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August 11, 2014 / 2014 Women to Watch honorees

Women to watch: Claudia Raessler, Maine Textiles

Photo / Tim Greenway Claudia Raessler, CEO of Maine Textiles, checks yarn in the dye room of Saco River Dyehouse in Biddeford.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway Claudia Raessler, CEO of Maine Textiles, in front of a cone winder at the dye house in Biddeford.

Don't let Claudia Raessler's petite stature and demure demeanor fool you. She's not afraid to fight formidable odds. After all, she started out in Florida as a lawyer for inmates. And judging from the growth of her Saco River Dyehouse in Biddeford and enthusiastic customers, she's a winner.

However, even she had her doubts when the convoy of 12 trucks carrying dyeing equipment from a closed mill in Massachusetts arrived in July 2012 and began unloading its contents into the 18,000-square-foot area of the Pepperell Mill Complex formerly occupied by WestpointStevens Mill, known for making Vellux blankets.

She admits to being excited when the equipment arrived, somewhat impatient until it was set up and then a bit scared that the dye house project was actually happening.

After all, build out costs were twice what they were supposed to be, she says, and they hadn't made a sale yet.

“It took us until December 2012 to put the first skein of yarn in the dye tank,” she says. “Lots of people said it couldn't be done. But you have to get up every day and have some tremendous faith in your own decision-making ability.” Raessler is CEO of Maine Textiles International LLC, which owns and operates Saco River Dyehouse.

The initial capital investment was about $400,000 in loans from CEI and a Bangor Savings Bank Small Business Administration-backed loan, plus Biddeford-Saco economic development money and some private contributions. The total investment is now $750,000, but she plans to apply for a Maine Technology Institute development loan early next year to expand her business to handle synthetic rope, cordage and nylon.

“This could be a $1.5 million business with the natural fiber division, but the synthetics could take us to $3 million,” she says. “So in five years we project 40 employees and $3 million in revenue.” The company, which expects to pull in $650,000 in gross revenue this year, currently focuses on natural fiber and wool dyeing.

U.S. dye houses are a dying breed, however, with only 11 remaining, according to Raessler. “We are the only organically certified operation in the country,” she says, adding that today's dyes have eliminated the dangerous chemicals used 30 years ago.

Beating the odds

Raessler herself admits to running into a lot of hard spots over the last two years of building her startup company. Among the early naysayers was Scott Grey, a sales manager at Jagger Brothers, a Springvale yarn maker that now is a customer of the dye house.

Grey has a long history with Raessler. He met Raessler, who also is a lawyer, and her husband, Ken, an anesthesiologist (and president of Maine Textiles), in their first move into textiles, when they owned an alpaca farm. He was even less optimistic about that effort.

“We counseled them on the pros and cons of getting alpaca fiber processed in the United States,” says Grey, emphasizing it is a difficult process and there aren't many fiber producers left in the country.

Raessler persisted, however, leaning as she went, and managed to turn the fiber into yarn, which Jagger spun for her. She then sold it to a hosiery factory that made socks.

Grey was impressed, but once again hesitated when Raessler brought up the idea of buying the equipment from JCA Dye House in Pepperell, Mass., which went out of business, and bringing it to Maine.

“We said we thought the investment would be too high and it would be too risky,” Grey says. “When Claudia bought the equipment, she didn't have a built-in customer base. But they have survived and pushed ahead and people are now coming to them.”

He says the company has succeeded by dyeing small lots at a time and by selling Paternayan Persian yarn for specialized, high-end applications. The company also will dye the loose fiber that looks like dreadlocks, which most other dyeing companies do not handle.

“They've found a number of niches, got the operation down and are growing it,” he says. “Saco River is contributing to the revitalization of Biddeford. They are proving a small business can operate today. Their name recognition is out there and people are coming to them now.”

He adds, “It was her determination and desire to bring a textile business back to Maine against overwhelming odds. There was no guarantee at all when they started pouring money into it that it would succeed. And now I think it will.”

He describes Raessler as “tenacious, very determined and very focused on making this work.” He adds that the grant-writing experience she gained as a lawyer helped pull in money for her company. Raessler has worked with nonprofit healthcare law and on public funding strategies, and has expertise in fundraising.

Referral by reputation

Truka Fisk, president of J. & H. Clasgens Co., a New Richmond, Ohio, wool yarn producer for four generations, wasn't concerned about Raessler's lack of experience when she sought a dye house.

“We always did our own dyeing and reeling, but about seven years ago decided to outsource it,” she says. She went through several dyers during that time until she found JCA, which had an excellent dye master named Don Morton, who Raessler hired when JCA's owner died and that mill shut.

“I wasn't concerned [about their lack of experience],” Fisk says. “Don Morton was working with them for a while until they found another dyer who was good.” Morton has since retired.

But Fisk also was impressed with Raessler's work ethic. “From the get-go she was always checking if the product was OK. She focuses on quality and service.” Fisk says she buys 200 pounds to 400 pounds of a color every few weeks for rugs sold in the southwestern United States.

Reweaving the textile business

The Pepperell Mill Campus, now home to 81 apartments and more than 90 businesses, was once occupied by textile maker Pepperell Manufacturing Co., which peaked in the early 1990s with 50 buildings, 5 million square feet of interior space and more than 10,000 employees, according to the campus' website.

Walking past the rows of bright orange, subdued blue and sunny yellow yarns looped over drying racks, Raessler recently enthused to Mainebiz about an unexpected visitor to her corner of the campus.

Tokyo-based writer Jun Miyamoto, who plans to publish a history of the U.S. yarn industry, was interested specifically in the history of Pepperell, which only a decade ago was like a virtual ghost town after being a powerhouse in Biddeford for more than a century. WestpointStevens' final operation in Pepperell closed in 2009.

“If you look at manufacturing jobs in the last 25 years, textiles were outsourced,” Raessler says, her blue eyes peering over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses. “I don't think we should to that. U.S. textile manufacturing needs to leverage, for example, South Street Linen [a Portland clothing boutique], which is one of our customers.” She's also been talking to York Community College to add a textile curriculum.

Her niche focus on small dye lots and specialty yarns, with a yarn shop next to the dye house, is part of her effort to gain critical mass in textiles. “This is the chance to build something,” she says. “If you get the right people, they can learn to do anything.” She calls her business a bit of the United Nations, with a mix of workers with different backgrounds and different nationalities.

Miyamoto connects with that sentiment. “Her effort is connected to the community's history,” Miyamoto wrote in an email to Mainebiz. The dyeing process is one part of the yarn-making process that he will include in his book, due out early next year in Japanese. “My context about the Saco River Dyehouse is a new and positive try to bring the textile business again to the area, which was once a huge community base in its heyday,” he wrote. Japan itself has centuries of textile tradition, including silk kimonos and white and indigo fabrics.

Raessler says she has always loved textiles, as well as the production process. “It's a chance to do supply chain management,” she says, though she still spends some of her time as a lawyer. “I love watching it work well. And that speaks volumes about the workers.”


Claudia Raessler, Maine Textiles

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