less than a year ago the company, then located in Lawrence, was on the verge of closing and having its operations moved overseas. But then it was bought by Retail Brand Alliance, the parent company of Brooks Brothers, to which Southwick has been supplying suits to since 1947.
The governor told the crowd that a concerted effort between the city and the state, along with training grants and tax incentives, made it possible for Southwick to move to Haverhill earlier this year — and into a spacious, modern facility.
He said Southwick's commitment to continue operating in America during these difficult economic times offers "a reason to hope."
"We thank the employees for helping save these jobs," Patrick said. "We would not want to lose this from the Commonwealth or from America."
Patrick said Southwick's investment in Haverhill will provide real and lasting benefits to the regional economy and the state's manufacturing industry.
"Today is a defining moment for all of us," said Southwick Chief Operating Officer Joe Antista. "Generations, all the people that worked here, my parents included ... it was all in danger of slipping into the annals of history."
Antista talked about the bright future Southwick now has, thanks to the vision and commitment of Claudio Del Vecchio, chairman and CEO of Brooks Brothers.
When Del Vecchio approached the stage, it was the moment Italian natives Regina (Mambro) Parisi, a stitcher, and her sister Maria (Mambro) Rodriguez, a hand sewer, had been waiting for. The sisters, both of Methuen, have a combined 62 years working for the company.
"Thanks to him we all have jobs," Rodriguez said of Del Vecchio. "We met him last year when he visited with us in Lawrence. Since then he's shown us nothing but kindness. Plus, we're very proud to be working for an Italian."
Parisi said she won't miss the hot summers working in the Lawrence mill building her company moved out of.
"We love this new building. It has air conditioning," she said. "We never had it before and during the summer it was really hot."
Del Vecchio talked about the parallels between the trying economic times of 1929, when the Grieco brothers launched their clothing business in Lawrence, and Southwick's rebirth in today's difficult economic times.
"From those humble origins Southwick established itself," Del Vecchio said. "In an economic climate not dissimilar to what the Grieco brothers faced years ago. Here in Haverhill we have reinvented the Southwick name."
"Southwick's best days are still to come," he said.
Del Vecchio then turned toward the crowd of workers and thanked them.
"If it wasn't for him, we'd be in the unemployment line," Parisi said moments after Del Vecchio melded into a crowd of workers to chat with them and shake their hands. The governor joined him.
Part of an industry that has all but faded away in America, Southwick completely changed the way it operates in order to compete with overseas companies that pay lower wages. The company's manufacturing machinery is on one spacious floor, which allowed it to streamline its workflow processes, and it invested in $10 million worth of new manufacturing equipment, such as computer operated machines that allow workers to sew a pair of men's pants at a faster rate, with a more consistent outcome, and with less hands-on manipulation of the fabric.
The governor also visited Lawrence yesterday to award Community Development Action Grants totaling $3.5 million in funding for the cities of Lawrence, Fitchburg, Hopkinton, and Lowell.
For Lawrence, more than $1 million will be dedicated to the construction of a two-lane bridge over the North Canal at Union Crossing.
"Today we continue to deliver on our partnership with Lawrence," Patrick said.
According to both Patrick's speech and press releases from his office, the construction will result in 80 to 110 new permanent jobs and 60 new green housing units. The governor's office estimates the project will support $27.4 million in public-private investment.
Patrick also stressed the importance of working with local community groups and businesses for these plans to work.
"At a time like this we must learn to reconnect through community, we must lean on each other," Patrick said. "Good times are coming."
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Address: 20 Computer Drive
Facility: 92,000 square feet
Machinery includes: 525 sewing machines and 58 pressing machines