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June 12, 2017
Focus: Small business

Sew American: New Mainers help power American Roots, a Portland textile start-up

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Whitney and Ben Waxman, pictured with son Arlo, employ 12 new Mainers at their Portland textile startup, American Roots. Anaam Jabbir, at left, is the union leader at the factory.

Thread, bobbin, sewing machine. Besides learning English in their new homeland, they've had to master the lexicon and skills for their work at Portland textile start-up. Dressed in colorful Middle Eastern and African garb, they sew quietly at their machines, occasionally chatting to each other in English, Arabic, French or Portuguese.

Using 100% American-made materials, they're making fleece blankets, vests, pullovers and jackets for American Roots, founded in October 2015 by husband- and-wife team Ben and Whitney Waxman. The workroom, inside a 4,500-square-foot former garage, feels bright and breezy even when it's dreary out, an American flag prominently displayed on the back wall.

All but four of the 16 employees are new Mainers like Anaam Jabbir, a mother of three college students hoping to go to school herself one day to study design. "This is my dream," she says. Between leading the group in a round of stretching and joining them in the kitchen for break, their union leader says what she likes most about her job are her colleagues: "We work like a team. We help each other like sisters and brothers."

The family feeling starts with the Waxmans, who pay their stitchers an average hourly salary of $13.50 (compared to the industry norm of $9.50 and Portland minimum wage of $10.68) plus benefits including vacation time, unlimited sick days and a quarterly bonus.

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Anaam Jabbir, the union leader at American Roots

"Our job is to make a profit, but it is also our job to pay our employees a living wage, and to be part of the greater economic growth and stability for our community, for our country," says Ben. Whitney adds that "it's not just 16 people, it's their families we think about."

The Waxmans have a growing family of their own to think about after the birth of their son, Arlo, in late February. Named for singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, he makes regular appearances at American Roots, sometimes in his fleece onesie.

From politics to business

Ben and Whitney left jobs in politics and bartending, respectively, to start American Roots. They met in Portland after he returned to his hometown from Washington, D.C. Feeling unfulfilled by consulting, Ben was keen to start a business. He initially wanted to build boats, when his mother, Dory Anna Richards Waxman — "my mentor, my hero" — suggested making blankets. The idea made sense, given Dory's experience running Casco Bay Wool Works, a maker of woolen capes, shawls and blankets, for more than a decade and expanding it from a small barn-based operation into a profitable operation with international sales. She sold that business in 2004, but re-launched a decade later as Old Wool Port & Textile Co. in Westbrook.

Though not overly excited about blankets, Ben began working with his parents on a business plan for a company focused on the $26 billion B2B market of corporate gifts, convention freebies and the like. The dream gained fresh momentum in 2014 when Ben and his then-fiancée Whitney visited a woolen mill in Oxbridge, Mass. "I looked at her and I said, 'We're going to build a factory, we're going to make clothes,' " Ben recalls. After losing his two remaining clients as a freelance consultant, Ben plowed driveways to earn extra cash. Inspiration struck during a snowstorm when he looked at the fleece vest he had on and noticed the label read "Made in the USA," but then "Made overseas" in smaller type. "I ran home and said to Whitney, 'We're not doing blankets, we're going to make vests and jackets and pullovers.'"

Photo / Jim Neuger
Photo / Jim Neuger
Hasen Buseyr from Ethiopia is among 12 new Mainers employed at American Roots, an apparel company in Portland.

Rolling through his contacts, Ben called 100 companies asking whether they would pay a few dollars more for a vest made out of 100% American-made materials in a union shop; two were locked in contracts but 98 said yes. "The next step," Whitney says, "was to build a workforce." But how you do that in a place that has seen its old textile industry all but disappear let alone where sewing is no longer part of people's upbringing and culture?

You design a training program yourself as Dory and Whitney did, helped by a network of Maine-based organizations.

Training and building a workforce

With funding from the Coastal Enterprises Inc.-led Portland Jobs Alliance, the training program was ready to go. Portland Jobs Alliance member groups got the word out about the program, which required participants to have some sewing experience. Twenty-eight out of 30 who applied turned out to be new Americans, which Whitney found surprising. Six were selected for the program, which included English as a second language and math taught by instructors from Portland Adult Education. After graduation, Ben and Whitney hired four, who received on-the-job internships via Goodwill's Workforce Solutions, and launched American Roots in October 2015. "Within 10 days, we were sold out for seven months," Ben recalls.

Business has been growing ever since, with nearly $400,000 in sales the first year and a goal of just over $1 million this year. Customers are companies looking for garments with logos for clients, convention attendees, workers and so on. Customers have included Sappi North America and Narragansett Beer Co.

To keep up, the Waxmans continue to recruit and train stitchers. So far 19 out of 125 applicants have been trained in three classes, the last of which was made possible by Southern Maine Community College's Maine Quality Center Program and Goodwill's Workforce Solutions. All of the organizations that have helped American Roots have provided similar assistance to other Maine companies creating quality jobs and committed to building a diverse workforce.

"Maine's current economic climate and low unemployment rate is compelling companies to think innovatively about their employment," says Liz Love, a program developer at CEI. "There just aren't a lot of people looking for work, and those who are may face barriers. One example is Portland's new American population ... Many have recently arrived in the United States, are eager to work, often with professional backgrounds, but face employability challenges such as limited English skills."

A fourth training is set to begin this month. Worker retention is high — in American Roots' first 18 months, just one employee left, for personal reasons.

'American dream'

Language is no barrier for those working at American Roots today as Ben and Whitney continue to pursue new clients, the office wall resembling a political campaign war room with lists of names and a map of state-by-state marketing plans.

They also continue to get sound advice from Ben's mother Dory based on her experience, including to always be prepared for a mill to shut down, always be on the hunt for new suppliers just in case, and always treat employees well. "That's how my husband and I always ran Casco Bay Wool Works … You succeed when you treat people with dignity and respect."

At American Roots, the plan is to expand into cotton this June with a hooded sweatshirt in four styles, and to open a small factory outlet store in September. Despite the hard work and long hours Ben and Whitney love what they do. "I wouldn't trade it for anything," he says of "building the American dream, with the love of my life, and my mom and my dad … and new Americans who happened to be the ones who walked through the door. If this isn't America I don't know what is."

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