By Douglas Karlson
It has survived explosions, fire, depressions, and competition from China, and the Merrow Sewing Machine Company is still here and thriving, after 180 years. Its secret: a willingness to adopt new technology and to evolve.
The company’s origins date back more than seven generations, to Connecticut, where the first enterprising Merrow manufactured gunpowder. An explosion put an end to that, and in 1838 the business turned to the manufacture of knitted goods. at led to the invention and manufacture of sewing machines, which, following a fire that destroyed the knitting mill, became the company’s core business.
In 2004 the company relocated to Fall River, where it has once again been transformed under the leadership of brothers Charlie and Owen Merrow, the CEO and COO.
Today, the company’s core business remains the manufacture of commercial sewing machines. Their patented machines dominate the technical sewing and textile finishing markets, and perform applications ranging from the fine edging on wedding dresses to patented “Activeseam” elastic stitches used in sportswear.
Merrow has about 150 employees, mostly located in Fall River, and sells its products in 87 countries. Its reputation is for quality and innovation. Merrow overlock sewing machines often last for 100 years. It’s not usual for a loyal customer to call about a sewing machine that was made in the 1920s in search of spare part – which Merrow can supply.
When Charlie Merrow took over as CEO, the company had valuable patents, a strong customer base, and a reputation for top-of-the-line sewing machines. But it was facing increasing competition from China, and operating with out-of-date analog systems or, as Merrow describes it, “Excel spreadsheets and sticky-notes.”
“We had to change in order to survive,” says Merrow. The question, as he saw it, was “How does a US-based business sell into 87 countries around the world effectively? Our answer was technology.”
Rather than hire more salespeople and send them into the market, they chose to increase the efficiency with which they served their customers. After experimenting with a number of software packages, they chose the Salesforce platform.
“All of a sudden, we were able to see what we were doing,” says Merrow.
“Without applying, at each interval, the most sophisticated and efficiency-driven technologies available, we would never have been able to rebuild Merrow into a global brand,” he says.
“Every time we faced a question of how to manage the company and how to scale, we answered it with technology-based solutions and developed a model that’s pretty innovative, in that it’s a technology-based solution that is empowered on a departmental basis.”
That evolution into advanced technology not only improved the company’s operations, but the new systems – and the agile management team that implemented them, created a platform on which to incubate diversified new businesses within Merrow. In short, says Merrow, the management team realized “we’re good at nurturing things.”
“We began a company that started to look a lot more like a technology company in San Francisco than an industrial manufacturing concern in Connecticut. Everything from our offices to our people reflected that,” says Merrow, who spent several years earlier in his career as an IT consultant in San Francisco.
The management team realized that the skills and capabilities they had developed would support new business enterprises not limited to the textile industry. Since 2009, Merrow has incubated 14 new businesses, ranging from patented LED technology to soft goods manufacturing and shirt making.
“It’s technically diverse, and the common thread is a technology stack that supports rapid deployment of products, very tight B2B and B2C marketing, and customer service and support,” explains Merrow.
Soft goods refers to everything from backpacks to pet products, and Merrow believes their company is now the largest soft goods manufacturer in the Northeast.
Manufacturing soft goods and making shirts relies heavily on the skilled workforce and knowledge base found in the Fall River-New Bedford-South Coast textile/apparel manufacturing ecosystem. “These disciplines are rapidly disappearing, and so my brother and I stepped in and said we can build a business around these degraded knowledge bases and reinforce them and build them back into viable and growing commercial models – which actually gives the region a strategic advantage because these bodies of knowledge are not well represented in the U.S. … in other words, it’s hard to find people who know how to sew.”
Doing business in Massachusetts is not without challenges. It’s expensive compared to Merrow’s competitors, which Merrow identifies as primarily located in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. But Merrow credits a talented workforce, and says the Commonwealth is supportive of Merrow’s efforts. The state recently awarding a $750,000 tax credit to purchase and renovate a Fall River building, and he says state officials across the board have praised Merrow’s efforts to reinvigorate the region.
Of all of Merrow’s new diversified initiatives, he is perhaps most excited about the Merrow Incubator, or MI, which launched this spring.
It’s an incubator for incubators. The idea is to encourage and find financing for large-format, short-term art projects, and to bring in others who can lead workshops to nurture a community-based arts initiative, focused mainly on young people.
“It might be the most wonderful thing we’ve done on our journey,” says Merrow. He envisions large art projects that will change the perception people have of the region.
“We think it’s really important that people look around and say ‘Wow, what an amazing place this is.’”
Merrow notes that there’s a very narrow base of philanthropic support in the region. He wants to change that, and help connect arts projects with major foundations and individual donors. MI launched in March and has already raised pledges of $350,000 for arts initiative in Fall River and the surrounding area.
Charlie Merrow says the future looks bright, especially if the state supports the development of physical and technological infrastructure.
“In an environment where we have state-of-the-art infrastructure,” notes Merrow, “this workforce will produce products that are commercially viable and very successful in world markets.”
The company’s primary focus remains the manufacture of sewing machines, but, says Merrow, “I understand that the history of our company is a history of evolution and change, and so the way we will grow is by slowly shifting core business into areas that are either an evolution or a logical departure from it.”