LAWRENCE — A few months after losing her job as vice president of operations at American MoJo when the Lowell clothing manufacturer went out of business in 2012, Brenna Schneider applied the lessons learned to launch her own sportswear start-up in the Everett Mills on Union Street.
She began with two employees and as many sewing machines, 1,000 square feet of rented space, an audacious view of the future and an improbable name. Her company is 99Degrees, a Celsius temperature that she said is “as hot as you can be without boiling over.”
Rapid growth followed.
Today, the 34-year-old Lowell resident employs 60 people and occupies 20,000 square feet in the downtown mill, with a factory floor of cutting-edge equipment and a roster of customers that includes the U.S. Army, Under Armour sportswear and Ralph Lauren. For Lauren, Schneider produced and implanted the first-of-a-kind ink-printed heating panels that warmed more than 1,000 red, white and blue jackets worn by the U.S. Olympic team at the winter games in South Korea in February.
Schneider’s plan for the next five years is even bolder: to grow her workforce nearly sixfold by adding 350 jobs and expanding her shop to as much as 100,000 square feet. Her ambition is fueled by her expectation that textile manufacturing is returning to the United States – and specifically New England – as shoppers continue their stampede out of the malls and onto the internet. The shift is causing clothing manufacturers to become faster and more nimble and automated so they can ship their name brands directly to consumers rather than to warehouses, which in turn is fueling demand in the industry for a more skilled workforce of the kind found in the United States.
“In the past, the industry chased cheap labor that has been very manual,” Schneider said. “When you chase cheap labor, you don’t need to invest in automation technology or in labor-saving techniques. But now, because of (the demand for) speed and because of wearable technology, where electronics and apparel are coming together, we have the opportunity to create an advanced manufacturing process. And that’s perfect for New England.”
Earlier this month, the state Office of Housing and Economic Development invested significantly in Schneider’s vision, awarding her company a $2.8 million tax credit on the condition that she add the 350 workers she’s planning to hire by 2023.
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