Hardwick Clothes in Cleveland acquired by Puerto Rico nonprofit, will add 100 workers

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

For the second time in the past five years, America's oldest men's suit maker has a new owner.

A Puerto Rico company has acquired Hardwick Clothes in Cleveland, Tenn., with plans to add 100 more workers to help make a new line of dress uniforms for the U.S. Army.

Puerto Rico Industries for the Blind (PRIFB) Corp., a non-profit company headquartered in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, purchased Hardwick on Friday from Cleveland businessman Allan Jones - the founder and CEO of the nation's biggest privately owned payday lender Check Into Cash who rescued Hardwick from bankrupcy in 2014. The new Hardwick owners have kept the 200 workers now employed at the 174,000-square-foot plant and are gearing up to hire more workers through a federal program designed to help employ disabled persons supplying federal contracts.

PRIFB has a contract with the Department of Defense to make Army Greens, a new dress uniform for Army soldiers that will debut next summer. The new uniform is a version of the pink -and-green uniforms Army officers wore during World War II.

"Every Army solider will wear the uniform by 2028, so this is a big deal for Hardwick and Cleveland, Tennessee," said Jim Nunes, the Miami businessman who is president of PRIFB. "This is a higher quality fabric that what current Army uniforms are made of and will last significantly longer."

To make the new uniforms starting in early 2020, Hardwick is preparing to hire more workers through the AbilityOne program, a federal training and hiring initiative to employs blind and other disabled persons at jobs with federal contractors. PRIFB has performed such contracts since 2013 in Puerto Rico and is expanding into Cleveland to help utilize the production capacity at Hardwick, whch has had employed as many as 900 workers in the past.

photo Staff Photo by Ellis Smith—Hardwick Clothes is a Cleveland, Tenn.-based manufacturer of suits, blazers, pants and other clothes. The company was purchased last week by Puerto Rico Industries for the Blind (PRIFB) Corp.,

Company at a glance

* Established: July 28, 1880* Location: Cleveland, Tenn.* Staff: About 200 today with plans to add another 100 workers* CEO: Bruce Bellusci* Ownership: Allan Jones, owner of Check Into Cash, sold the business last week to Puerto Rican Industries for the Blind (PRIFB) Corp.* Products: Men’s suites, blazers, pants, khakis, military uniforms* Slogan: “Sewn in the South”

Founded in 1880 as the Cleveland Woolen Mills by C.L. Hardwick, Hardwick Clothes is the oldest manufacturer of tailor-made clothing in the United States and became famous in the 1960's for making the world's best blazer. But foreign competitors - both upscale Italian suit makers in Europe and discount producers in Asia - replaced much of the men's fashion production even as sales of men's blazers and suits declined as casual dress has become more popular at work, church and social events.

Hardwick ultimately filed for bankruptcy and Jones bought the company assets in 2014 for $1.9 mlllion. Jones said Monday he has spent "millions and millions" of dollars more to upgrade and broaden the company's products and facilities over the past five and a half years Jones brought top clothing executives to the firm from the Chicago-based fashion staple Hart Schaffner Marx clothiers, including Hart's former CEO Kenneth Hoffman, who served on the Hardwick board, and a former Hart executive vice president, Bruce Bellusci, who will remain as CEO of Hardwick.

Jones helped to save the 139-year-old manufacturer - and second oldest business in Bradley C0unty. But under Jones ownership, Hardwick was still not able to turn a profit despite the introduction of a number of new signature lines, including a Navy men's blazer that won the top style award in Garden and Gun magazine's Made in the South Award in 2016.

"It's a tough industry," Jones said Monday. "I brought in the best people in the industry and we were able to save the company and hopefully with these owners help it to continue to grow. This was an opportunity to to keep the company going with a new direction."

Nunes thanked Jones for "all he has done to make Hardwick a brand that is respected worldwide" and said Jones worked to keep the plant open and workers employed through the business sale.

"Allan emphasized throughout the process that he wanted the high quality standards to remain in place and wanted people in Cleveland to keep their jobs," Nunes said. "Both of his wishes have been agreed upon."

Doug Berry, vice president of economic development for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, said that 100 more jobs should be added as a result of the Hardwick sale.

"We're real excited about that," he said. "There's a good opportunity here."

PRIFB is a privately held company whose mission is to train and employ people with severe disabilities, primarily by designing and manufacturing uniforms and equipment for the military.

Bruce Bellusci, Hardwick's CEO during the company's time under Jones' ownership, will remain CEO under PRIFB. Bellusci said Hardwick will take its normal year-end holiday and cease production around Christmas and New Year's Day. But Hardwick will begin interviewing and hiring disabled workers to staff the additional uniform line in January.

"What Allan has done with this sale is to create an aggressive hiring environment," said Bellusci. "He took Hardwick to the top of the clothing industry and now things are getting even better. Cleveland should be proud."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340