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October 2, 2017
2017 Next honorees

Next 2017: Ben Waxman and his wife, Whitney Reynolds, create apparel ... and opportunities for new Mainers

PHOTo / Jim Neuger
PHOTo / Jim Neuger
Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds, with their son, Arlo, on the factory floor at American Roots in Portland.

Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds

Founders/owners American Roots, Portland

American Roots

17 Westfield St., Portland

President: Whitney Reynolds

Employees: 12

Revenue: $400,000 (2016)

Contact: (207) 808-9098 americanrootswear.com

In 2015, Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds, a husband-and-wife team, started a company to produce fleece apparel and blankets that would use materials sourced in the United States and employ a workforce comprised mostly of new Mainers.

Within 10 days, their lines were sold out for seven months. Operating in a 4,000-square-foot former garage, the business has grown ever since.

In its first year, sales topped $400,000 in B2B sales for customers like International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Sappi North America and Narragansett Beer Co. Sales will likely be double that by the end of 2017. The two have expanded into cotton, and will soon open a small factory outlet store. They're committed to the well-being of their employees — paying stitchers above-market wages plus benefits, and helping their New Mainer employees navigate immigration issues or otherwise acclimate to U.S. culture. With Waxman's mother, Dory Waxman — a long-time manufacturer of fine woolen goods — they started a training program for stitchers that benefits not only their company but others.

"Everyone here is family and believes in what we're doing," says Waxman. "Like any new company, we've struggled on many sleepless nights about whether or not we're going to make payroll. But our goals are to grow in a healthy way, to continue to make a great product and to see our employees continue to enrich their lives and seek that American dream."

Now in their late 30s, apparel manufacturing was never part of either Waxman or Reynolds's quest for a career. Waxman, raised in Portland, dropped out of college to work for Democratic campaigns throughout the Northeast, then worked for the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. After 12 years, he left his position as assistant to the federation's president, Richard Trumka, because he wanted to return to Maine.

Reynolds was born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., spent her high school years in Australia, then returned to the United States for college, earning a degree in anthropology from Fordham University. She took a variety of jobs, ranging from events coordinator to bartender, before moving to Portland to be near her sister.

She also met Waxman, who was back home and wanted to start a business and create jobs. His mother suggested making blankets. The idea took a turn one day when Waxman was plowing driveways to earn extra cash. He took off his fleece vest and noticed the label said "Made with USA fabric," but then, in smaller type, "assembled overseas." He liked the idea of making fleece vests, pullovers and jackets, as well as blankets, using U.S-made materials and producing them in Maine. With his parents, he developed a business plan for a company focused on the $26 billion B2B market of corporate gifts, convention freebies and the like.

But sourcing materials was more challenging than they realized.

"All of our raw materials are 100% American sourced," says Reynolds. "That's difficult to find these days. We knew we could find fleece that was domestically made because Dory had a relationship with Polartec. But then you have to think of things like pocket material."

Eventually, they found pocket material made in Massachusetts, zippers in California, labels in Lewiston, blanket yarn in Springvale and cotton in Asheville, N.C.

Working for employees

The next challenge was finding skilled workers. Again collaborating with Dory Waxman, they formed a relationship with Coastal Enterprises Inc., Goodwill and Portland Adult Education to develop a training program for stitchers. The first program drew 30 applicants, with six accepted. All together, three classes now have trained 19 students. Dory is now working to expand the training program and get it accredited through Southern Maine Community College.

"The training program isn't just an asset to us," says Reynolds. "If we don't need all of the students, Dory helps them find work elsewhere. So the program is a great thing for the business community in general, because there are all these businesses popping up in fabrics, like Flowfold, Sea Bags and Ramblers Way."

As it turned out, most of the applicants were new Mainers, hailing from Iraq, Egypt, Ethiopia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That led to an unexpected turn in their venture, as the couple works to help folks acclimate to U.S. culture.

Recently, Waxman took one of his employees to the office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree to discuss immigration issues in the employee's family.

"Somebody once told me that the most important two things you do as an employer is to make sure your employees are safe, healthy and happy, and to make sure they get paid," he says. "When we started, we knew that when new Americans walked through our door, they were going to need help. We had a shared goal of helping them. If we were going to build a company that was going to last, we had to have a strong foundation of employees."

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