On the second floor of an old red brick mill building in Lawrence, about two dozen workers are hunched over sewing machines or operating other equipment used in the business of making men’s dress pants.
They come from China, Vietnam, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, and there are more women than men. It takes 65 to 70 minutes to produce one pair of pants, and 74 steps from beginning to the end. Each worker performs two or three of those steps. Working a shift that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., these workers produce 600 to 700 pairs per week, and around 35,000 a year, most of which are sold to the US military. The pay is $15 to $17.25 per hour. Because this business, which operates under the name Southwick Social Ventures, is a co-op, there is also an opportunity for ownership. After six months of employment, each employee can buy one share.
“We believe in manufacturing,” CEO May Tan told me after my recent visit to this factory. “We know it can work here.”
That leap of faith is inspired by a desire to make right what happened next door in Haverhill, where Brooks Brothers owned and operated the Southwick Clothing factory. In May 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when workers were producing masks and other personal protective equipment in a desperate effort to keep their jobs, the company announced it would be shutting Southwick Clothing down. That July, Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Just like that, Haverhill’s biggest private employer disappeared. And just like that, so did the manufacturing jobs of more than 400 people who worked there. Tan was in charge of laying them off. Her official title was chief financial officer. But her nickname was “Chainsaw May.” When factory workers saw her come out of her office, Tan says, “they knew something bad” was about to happen.
The tiny startup factory in Lawrence is a lifeline Tan was able to throw to a small fraction of the hundreds of workers she had to fire.
Haverhill, meanwhile, has moved on. The Brooks Brothers factory is now an Amazon “last mile” merchandise distribution center that employs several hundred people. That’s good news for those who work there now, but not so much for the cutters, stitchers, and pressers who produced finely tailored “Made in America” suits for the iconic Brooks Brothers brand. Except for the fewer than two dozen of them who are now employed by Southwick Social Ventures in Lawrence, it’s unclear what happened to the rest of the mostly immigrant workforce. “We hired as many people from the pant department as we could afford,” says Tan. “As far as the remaining Brooks Brothers’ employees, we have heard through the grapevine that some went to other cut-and-sew manufacturers, changed careers, retired, or just plain left the area.”
When the factory shut down, the workers felt invisible. Nearly three years later, it feels like they have disappeared.
Over time, Haverhill has seen the rise and fall of saw and grist mills, tanneries and boat yards, shoe and garment factories. With change comes opportunity for some and crushing loss for others. At first, the shutdown of a factory generates sympathy for the cast-off workers. Then comes a certain resignation about their fate, which has always bothered me. Why don’t we care more? Why can’t we do more to help them find new jobs?
In Haverhill, the laid-off factory workers ended up with four weeks of severance pay after their union and a battalion of Massachusetts politicians went to bat for them. According to Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini, some job fairs were also held for the laid-off workers, and Amazon was asked to consider former Southwick Clothing employees for open positions. When I asked if he knows where those laid-off workers ended up, he answered honestly: “No, I don’t,” he told me. However, Fiorentini suspects that “Some of our most challenged citizens, who desperately need work, were unable to get it.”
Ethan Snow, secretary treasurer of Unite Here New England Joint Board, which represented the workers, doesn’t know what happened to them either. “I don’t know anyone for sure who is working for Amazon,” says Snow. " I think people dispersed. Our membership is immigrant workers, people of color. They are used to going where the work is.“ But the work they are trained to do is getting harder to find. The largest remaining clothing factory in Massachusetts is located in New Bedford, says Snow.
Change is nothing new on Haverhill’s Computer Drive, where the Brooks Brothers-owned factory was located. The building now occupied by Amazon was once home to Wang Laboratories, a revolutionary computer company that went bankrupt in 1992. A medical device operation worked out of it for awhile. Then, after a period of vacancy, it was a Lowe’s home Improvement center, until that was closed in 2011. In 2014, the same building was a set for the filming of “The Equalizer,” a movie starring Denzel Washington. Sometime after that, the Southwick Clothing factory, owned by Brooks Brothers, moved there from another building across the street.
Brooks Brothers had first set up shop on Computer Drive in 2007, under the ownership of Claudio DelVecchio, an Italian industrialist whose family is one of the richest in the world. DelVecchio was lured to Haverhill by his belief at the time that a “Made in America” label had great value. A generous tax package from the state and city also helped. In Haverhill, the factory was considered a great success, and its diverse workforce still generates gushing descriptions of a veritable United Nations, where dozens of different languages were spoken. But trouble was brewing. Office dress was getting more casual. Then, working from home during the pandemic took away any further need for new suits. By June 2020, The New York Times reported that Brooks Brothers was planning to lay off nearly 700 employees at three factories, including the one in Haverhill. “The factory closing was a great blow to those who had a family member working there,” Fiorentini says. “We know they were devastated, and we were devastated on their behalf.”
Over his 20 years as mayor, Fiorentini has overseen the transformation of Haverhill’s old shoe factories into mixed-use retail and residential developments and has focused on bringing new industry to this old mill town. He says he did all he could to try to persuade Brooks Brothers to change its mind about shutting down. When he couldn’t, he says he personally lobbied the owners to provide severance pay to the laid-off workers. He also says he found one company that was willing to buy the property and keep it in operation as a clothing factory. But Brooks Brothers wasn’t interested. The company had apparently lined up a buyer for the building. Amazon is now leasing that property.
When the factory shutdown was unfolding, Brooks Brothers announced that it had a buyer. The company would be sold for $325 million. Jillian Fennimore, a spokesperson for Governor Maura Healey, says that Brooks Brothers ultimately agreed to repay the state more than $1.2 million it had received in tax breaks. Haverhill also recovered $462,000 in local property tax incentives. But the workers got none of that, says Snow, the union representative. State Representative Andy Vargas of Haverhill, who helped to get back that money, told me that ”Recovering the state and city funding is rare, and I’m glad it happened.” But Vargas also believes more should be done to help workers and their families when a factory shuts down: “The company took care of management and left their workers scraps,” he says.
To Bill Pillsbury, Haverhill’s director of economic development and planning, Amazon’s presence in Haverhill “is not a raving victory. It’s a different [working] clientele, with different people paying taxes.” Still, says Pillsbury, “I consider it a successful situation if we did everything we could to try to make them [Brooks Brothers] stay.” If city leaders do all they can and a company still decides to leave, then comes “resignation,” says Pillsbury, and with that a pragmatic mental adjustment to changed economic circumstances: “Let’s move onto the next opportunity here. Lowe’s to Southwick was a great thing. Then there’s another shift to Amazon,” says Pillsbury.
‘We are paying back’
That’s the classic way of thinking about business in America. Accept what cannot be changed and catch the next wave.
But that’s not the way of thinking at the tiny startup known as Southwick Social Ventures. Against the odds and the economic and fashion trends, Tan and Ed Pap, her husband and business partner, are sticking with the old-fashioned business of making finely tailored clothes.
The building in which Southwick Social Ventures operates housed the original Southwick factory that operated in Lawrence before Brooks Brothers moved it to Haverhill. The vast workspace is filled with a jumble of equipment obtained during the Haverhill factory auction. The small group of workers who are currently employed here take up only a small portion of the 10,000-square-foot area. There is definitely room for growth.
Over the course of a long career in corporate management, Tan says, she fired thousands of people. But the downsizing she had overseen for years without sentiment was harder in Haverhill. There, she had a glass-fronted office that looked out on the floor where the garment workers toiled. “I saw a lot of people who don’t speak the language [English]. There was no opportunity for them at Amazon. There was no place for them to go. I wanted to help,” says Tan. So when the Haverhill factory shut down, Tan and Pap, along with another Brooks Brothers manager who has since left the business, came up with a plan to start a new venture that could offer employment to some of the former factory workers. Their startup was launched in March 2021, with initial funding from the Harvard Business School Impact Investment Fund, which seeks to expand access to capital to minority and immigrant entrepreneurs. Tan says she also put some of her own money into the venture, and they have other bank loans.
Tan, who came to the United States from Malaysia as a teenager, and Pap, who came here from Peru, said they are not taking a salary from Southwick Social Ventures. “She shut down factories. I moved supply chains overseas,” says Pap. “We are paying back.” According to Tan, about 100 people from the old Haverhill factory showed up to apply for work in Lawrence. But they could only hire a small number of workers who sewed pants, because pants are what they have a five-year contract with the US Army to produce. They are also hoping to grow a commercial business under the label “Lawrence Trousers,” in honor of the city in which their startup is located. They currently sell a small number of pants to the Andover Shop, a high-end clothing store in Andover and Harvard Square.
At the Brooks Brothers factory, the union workers were paid at a piece rate. Snow says the average pay was about $16 to $17 per hour — roughly what Southwick Social Ventures is paying — but a highly skilled worker could make as much as $30 an hour at the Haverhill facility, and union workers also had a generous benefits package. The union has been talking to Southwick Social Ventures workers, but so far, they are not interested in joining.
Tan and Pap have a five-year business plan. They say they define success as building a brand that’s recognized, and with that, a revenue stream that would allow them to pay their workers better wages.
With that mission in mind, Tan offers this sales pitch: “These pants have a nice story. Get a nice pair of pants and help people who need an opportunity.”
In that pitch is a commitment to survive, and maybe, someday, thrive. There is no resignation.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story was not clear in describing the sale of Brooks Brothers. The company sold for $325 million.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.