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Seminole apparel company helps Haitian contractor rebound from earthquake

One World Apparel, a Port-au-Prince contractor for Seminole-based Superior Uniform Group, is restarting production and increasing employment after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. None of the company’s 300 workers was killed in the quake.

Photo courtesy of Superior Uniform Group

One World Apparel, a Port-au-Prince contractor for Seminole-based Superior Uniform Group, is restarting production and increasing employment after the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. None of the company’s 300 workers was killed in the quake.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince this week, Charles Sheppard couldn't escape horrifying images from the earthquake that struck Haiti two months ago: heavily bandaged victims missing arms and legs, crumbled buildings, and tent after tent plopped virtually on top of one another.

When he walked into an apparel manufacturing plant a couple of miles from Haiti's airport, it was a pleasant change. He was greeted with a standing ovation.

Sheppard's title is vice president of global supply chain for Superior Uniform Group, a Seminole-based maker of uniforms and other apparel. His Haitian mission was to help the company's Port-au-Prince contractor, One World Apparel, get back on line. Quickly.

Today, not only is the manufacturing plant operational with all 300 employees back on the job, but the facility has added 100 workers.

Superior Uniform CEO Michael Benstock acknowledges the company was very fortunate that none of the 300 original workers was killed, though some of them lost family members and homes.

He also considers the fast recovery of the plant all the more remarkable since "most of us were caught off guard" by the disaster.

"The last thing we considered Haiti at risk for was an earthquake," Benstock said in an interview Thursday. "We had plans for hurricanes in our facilities, but not a disaster recovery plan for an earthquake in Haiti."

Superior Uniform, a 90-year-old company with more than $100 million in annual sales, operates primarily in five countries.

It entered Haiti three years ago, drawn by the country's low wage scale (roughly on par with Mexico's wages) and a highly skilled work force involved in the apparel industry for a couple of decades.

The Haiti plant accounted for less than 10 percent of Superior's overall production but was growing, with plans to increase output even more.

"We're probably more resolute to follow through with those plans than before," Benstock said.

The Jan. 12 quake killed more than 220,000 people, injured 300,000 and left more than a million people homeless and many without work. It severely damaged a two-story building at the One World Apparel site, but a second, larger building was spared. Very little of the company's product, raw materials and equipment was lost or damaged.

Managers with Superior and One World Apparel moved equipment from the damaged building to the sturdy one, certified by the United Nations as habitable, and prepared to reopen. Their employees were ready.

"Days before we reopened, they were banging on the door asking to come back," Sheppard said.

Within two weeks, the plant was back in operation, shipping containers of lab coats, isolation gowns, scrub suits and other health care products from Haitian ports.

By opening day, Jan. 26, about half the workers were back at their posts. Some of the extra 100 workers who were later hired came from other apparel manufacturers no longer in business.

"So many other companies have left and, unfortunately, many of them had to because the infrastructure was not in place," Benstock said.

Indeed, looking ahead, Benstock would like to add more workers, but doesn't think Haiti's infrastructure can support it. He applauds political talk of creating 250,000 jobs in Haiti in the apparel industry, but wonders how that's possible any time soon.

Such growth would require 22 million square feet of work space; the country has only 2 million square feet of habitable work space now, which is being used primarily by hospitals and government.

On Thursday, after arriving back in Seminole, Sheppard said the magnitude of the crisis is still being felt by victims — emotional aftershocks, if not physical ones.

Since opening the facility three years ago, Sheppard figures he has visited Haiti 12 times. What strikes him most, he says, is the resilience of the Haitian community.

"The Haitians have had a lot of turmoil throughout their history," he said. "You can see how determined they are to get things up and running."

Added Benstock: "They've made great strides over the years. It really seemed like they were going to pick themselves up. This just sent them back 20 years."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.

Seminole apparel company helps Haitian contractor rebound from earthquake 03/18/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 22, 2010 1:30pm]

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