published Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Hardwick turnaround begins with new CEO, millions in investments, Chicago design guru

Mechanic Jimmy Dunn works on a broken sewing machine at Cleveland, Tenn.-based Hardwick Clothes.
Mechanic Jimmy Dunn works on a broken sewing machine at Cleveland, Tenn.-based Hardwick Clothes.
Photo by Ellis Smith.

Hundreds of fast fingers flew across strips of navy blue fabric, navigating the seams and stitches as Singer sewing machines pounded tirelessly through reams of cloth.

Nearby, steam rose from a row of presses, where dozens of workers finish each handmade jacket with a a hot iron before moving on to the next one.

Such a scene on the factory floor of Cleveland, Tenn.-based Hardwick Clothes, which months ago teetered on the brink of insolvency with creditors lining up and customers melting away, would have been relegated to the history books had a buyer not stepped up to buy the floundering suit maker.

But Cleveland businessman Allan Jones, who gained fame and access to cash through his nationwide chain of payday loan businesses, bailed out the 250-worker company with a $1.9 million buyout this year, and on Monday installed a new CEO and chief designer to turn Hardwick around.

"We're going to make the best blazer in the world," Jones declared, himself wearing a Hardwick blazer. "I think you're seeing the pendulum swinging back to American-made, and we're going to capitalize on that."

He would have said more, but the millionaire was besieged on all sides by vendors, workers and politicians who wanted to shake his hand, clasp his shoulder or hug him close at an event held on Monday to celebrate Hardwick's rebirth.

Hands characteristically crossed across his chest, Jones made time for every well-wisher from the close-knit Cleveland community, in which Hardwick has played a major role since 1880.

"We cannot compete on cheap suits," Jones said later. "Right now, we've got to work on sales, but before we work on sales we've got to work on the product, especially styling and material."

For that, Jones hired two of the top guns from Hart Schaffner Marx, a made-in-American clothier based in Chicago.

Bruce Bellusci, former executive vice president of Hart Schaffner Marx, will take over as president and CEO of Hardwick, while Jeffery Diduch will take over as chief creative officer at Hardwick, a position he also held at Hart Schaffner.

Though both recently began work, they've got big plans for Hardwick, which they plan to position as a strong contender in high-end clothes, using its heritage as a southern suit maker to power its growth.

"If you look around, they once had 900 people working here," Diduch said. "We'll get back to that."

Diduch, wearing a smart pinstripe suit, said he doesn't intend to chase after what other suit makers are doing. Rather, he wants to carve out a specific design niche for Hardwick, offering the best of modern and classic styles with a southern twist.

"The climate influences the colors and fabrics in the southern taste," Diduch said. "While the north and coast is more drab, the south is more bright and exuberant, which is a lot of fun. Instead of making a generic suit, this is a chance to make something with a little more flavor."

As it transitions toward a national-caliber company, Bellusci said the company's biggest strength is its workforce, some of whom are fourth-generation suit makers.

"They've been held back a couple of years because of circumstances," he said. "But if you go to the bank, the grocery store, you find people who either work for Hardwick, or someone in their family works for Hardwick."

  • photo
    Carol Collins, a four-year veteran at Hardwick Clothes, sews an in-sleeve lining for a blazer.
    Photo by Ellis Smith.
    enlarge photo

In spite of the company's sprawling roots, Bellusci said his team is looking at the company as a "brand new venture startup."

"It's not just moving things around, painting the building and upgrading the machines, it's going to take dedication and time," he said.

The company has already relaunched its website, Hardwick.com, with help from Jones Management Services 4,000-strong workforce. The next step is to redo the factory floor, he said.

That's just fine with Elizabeth Hill, a seamstress for 42 years who has been with Hardwick since 2004. For older workers like Hill who have only ever worked on clothes, the thought of Hardwick closing its doors would have left them with no other options.

"The last six months, we were worried," she said. "There's nowhere else we can go, there's nothing else we can do. So whatever they show us, we'll just learn."

Jones, a self-described "impatient man," said he wants a plan in place to turn the company around by Spring 2015. In the meantime, he's planning a $10 million marketing plan in 31 states to advertise the company's new website, Hardwick.com. Other officials said to expect new suit designs to launch in the fall of 2015.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with tips and documents.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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