Lion Brothers

Suzy Ganz and 115-year-old Lion Brothers are pioneering the emerging world of digital manufacturing

By Linda Strowbridge

Photography by Rachel Smith

Don’t let the Girl Scout badges mislead you.

The walls and storerooms of Lion Brothers may be adorned with regal emblems of military units, mission patches from NASA milestones, and adorable badges for Girl Scout troops and Little League sluggers.

Yet beyond those displays of immaculate, traditional embroidery, the 115-year-old manufacturer has stretched boldly beyond its legacy operations to compete globally, pioneer technologies, capture Tier 1 brands as clients and dive into the emerging world of digital manufacturing. It even partnered with the Girl Scouts of the USA to pioneer custom printing technologies, open a leading-edge research and development center, and offer unique STEM education to young girls.

The modernization process has plunged CEO Susan J. “Suzy” Ganz into intensive, broad-based and prolonged periods of change management. The former international equities trader, however, probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Being in an environment that’s not changing wouldn’t make me happy,” Ganz says.

“Suzy has a real desire, a real curiosity to find where the future is going and then try to position us to be in place for that future,” says Paul Weedlun, a 16-year Lion Brothers employee who now serves as its director of research and development.

That drive has enabled Lion Brothers to not only survive a period when many U.S. textile companies folded. It is also preparing the company to seize growth opportunities on the horizon. To foster a second century of success for Lion Brothers, however, company leaders will once again have to be masterful agents of change.

A TRADER TAKES UP STITCHING

An international equities trader and bond specialist, Ganz had never expected to take over and transform a legacy manufacturing company. Her father had purchased the company in 1978, but then died unexpectedly in between her first and second years of business school. Her mother asked Ganz, who had just completed grad school, to analyze the business and determine whether the family should retain or sell it. Ganz agreed to go to Baltimore for just 90 days and deliver a recommendation.

“When I came, the company was in rough shape,” she says. “It had a lot of debt and the whole business itself had changed and become commoditized. Lion, at the time, was searching for its place in the sun.”

Yet Ganz saw strengths in the struggling company. Founded in a downtown Baltimore carriage house by brothers Albert and Ben Lion in 1899, Lion Brothers had become known for expert craftsmanship and attracted an impressive roster of long-time clients, some dating back to 1914. Its clients included the Department of Defense, the National Park Service, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, NASA, multiple state police forces, professional and amateur sports teams, the Girl and Boy Scouts, assorted businesses, and countless church and community groups.

“If a group of people got together for a common purpose, chances are we provided the official insignia,” Ganz says. “There were also so many firsts that this company had created product for, like the first Super Bowl.”

The combination of impressive products, a wide array of great clients, and a remarkably skilled and loyal staff convinced Ganz that the family should retain Lion Brothers.

“How could you possibly let something like that fail?” she says.

Besides, sometime during those first 90 days, Suzy Ganz fell in love with manufacturing.

STONE ROADS AND COMMUNISM

A dramatic shift in the textile/apparel manufacturing industry posed the first immediate challenge to Ganz. Changing cost structures had already driven many companies out of the northeastern U.S. to cheaper sites in the South, and were beginning to eliminate some U.S. operations altogether in the face of emerging, low-cost competition from Asia.

Ganz concluded that Lion Brothers would have to make two major changes to remain cost competitive.

First, Lion Brothers would need to transform its operations to a “lean manufacturing” system. Pioneered by Toyota, “lean manufacturing is a philosophy of production that means reducing every kind of waste — waste of space, movement, time, materials, everything,” Ganz says.

Second, Lion Brothers would need to offshore some of its manufacturing to supplement its domestic operations. So the venerable Baltimore company became one of the early American manufacturers to open a plant in China.

“China was very different from what it is today,” Ganz says. “They had limited roads and they were stone roads … There were lots of guards dressed in the old Mao collars and they were very serious. One was very careful not to bring in Western content because you were dealing with Communist China. My first time in Beijing, they hadn’t even seen a lot of round-eyed women.”

In addition to hours-long border crossings and the requirements of Chinese officials, Lion had to master communications with a new workforce that both spoke a different language and had completely different cultural and work backgrounds. Initially, the communications challenge fueled misinterpretations about product designs, manufacturing processes and material substitutions, resulting in some production problems and some frustrating work days.

TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE, GLOBAL STAGE

Those early overseas challenges, however, forced Lion Brothers to develop a new level of sophistication.

Lion — which eventually expanded operations in Asia and distribution around the world — began to develop more rigorous processes and protocols for all its facilities.

“One of the things we try to do in our operations now is make sure we have replicas of everything and ensure the materials we use to develop a product in the U.S. are the same materials that will be used in China. Also, the same processes and machine instructions are used in both,” says Weedlun, who headed Lion’s domestic production then global operations before taking over the research and development team. “That takes a lot of discipline and control, but it is really important if you are going to maintain a position of leadership in quality.”

That quality assurance, Weedlun added, became a key factor in distinguishing Lion from its international competition.

“For Tier 1 customers, quality is the biggest thing,” he says. “With globalization, a lot of customers have had a lot of bad-quality experiences. We knew we needed to position ourselves so we weren’t necessarily the lowest-cost manufacturer. Instead, we focused on quality, service and reliability.”

Achieving that consistency throughout Lion’s operations did not happen easily or overnight. Although Lion made tremendous progress in fostering high-quality and cost-effective manufacturing internationally, three years ago company leadership dug into a new business strategy, which included a change-management process to push the company to a higher level of sophistication.

“We looked at the entity from top to bottom and created a road map of what needed to change in order for us to grow,” Ganz says. “We identified really clear processes that would move us from tribal knowledge to sound methods of doing things.”

“Everything was tribal knowledge. It was all in people’s heads,” says COO Stephen Mynott. A 30-year employee of Avery Dennison Corporation, a global leader in the production of apparel branding labels, Mynott came out of retirement three years ago to join Lion Brothers. “Lion was trying to go from a 100-year-old heritage into a new vision, and it was tough.”

But Lion’s new change-management model gave the company a clear path to develop top-quality processes and deep institutional knowledge, and solidly build its future from the ground up, Mynott says.

That sophistication, combined with Lion’s innate passion for developing new products and adopting new technologies, also set the stage for the 115-year-old company to create products that would thrill some of the biggest brands in the world.

FROM VINTAGE LOOMS TO SONIC WELDING

“Things move on dramatically so we must move on dramatically,” says Steven Walton, executive director of Lion International. “It’s the oldest cliché in the world: If you stand still, you move backwards.”

A 30-year veteran of the international apparel industry with experience leading companies ranging from a British luxury menswear retailer to a Far East apparel manufacturer, Walton moved to America in 2011 to join Lion because he saw the company as a “unique sleeping giant.”

“Just consider that this is a small to medium-sized business based in Baltimore, where there is very little in the textiles and apparel industry. Yet we produce everything that goes on NHL, everything for the NBA on court and in retail. We do a large percentage of the NFL and a little bit of the MLB,” Walton says. “And if you consider the uniqueness of our products and some of the innovation, there is opportunity for more expansion.”

Walton, Ganz and Mynott believed the company needed to move on from the manufacturing tradition of mass production and embrace the opportunities posed by mass customization.

“We produce approximately 48,000 new designs for customers a year, 4,000 designs a month on average. We are a custom shop for all intents and purposes,” Walton says.

To achieve that level of customization and position itself for future opportunities, Lion Brothers had to dramatically change core operations. The traditional practice of purchasing base fabrics in 800-yard lots could not cost-effectively deliver the full range of precise colors desired by Lion’s clients. Similarly, the 15-yard looms embedded in six feet of concrete within Lion’s plants and the metal dyes used to cut each emblem or decoration were not the most efficient tools to fill small-batch, custom orders.

So Lion Brothers established a research and development team to explore, test and commercialize new technologies, including smaller, efficient embroidery machines, textile lasers for advanced cutting, and sublimation print technology that could precisely color small amounts of fabric. The company also began investigating new materials, adhesives and production processes that would enable it to produce unique embellishments and apparel identity products. Its operations grew to include digital textile and film printing, and more sophisticated forms of embellishments such as multi-layer appliques. Members of Lion’s R&D team built deeper knowledge of material science and rapid prototyping, and have adopted the practice of searching for new technologies, materials and process solutions far outside the textile industry.

“Whenever we have a problem, we try to think about who else might be trying to solve a similar problem and see if somebody has solved it in another industry,” Weedlun says.

The innovations were both driven by the needs of global brands and subsequently drove additional work with those Tier 1 brands.

“We work with global brands and they operate at the speed of light,” Ganz says. To further those partnerships, Lion had to “operate in a global, fast-moving, science-based, process-based culture. That’s the biggest change.”

The innovations have enabled Lion to debut new and highly successful products. Its advances in adhesive technologies, for example, helped Lion satisfy the NBA’s desire for improved numbers and insignia on mesh jerseys. Advanced adhesives also recently helped Lion capitalize on a fashion trend — the one-pocket T-shirt.

“Attaching a custom embellished pocket last minute onto a blank T-shirt is extremely difficult,” Walton says. “We created a heat-sealed pocket whereby you could call me up today and say, ‘Steven, we have the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight coming up and we need 1,000 pockets with pictures on them that we can apply to T-shirts.’”

Lion’s new processes, Walton and Mynott added, have even made such time-sensitive orders more feasible and profitable for Lion’s clients.

“We have continued to work to reduce our product lead times dramatically so that for certain sectors we can turn around orders in two to three weeks from the Far East and deliver the product back here,” Walton says.

That fast turnaround, Mynott says, can boost a client’s sales of retail products by 30 to 40 percent, “which helps make our clients more successful.”

PREPARING FOR A SEISMIC SHIFT

Lion Brothers, Ganz says, will need to innovate further and continue to implement its roadmap to the future in order to be ready for a “seismic change” in the manufacturing industry.

“Traditionally, manufacturing has been a subtractive process,” Ganz says.

Manufacturers take large pieces of fabric, wood, steel or other materials, cut them down and shape them into products.

“New forms of manufacturing coming up are additive. We start with a tiny dot [in digital designs or 3-D printing] and we build,” she says.

That technology shift also changes the philosophy of manufacturing from a top-down approach to a bottom-up approach.

“The top-down philosophy is monolithic and expensive, doesn’t move quickly and is hard to change,” Ganz says. “The bottom-up philosophy is tiny and digital. It can be built upon and embedded. It can have adjunct spaces and move quickly.”

And that technology and philosophy could dramatically change Lion Brothers’ physical daily operations over the next decade.

“In 10 years’ time, this business could have a large number of micro-manufacturing units spread across the western world,” Walton says.

Advances in automation and modular manufacturing, coupled with the increasing cost of manufacturing in the Far East and clients’ desire for fast turnarounds and American-made products, will likely enable Lion to increase its domestic manufacturing operations, he says.

In addition, Lion’s operations will likely function through mobile apps, streamlining processes from product design and development through delivery, but also enabling customers to crowdsource designs for new products. Lion Brothers products have plenty of applications in other industries, such as home goods, automotive and industrial, but as products and materials become smarter, Lion is also interested in continuing its path of innovation with smart textiles, developing relevant products for the next generation.

“I hope we will be leading in technologies and services, which will help to lead our industry,” Ganz says. “But I hope we are doing it with the same values that the two Lion brothers brought to the company 115 years ago because there really has been constant commitment to those values and we don’t want to be the ones to not carry those on.” CEO

Linda Strowbridge is a freelance writer based in Owings Mills, MD. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

ETHOS OF A LEADER

What leadership skills does it take to transform a struggling legacy company into a global operator and high-tech innovator?

Lion Brothers’ CEO Susan J. “Suzy” Ganz points to three traits that have benefited her most: integrity, intense curiosity “which some people might say translates into a sense of vision,” and “a tremendous sense of determination and perseverance — just sheer grit, the non-sexy kind.”

“Suzy is a fairly unique individual,” says Steven Walton, executive director of Lion International. “She is an acute financial leader and has a great understanding of the key criteria to run a business. But she is a combination of being a very firm, tough business leader who also has an immensely soft, family approach, which I consider a compliment. She is incredibly approachable and genuinely cares about people. That uniqueness is a massive attraction for people in business.”

“She is always challenging me,” says COO Stephen Mynott. Yet even though she challenges her team with new ideas and high goals, “Suzy trusts her leadership team. She gives you a lot of rope. She checks in every now and again, but it’s more of an informal head in the door and asking, ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’”

Although Lion Brothers has embarked on big changes over the decade, Ganz has also taught the leadership team about the power of making small bets, says Paul Weedlun, director of research and development.

“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Weedlun says. “We don’t make large bets. We incubate smaller ideas and see how those grow. Fabric printing started off as a narrow feature and then blossomed into something much larger. Understanding that we might start small but look for greater potential creates a lot of opportunities for growth.”

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