DEKALB COUNTY – When Dean Wegner first acquired Smithville’s Omega Apparel in 2012, he knew the company – a maker of military uniforms and one of the last-standing apparel manufacturers in the Upper Cumberland – would have to become more diverse.
It just happened a little sooner than he’d planned.
In 2014, Omega was humming. Wegner had north of 200 employees at the company’s production facility on South Mountain Street, and the business was considered the No. 1 supplier of dress trousers, slacks and skirts for the U.S. military. But a cutback in its contracts forced him to cut nearly 40 percent of his workforce that year. And forced the change he had long been thinking about making.
“One of the very first things I said (in 2012) was that we needed to diversify,” said Wegner, himself an Army veteran. “Having all my eggs in one basket as a business owner made me very nervous. To lose over 100 jobs was very painful and probably my worst nightmare. We had to reinvent ourselves.”
And so Omega has. It’s added a production line and has invested in technology (it now has a screen printer, laser cutter, and embroidery capabilities, for example). In September, there was the debut of a sewing academy – the result of a collaboration with Catholic Charities of Tennessee and a new nonprofit, the Nashville Fashion Alliance in East Nashville. Omega is expanding into that market and has opened a new factory this year.
“There’s a whole creative, entrepreneurial community in Nashville, 150-200 designers, and right now they have very few options as far as where they can go to produce,” Wegner said. “So now we’re giving them a viable option to do that. Now, we have customers who come to us with nothing more than a sketch. And we can take that customer from a sketch and help them develop patterns, we can do material sourcing, purchasing, everything, all the way through full production and fulfillment. It’s more of a full-service model.”
Omega now has four divisions. Besides military, Omega too can handle custom, one-of-a-kind projects, like custom dresses, suits, costumes, alterations. There’s commercial, where Omega is working to produce other people’s brands. And then there’s plans for its own brand, which, logically, will be military inspired. Not only will the new Nashville space host production, but a retail store and custom showroom.
Smithville isn’t going away. It, in fact, will be made stronger by the move, he said.
“A year and a half ago, if we lost a contract with the military, we would have to lay off 30-40 people,” Wegner said. “At some point, we’re going to lose a customer, but now, through diversification, it won’t mean widespread layoffs, because we’ve got so many others that can help keep us afloat. We will be a much more solid, stable company.
“It’s quite a bit different from what we used to be,” Wegner added. “I tell everybody that we’re a 20-year-old startup. We’ve got an entire new business model and strategy and whole new business proposition for our customers.”
Today, Smithville is nearing the 200-employee mark. Its capacity will probably top off around 250, Wegner said. In Nashville, he doesn’t hesitate to say they’ll add 1,000 jobs over the next five years. And really, never has the market been more ripe.
As recently as two decades ago, 50 percent of the apparel in the U.S. was produced in the U.S. Now that number is just 2.5 percent. But production is moving back. Wages continue to rise overseas. Customers are demanding higher quality. And 90- to 120-day supply chains are no longer tolerable.
“Now, more than any other time, there’s an interest across the board to bring production back to the U.S. We’re positioning ourselves to be able to do that,” Wegner said. “It’s really exciting where we’re going. This is not just a story about Omega, it’s a story about where our entire industry is going – or can go – if we do it right.”