Made in the USA: A Case Study, Part 1 of 2

A look inside the cap manufacturing and embroidery operations of Texas-based American Made Cap Co.

By Deborah Jones, Contributing Writer

American Made Cap Co. co-owners Greg Bednarick (left) and Rickey Eavenson have greatly increased sales with a healthy mix of clients. Here, they show off custom, American-made caps for the 2013 Cotton Bowl Classic.

April 1, 2013

Editor’s Note: In this two-part series, contributing writer Deborah Jones shares her findings as she visits with an embroidery company that has retooled aspects of its embroidery operation to make it more functional and efficient.

In the 1970s, I had an embroidery shop in Fort Worth, Texas. You may remember that decade as the Golden Age of the “gimmee cap.” The promotional cap was coming into its own as the advertising medium of choice, and Crowell Caps were one of the most requested brands
in my part of the country. Because they were only about a four-hour drive from my shop, I sometimes visited the manufacturing facility.

Fast forward a few decades to December 2012, when I was put in touch with one of the new owners of the company formerly known as Crowell Cap Co. Now known as American Made Cap Co., the Crowell, Texas-based company was purchased by co-owners Greg Bednarik and Rickey Eavenson, who were on a quest to modernize certain aspects of its in-house embroidery operation. Based on my previous relationship with the company, I was eager to hear how it had survived the influx of inexpensive, imported caps that had spelled the demise of other domestic cap manufacturers.

Through my visits to Crowell and other domestic cap manufacturers, I know it’s tough for American cap companies to compete with importers on price alone. There are 25 to 30 separate operations required to make a single cap. Successful production is centered on skilled personnel and specialized equipment. Add to this the higher cost of producing embroidery — compared to overseas production — and the prospects of profitability seem unlikely.

I learned that the company had been through a few incarnations since my last contact, but admirably had retained some employees with 30-plus years of service. The company had been a division of DeLong Sportswear and was employee-owned for a time. Then, Eavenson, a lifelong area resident, approached his friend Bednarik, who ranches in the region, with the idea of buying the company. It was something of a matter of community pride and civic duty to keep local jobs, well, local. Bednarik shared that sentiment, and both men were committed to the idea of American-made products. And what could be more American than a ball cap?

The company came complete with a loyal crew of embroiderers, an embroidery department and a full complement of sewing machines, button setters, eyelet machines, steamers and cutting equipment. The new owners added a production manager with experience in another industry who had recently moved to the area for family reasons. Here was the nucleus of a great company with a new impetus to move forward. The big challenge was finding enough customers willing to pay more to buy an American-made cap.

Bednarik and Eavenson have greatly increased sales with a healthy mix of clients, running the gamut from high-
profile companies to local ranchers. But as always, the more clients, the better. The cost of making an American-made cap can’t be ignored when it comes to price, but Bednarik and Eavenson believe there is a lot of value to be enjoyed when buying an American-made product.

“American-made products save jobs, and every job saved is a savings to every American taxpayer,” Eavenson says.

The owners soon discovered additional challenges aside from sales. The digitizer was working with an antiquated system that turned even the smallest design changes into laborious and time-consuming tasks. The lettering fonts required many characters to be edited in order to stitch at the same height as other characters. This outdated system clearly had to be updated.

Similarly, the software system sending designs to the embroidery machines on the production floor was compatible only with an older operating system running on an outdated computer. Management faced the frightening prospect of that system dying without possibility of resurrection. If this occurred, designs would have to be loaded at the 10 individual embroidery machines. This could create chaos on the production floor, slowing production and leading to mistakes.

The new owners wondered if help was available for companies trying to keep domestic jobs and contribute to the economy. Bednarik did some research and found that there was a grant program available that incredibly helps pay for consulting and software. The program, administered by the University of Texas, San Antonio, appeared to be just what the company needed to update its systems. Participating companies are required to meet strict guidelines and contribute a portion of the costs for any improvements. American Made Cap Co. qualified for the program and started to work on bringing their systems into the 21st century.

When I arrived for my visit, the embroidery equipment was in top shape and the staff was working on a large order for the Cotton Bowl Classic college football game to be held a few weeks later. The job included two styles, each featuring 3-D foam school initials on the front of a cap, and the event name and date on the side in small letters. The actual sewout quality was quite good, and the efficient embroidery production area was humming in high gear. Dedicated employees were giving up their weekends to get the important order out on time.

During my tour of the company’s facilities, I saw aprons being cut from black cotton denim fabric that was grown and processed in Texas. The finished apron was embroidered with a Texas logo and was accented by functional rivets. This innovative design came about when the owners were developing ideas for additional products made from native resources like the Texas-grown cotton.

Currently, a software engineer is in the process of designing custom solutions for sending designs to the embroidery machines, made necessary because of the machines’ communication method. A new digitizing system also has been ordered.

Meanwhile, American Made Cap Co. remains one of a handful of domestic cap manufacturers dedicated to the idea that there’s no other cap like an American-made cap. I agree.

In Part 2 of this case study, we’ll look at how the new software solutions are affecting production, quality and efficiency at the facility, as well as how changes have been embraced by the staff.

Deborah Jones is a commercial and home embroiderer with more than 30 years experience in the computerized embroidery field. She runs myembroiderymentor.com and regularly speaks at the Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS). For more information or to comment on this article, email Deborah at djones@myembroiderymentor.com. Hear Deborah speak on embroidery topics at the 2013 Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS). Individual seminars are just $25 if you pre-register: isshows.com.