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Business Spotlight: Family Threads

Ozark apparel manufacturer maintains workforce as pandemic cuts into sales and alters product line

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With 35 years as a local family-run and operated company making collegiate licensed apparel for children, Third Street Sportswear Manufacturing Inc. is used to stability.

That position was shaken last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, as the Ozark company owned by husband and wife Brad and Julie Thomas and their daughters turned its attention heavily toward face-mask production.

The pivot to make double cotton-woven face masks was born out of necessity, as stay-at-home orders forced college bookstores – Third Street’s primary customer base – to temporarily shut down last spring. Daughter Becky Thomas says the mask production helped keep the company’s 40-employee workforce employed even as many colleges and universities across the country were closed for months.

“Nobody has lost their job here with the pandemic. But, obviously, the pandemic has impacted our business,” she says, noting the company, which opened in 1986, traditionally manufactures children’s clothing, such as T-shirts, sweatshirts, jerseys and cheerleader outfits.

Year-over-year revenue was down around 40% from 2019, Becky says, declining to disclose figures.

“What sustained us in 2020 is that we had such a strong first two months of the year,” she says. “2020 was on track to be our strongest year in my recent memory. We had very strong early bookings.”

Third Street’s customers stood by the orders made in January and February, but few more came in over the following months, Becky says. The company made face masks almost exclusively between April and July – and will continue to produce them as long as there is demand.

The company also was aided by funding through the Paycheck Protection Program. While the Thomases declined to disclose the total, the loan amount was in the $150,000-$350,000 range, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration website.

All in the family
Becky and her sister Laurie have been Third Street co-owners for the past decade. They grew up in the business, Laurie says, adding their first “official roles” were serving as models at the ages of 3 and 5 for some of the clothing products.

Laurie began working for the company full time in 2008 after graduating from University of Missouri-Columbia. Becky also has spent most of her adult life at Third Street, except for around five years when she worked at the Topeka, Kansas, headquarters for Payless ShoeSource Inc.

“It gave me a good background learning about numbers and inventory management from a retail perspective,” Becky says of her time with the footwear company.

Third Street handles every part of the production order process in house at its two manufacturing plants – in Ozark, opened in 1986, and in Houston, which followed in 1999. A Nixa plant started in 1998 but closed after a couple of years and consolidated into Ozark, Becky says.

“We do everything ourselves from start to finish,” Becky says, noting the company custom manufactures and doesn’t carry inventory in sewn goods. “We stock fabrics in several different fabrications and multiple colors. We market our own designs to a variety of retailers. We then manufacture those goods in exactly the sizes, quantities and colors that they want.”

Third Street also ships to its roughly 200 active store clients, 80% of which are college bookstores, Becky says. Military exchanges, high schools, museum shops and team stores make up most of the other 20%.

Longtime connection
Although last year was an exception, 90% of Third Street’s manufactured products are children’s apparel, starting at newborn sizes, Laurie says. Since 1999, the company also has an exclusive co-brand for characters of “Peanuts,” the popular comic strip created by Charles Schulz. One of Third Street’s sales representatives in California had a relationship with “Peanuts” licensing and made the connection, Becky says.

“They’re wonderful to work with,” Becky says, noting “Peanuts”-branded apparel is around 10% of company sales. “Snoopy is such a timeless character and has so many personalities. We’re able to get into the archives of all those different personas to create designs that are co-branded with the different universities.”

For example, she says for branded apparel at University of California-Los Angeles, Snoopy is surfing, while at the University of Texas, he’s wearing a cowboy hat.

Another of Third Street’s longtime clients is Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Fred Piccirilli, senior director for retail services, says he also worked with the manufacturer when he was merchandising director at Stanford University in the 1990s.

“In children’s apparel, they’re pretty much our biggest vendor now,” he says, declining to disclose annual purchases with Third Street.

Third Street’s sales with Cornell in 2020 were a mix of 2,010 units of children’s apparel and 2,831 face masks, Piccirilli says. In 2019, unit sales of children’s apparel were 4,579 – a total he says is more consistent with recent years.

“Their stuff is incredibly customized,” he says. “They’ve got a brand and have the line they are doing each season and are nimble enough to be able to tailor to all these unique markets.”

While Third Street’s owners want to see its client total increase over time, the company is more focused on maintaining and building upon connections with current clientele.

“It’s all about the relationships we’ve built over 35 years that helps us grow that business,” Laurie says.

As second-generation owners, the sisters are deeply involved in day-to-day operations. However, Becky says their parents don’t have any immediate plans to walk away from the nearly four-decade-old company.

“For any small-business owner, retirement is always a goal. But when you’ve built something and worked at it all of the time, it is you,” she says. “How do you separate when it’s finally time? It’s an ongoing joke here.”

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