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From the St. Louis Business Journal: https://www.bizjournals.com/stlouis/news/2019/05/09/a-stitch-through-time-in-rural-illinois-a-century.html

May 09, 2019

A FACTORY KEEPING TIME

A stitch through time: In rural Illinois, a century old uniform maker marches to its own tune

The march began in 1892. 

Ed DeMoulin opened a manufacturing facility in Greenville, Illinois, about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis, to produce items for fraternal organizations. Its products ranged from regalia like emblems and robes to a spanking machine, a device used in member initiations. Over time, as his brothers, Erastus and Ulysses, joined in, DeMoulin Bros. & Co. steered more deeply into the uniform business by making military uniforms during World Wars I and II, graduation caps and gowns, and service industry uniforms.

DeMoulin_logo

As time marched on, the DeMoulins kept stride, diversifying their range until finding the market that would drive the company throughout the ensuing century: Marching bands.

Today, the 150-person company is the nation's biggest producer of music performance apparel, outfitting high school and college bands, color guards, concert bands and choirs worldwide, producing more than 50,000 band uniforms annually.

Like any manufacturer of its age, DeMoulin struggles to keep up with an advancing world. As one technology (e-commerce) pressures its distribution model, others (advanced manufacturing) help it to offset the disadvantages and increasing costs of attracting labor to a factory so distant from the urban core.

Yet it continues to evolve, marching forward to a steady 4/4 beat, even as the world around it picks up pace.

"It is our philosophy," said CEO and President Don Adamski, "that healthy things grow."

Gauntlets to baldrics
A full custom band uniform is, by varying degrees, theatrical.

A single uniform can run $300 to $500, depending on how its decorated, the material chosen, the design and construction, said Adamski.

And those decorations can get ornate. At its base level, the uniform consists of a coat, pants and a hat, but additional options include "gauntlets" worn at the wrist or a decorated sash called a "baldric." Adamski said "drapes" that hang from the front or back of a coat are becoming more popular. Removable drapes allow for mid-routine costume changes.

"It's not just your military-style uniform like it used to be," Adamski said. "It's more oriented to the music."

The traditional marching band hat is called a "shako" — a tall, cylindrical cap with a visor and ornamentation. "The design concept is all about looking tall from the (stadium) stands," he said. While coats are designed to be very short, making the person appear longer-legged and taller, "we're adding components onto hats now to make the hats look very tall, and the feather plumes on top also are extremely tall," he said.

The marching band uniform business is seasonal — "everyone wants the product for when school starts," Adamski said. And though delivery time vary throughout the year, the average is about four to six months. "Not because it takes that long to make, but because of production capacity and backlog," Adamski said.

The company also produces custom workwear and uniforms, including uniforms for Culligan Water personnel and, in the public sector, Seattle's Sound Transit and Chicago's Metra commuter rail service. One of its longtime customers is the Virginia Military Institute, for which it makes the student uniforms required by some 1,700 cadets.

But it's the marching band world that drives DeMoulin's business, and it's not an off-the-rack operation.

"We're really a custom manufacturer," Adamski said. "We don't make one type of shirt and one type of pant and try to sell it to everyone. We make specifically what that customer wants. That kind of limits potential, but it's how our business operates, being a custom manufacturer, so it works best for us."

New face, old yarn
Adamski is new to the CEO role.

The former president and chief operating officer took the helm in March, replacing his father-in-law Bill Marsden, who acquired the company in 1995, becoming the first non-DeMoulin to lead the business since its founding 103 years earlier.

And like his predecessors, Adamski is tasked with guiding a century-old business through modern challenges. From low unemployment rates to competition from large e-commerce players, Adamski is modernizing the business to prepare for the future.

"In our core business, it's about dealing with changes in the market, how the product is funded and sold," he said. "The changes (deal with) what the customer wants in a custom-made product and their expectations of delivery and cost — in an Amazon/Walmart world — and the changes you have to make in the operations of the business to support and succeed in the market."

Two key instruments are driving this mission: strategic acquisitions designed to bolster vertical integration and updated technology the ensure the company isn't left on the sidelines during the next generation.

DeMoulin

Adamski declined to disclose the company's revenue, but said DeMoulin has seen near double-digit growth in the past five to seven years. "We've done that through organic growth expanding the breadth and depth of our product offerings, and also through acquisitions," he said.

Last year, DeMoulin acquired Ohio-based Midwest Band & Front Line Accessories and its Otterwear brand of raincoats and uniform protection, as well as Iowa-based Band-Mart/Choir-Mart, a uniform and music equipment retailer. Prior to that, the company acquired Ashley Headwear, a maker of marching band headgear, including the classic shako, and became the exclusive distributor of RejuviTex – a trademarked, eco-friendly synthetic fabric.

Adamski said that while there hasn't been a lot of consolidation in the past five years, he expects to see more in the future. Like DeMoulin, many of the company's contemporaries are also aging. But unlike DeMoulin, they don't have the buying power that comes with being the biggest player in the industry.

"They're starting to age out," Adamski said of DeMoulin's contemporaries, "so they have to determine if they want to pass it on to the family or sell out."

Adamski said the company continues to look for acquisition targets. “The most logical way (to grow) is for us to acquire businesses complementary to our markets and core competencies, which allows us expand the depth and breadth of our customer base and product offerings.”

Keeping the band playing
DeMoulin has about 150 employees in Greenville and another 20 salespeople spread across the U.S., with non-employee dealers who represent the company internationally. It counts customers "on every continent except Antarctica," including Asia and Africa, Adamski said.

Attracting workers is one of its biggest challenges. The low national unemployment rate means the labor pool is already shallow, and DeMoulin's relatively remote locale doesn't make the situation any easier.

"We continue to face the same issues as all other companies in terms of finding labor, due to the low unemployment in a good economy," Adamski said. "But we feel more of the effect in rural areas, where populations are either declining or aging."

Labor's also getting more expensive. In Illinois, the minimum wage is set to rise to $10 an hour on July 1, 2020, and $15 an hour by 2025. “We are currently in the highest-wage state compared to our competitors, and with that base increasing, which could also affect every other employee and their rates, it is difficult to pass that increase onto our customers, and our competitors will make that challenging.” Adamski said.

Technology has been a difference-maker. The manufacturing process at DeMoulin mixes old-world craftsmanship with modern technology. Uniform pants and coats are cut by machines, while tasks such as fabric stretching, detail work and trimming are done by hand.

“Technology has made us more efficient in both the factory and front office and it helps offset some of difficulties in finding labor.” Adamaski said.

Despite the uncertainties, Adamski remains optimistic about the company’s future.

In 10 years, when DeMoulin turns 137, Adamski expects the company will be twice the size it is today, while maintaining its status as industry's field commander, leading the march, setting the pace.


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The Illinois SBDC International Trade Center is funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville as a service to Illinois small businesses


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