Polartec to invest $10 million, add 150 jobs in Cleveland

Polar fleece maker relocates production from Massachusetts to Tennessee

Polartec President Gary Smith, right talks with U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. R-Tenn., at the company's new plant in Cleveland, Tennessee.
photo Polartec President Gary Smith.

Polartec, best known for inventing polar fleece for companies like Patagonia, The North Face and LL Bean, is relocating part of its textile manufacturing operations from Lawrence, Massachusetts to Cleveland, Tennessee and adding nearly 150 jobs.

Polartec bought United Knitting Mills in Cleveland last fall and has already doubled the plant's staff and expects to add even more workers in the next year. Polartec, the successor company to the 110-year-old Maldin Mills in New England, is investing nearly $10 million in the Cleveland plant and expects to have 200 employees at the mill by next year.

Gary Smith, the president of Polartec, said United Knitting Mills was a supplier to Polartec and the 175,000 square-foot plant offered Polartec room and staff to grow its business "in a very business friendly environment." Smith said energy and tax costs are less than in Tennessee than in Massachusetts "and there is a strong work ethic here is Cleveland."

Polartec has about 300 employees at its multi-story factory in Lawrence, Mass., where workers are represented by UNITE Local 311. Smith said the environment in Lawrence is less friendly to business and the facility is less suited for the type of production that the specialized fleece maker does both for the U.S. military and many outdoor apparel firms. Those jobs in Lawrence could be phased out by the end of the year unless the union and others agree to make needed changes, Smith said.

"We will pay within pennies (an hour) of the pay level at our other plants here in Cleveland so we are not moving South just to get cheap labor," Smith said. "There is a strong work ethic and a more business friendly environment here. We are making a big bet on this facility, but we see a real opportunity for us."

Smith said he is moving the company to a better mix of business with more efficient production to help the textile company survive and thrive in the United States, rather than move production offshore as most other U.S. textile and apparel companies have done over the past half century.

Versa Capital Management, known then as Chrysalis Capital Partners, bought the former Maldin Mills out of bankruptcy for $44 million in 1977 after the company had previously gone bankrupt twice before. The company was renamed Polartec and last December it acquired United Knitting Mills in Cleveland after that company also had downsized in response to weaker textile sales.

Merging the two companies will allow Polartec to employ its innovative technology - the company has more than 150 patents - in a more efficient plant, said Jerry Miller, the former head of United Knitting Mills who will continue as president and general manager of Polartec's Tennessee manufacturing operations.

Read more in Tuesday's Times Free Press