CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- What a year at Hardwick Clothes.
Only 11 months ago, Cleveland businessman Allan Jones finalized his purchase of the failing suit maker, the oldest of America's suit manufacturing relics, in a bankruptcy hearing in Chattanooga.
Hardwick had gone bankrupt; Jones had gone after it, check in hand.
Investing chunks of money, and bringing in people and new equipment, Jones committed to turn the ship around.
And now, if Monday was any indicator, the Old Tasso Road plant is about to go gangbusters.
Monday morning, Hardwick officials announced a contract with one of the "most sought-after and best-known designers" in the country to produce 65,000 suits, more than doubling the plant's production volume.
The name of the designer has not, and will not, be released. Hardwick will make the suits, but the designer's logo will appear in them. It's a concession Hardwick had to make to land the deal, said Jones. Still, it's a big step in the direction that Jones and his blue-chip team have been veering toward since last summer.
"Great people, great story," said Hardwick President and CEO Bruce Bellusci. "Now it comes down to what are you going to do with that?"
In short, the plan is to make better clothes out of better materials and make Hardwick the best again, starting with this year's fall line, the first under the new Hardwick regime.
Hardwick has added $800,000 worth of equipment since Jones took over, said company officials, with plans to invest $1.2 million more in the next two years. And the factory has added 40 new employees since January, and is on track to add 80 more by the end of the year.
There's a four- to 16-week training course for incoming employees, in which time five- to 10-years' worth of knowledge is crammed in.
The training regimen offers the benefit of years, in a program that Jeffrey Diduch, chief creative officer, said is "what we consider accelerated."
With the extra training, there's better pay, said Bellusci. He said the goal is to see employees increase their salaries by up to 20 percent this year, and do the same again in 2016.
Hardwick now employs 260 people, a far cry from its one-time 800-person staff, but also a major step up from the bankruptcy days.
And that number is going to grow, said company officials. Right now, the plant is producing around 1,500 suits a week. At max capacity, it can produce up to 8,000 suits a week and employ up to 700 workers.
Bellusci is aiming to produce 3,000 suits by the end of this year.
And "once we achieve 3,000 units, we have turned the corner, becoming an efficient operation," he said.
The operation got a stamp of approval from Randy Boyd, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. En route to a lunch in Cleveland on Monday, Boyd stopped by Hardwick to meet company officials and hear details about the new production contract.
Boyd has endorsed the Hardwick turnaround project and said Monday that his office will look into state-level tax incentive packages for the Tennessee manufacturer.
While touring the factory floor during Monday's visit, Boyd ran into Martha Brown, who has worked at Hardwick since the mid-1960s.
A Delano, Tenn., native, Brown was looking for work right out of high school and had an in-road at Hardwick with a family tie. "I just needed a job," she said.
Many of Brown's co-workers from way back have left for one reason or another, she said. But there still are plenty of friends to keep her coming in each day.
They're "just like your own family," she said.
Now her daughter and grandson have joined the Hardwick team. "I'm just glad they're keeping it going for us," said Brown.
In addition to Monday's contract announcement, Hardwick officials said the company has added more than 100 accounts with retailers, including several Tennessee stores, such as Yacoubian Tailors and Bruce Baird and Company in Chattanooga and Town Squire in Cleveland.
Hardwick also recently inked national radio and TV marketing campaigns, including a deal with NBC Sports to have some the network's commentators wear Hardwick blazers while on air.
Contact staff writer Alex Green at email@example.com or 423-757-6480.