This post originally appears on naumd's website.
Like many business owners last year, City Apparel’s Andrea Kramer reacted with disbelief upon learning that her state was shutting down non essential businesses due to the pandemic. The Findlay, Ohio, distributor, known mostly for uniforms, corporate apparel programs and promotional products, was in uncharted territory. “I didn’t know how we would survive, how my team – and the families who depended on them – would pull through this,” she said.
That was day one. By day two, Kramer knew. She would survive by fighting for her company’s life.
The pivot came first. Personal protective equipment was already a small part of City’s business, so they used their experience to connect with current and potential vendors, identifying the critical types of PPE that were in high demand. City Apparel landed its first big customer, the State of Ohio, to which they sold millions of masks in March and April. Other accounts quickly followed. In the end, City tripled its revenue in 2020, due to its ability to align with the PPE world and move product quickly.
But success can bring unexpected consequences. Running a business is stressful under normal circumstances, but during a pandemic, the toll is magnified. “The amount of hours that we put in was extraordinary,” said Kramer. “We were dealing with supply chain issues and customer demands 24/7, even on Christmas Day. It just wasn’t a healthy situation to be in.”
The core business also suffered; sales of apparel and promotional products were down 35 percent last year. Uniform allowance programs, which give customers a contact-free way to reorder and receive products, were the bright spot. Sales have slowly ticked up in 2021, but are still short of 2019 numbers. “We remain optimistic, but volatility remains. Mitigating risk is essential.” she noted.
At the height of the pandemic, City Apparel created a new division, City PPE Supply, to focus on all things PPE. As the pandemic wanes, many companies have pulled back from supplying PPE, opting to return to their pre-Covid business models.
The City Apparel strategy is different, almost counter intuitive, but it’s one that has paid off so far. “Keeping PPE and occupational safety equipment as part of the business just makes sense,” Kramer explained. “We are now a complete solution for any job in any industry. From hand sanitizer to filtered respirators to hats, googles and boots, we will source and stock it.”
A majority of City PPE Supply’s success thus far has been through public and government bids, according to Kramer. It’s a new area for City Apparel, and Kramer has added a new member to the all-female team to spearhead the initiative. Primarily focused on PPE in the beginning, bids are gradually becoming more uniform-focused. They’re making inroads in 2021, and are hoping for a 20 percent close rate on proposals currently out to bid.
City devised creative initiatives to reach and shore up its customer base during lockdown. The Batch and Bundle campaign, for example, paired promotional products with food items. The functional and tasty packages were shipped directly to residences rather than offices. With hybrid work environments still the norm in many industries, Kramer has no plans to discontinue the service. “What makes anyone more happy than a nice little snack delivered to their home?”
City also leveraged technology, teaming up with Sizer, a body measuring company that offers precise, contact-free fitting solutions to users. Kramer notes that the technology helped them adhere to social distancing requirements and to reach those who are still fearful of in-person contact.
Last week, City Apparel launched a new website that better reflects its messaging and core values. The rebrand offers users a new look, more content and a seamless experience across all platforms. As is evidenced in its mission statement, the new site underscores a commitment to “outfitting partners to create positive community impact and lasting relationships by elevating a brand and connecting people.”
The company’s footprint will also expand, a bittersweet opportunity born of the closure of the Kramer family’s dry cleaning business. “Changes in how we work and what we wear had been going on for years, but the pandemic really put the nail in the coffin,” said Kramer. She was able to purchase the building where it all began in 1944, and after renovation and construction City Apparel will double in size.
As the challenges of 2020 recede, the City Apparel team turned its efforts to outside initiatives that address industry and community concerns. Earlier this year, Kramer was tapped to serve on the National Small Business Association (NSBA) Leadership Council. The nonpartisan NSBA is the the nation’s oldest small-business advocacy organization and works to promote the interests of small businesses to policymakers in Washington..
No stranger to corporate leadership, Kramer has been involved with various boards, including Governor DeWine’s Board of Workforce Transformation and Opportunities for Ohioans Council. Items on the agenda include regulatory reform, tax simplification, workforce training and health care costs. “These are issues that affect all small businesses regardless of industry,” she said. “By working collectively and presenting our concerns to congress, we hope for real progress.”
Being connected to something greater than itself isn’t just a fad, it’s a way of life at City Apparel. The company is currently going through the certification process of becoming a Benefit Corporation to provide transparency and accountability that aligns with being a good steward to associates, clients and community.
This mentality has benefited local nonprofits and numerous programs throughout the years, and is in many ways the heart of City Apparel. “We strive to be socially aware, environmentally friendly. We wake up and want to make the lives of whoever walks across our path a little it better, easier. Above all, we want to connect with our customers and their brand in a meaningful way.”