Dean Wegner calls his apparel manufacturing company a "20-year-old startup" for good reason: after two decades of supplying dress clothes to the U.S. Military, Omega Apparel is repositioning itself to meet growing demand for American-made clothing.
The manufacturer, which occupies 100,000 square feet in Smithville about 65 miles east of Nashville, is preparing to open a new 10,000-square-foot facility this month on Harding Place near Interstate 24.
The expansion comes as Wegner diversifies Omega Apparel's business beyond its military contract, which was slashed in half in recent years because of military spending cuts. The apparel company - which contracted from 220 jobs at its peak to 128 - has since added 36 clients and is making significant up-front investments to gain new business.
Today, Omega Apparel employs 170 and plans to hire 100 people over the next six months. The company's military contract still accounts for about 90 percent of its business, but Wegner hopes to reduce that to 50 percent as Omega's clients grow.
"For somebody like me that's passionate about job creation, it's painful to lose 100 employees," Wegner said. "... I never want to be beholden to one customer or a single large contract ever again."
Reinventing an apparel company is no easy feat. Wegner, an Army veteran, purchased the business three years ago, with initial plans to expand its contract with the military. He soon realized that piece of the apparel manufacturing pie was only shrinking, and he started looking at ways to diversify the business.
Wegner saw a huge gap in the U.S. apparel industry with a significant majority - 97 percent - of clothing sold in America manufactured overseas, according to data from the American Apparel & Footwear Association. The lack of manufacturers makes it difficult for fledgling designers and entrepreneurs to get small runs of items, as many facilities have garment minimums in the hundreds. Many players in Nashville's growing fashion industry find these manufacturing difficulties a roadblock to growth.
Omega, which historically has produced thousands of the same items each week for the military, now offers a 50-garment minimum and is working with new clients whose orders range from bulletproof vests to plaid shirts, wedding robes and horse riding pants.
Omega is now a full-service company, offering customers design, sourcing and production services.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, we can't do that.' I say, 'Why not? Why can't we do that?' " Wegner said, referring to his bullish attitude on expanding into new markets.
Added Becky Rhine, leader of the research and development team at Omega Apparel: "I just don't believe in the word 'can't' because you can develop a training program to do it."
Also new at Omega Apparel is hundreds of thousands of dollars in new equipment, such as a laser cutter, an automated screen printer and an embroidery machine. Wegner added new departments to the company, such as a dress shirt production line and Rhine's growing research and development team to work on sample prototypes.
Omega's new Nashville facility will be used mostly for the small-batch manufacturing clients. Wegner said it will have a retail presence on Harding Place where it plans to sell its new Omega-branded, military-inspired clothing line. The company also plans to offer a custom design business for clients looking for a one-of-a-kind dress or other apparel item.
Wegner said one of the biggest challenges facing Omega and other U.S. apparel manufacturers is finding talented employees with the right skill sets.
He said a soon-to-launch sewing academy - formed in a partnership between the new Nashville Fashion Alliance and Catholic Charities of Tennessee - is helping to solve that issue by offering training programs.
"We're employing, so it's a huge benefit to us, but (the organizations are) grateful because that's one of the gaps they had - providing long-term employment," Wegner said.