Hiring, business rise at Greensburg plant of T-shirt firm

Cashing in on the election

Workers pulling orders, running heat presses and packing up boxes for shipping at the Spreadshirt plant in Westmoreland County see it all, every day, in vivid colors: pop culture ready for display on bodies across blue states, red states and maybe a few purple ones.

The "Dogs against Romney" shirts and the "No-Bama" shirts. Shirts quoting reality show celebs of "Basketball Wives" and "Dancing with the Stars," sometimes with words not approved for use in a family newspaper. More G-rated are the popular Skeleton Baby shirts for pregnant women ready to trick-or-treat.

A willingness to shrug things off is part of the job description for those employed at the former Sears warehouse that since 2005 has served as the U.S. production operation for the T-shirt customization company founded a decade ago in Leipzig, Germany.

Sometimes it's hard -- and not just in an election year.

"I don't like when the Steelers shirts come through and people are bashing the Steelers," admitted Julie Maccagnan, production manager for the plant. "That makes me mad."

But she still expects the quality of those T-shirts to meet the company's standards and for them to be shipped within the promised window of time.

Spreadshirt is expanding in the U.S., with its Pennsylvania production facility now running three shifts and a second production facility opening this summer in Nevada.

The company's revenues grew from $39 million in 2009 to $63.5 million in 2011, said Mark Venezia, vice president of global sales and marketing. This year, Spreadshirt is projecting revenues will hit $100 million.

Americans do love T-shirts. Sales in the overall category rose almost 4 percent to $25.7 billion in the 12 months ended in July, according to Port Washington, N.Y., research firm NPD Group.

Message shirts account for just a shelf or two of that, but they're popular. It's pretty easy to claim a shirt as your own when you get to choose the message on it. Besides, such customization can generally be done for less than $20.

Through the wonders of technology, customers may choose pre-set designs or come up with their own. And Spreadshirt isn't the only online company capitalizing on the trend. Another major industry player, CafePress Inc., earlier this year announced plans to more than double the size of its Louisville, Ky., production facility.

Spreadshirt's Hempfield plant now employs 162 people, with 129 of them in production, said Laura Platt, human resource manager at the facility. At the end of last year, there were 38 full-time production workers.

A recent job fair drew 100 applicants for 20 positions, but Ms. Platt is hoping to tap that pool even further. With the new shifts, she can now offer work to people interested in just a few hours throughout the week.

She'll need them particularly as the holiday season kicks in. In a typical week, the plant may ship around 4,500 orders on Monday and Tuesday, the busiest days. Starting around Thanksgiving, orders really start to pour in, and the plant may ship between 10,000 and 12,000 orders a day.

The work can get tedious, admitted Ms. Platt, who tries to keep things interesting by planning special events and keeping the air hockey table working. There's not much of a dress code -- T-shirts are definitely acceptable -- and the warehouse is typically rocking out to music played on small speaker setups.

One section of the structure is devoted to decorating shirts -- or hoodies or pajamas or even underwear -- using a vinyl material that comes in colorful rolls.

An automated system takes razors to the material to cut designs sent in via computer. The pieces are separated by hand, then paired with the right size and color clothing. Employees running heat presses line it all up and seal it together, then send the finished piece along a conveyor belt to the quality control staff.

There's a lot of hands-on work. One receipt sent to a customer last week included the message that seven people had been involved in making the item.

Not all designs are suited to the vinyl applique system, which is limited in color choice and can get heavy if an image is too big.

Another section of the warehouse houses inkjet printers that shoot designs onto clothing, before sending the pieces through a flat dryer. These printers can create almost any color. The fanciest ones live in a climate-controlled area complete with a special humidifier.

On a recent day, one machine moved around a dark T-shirt that had been stretched on a form under the spray jets. The message, "Rise Above Hate," slowly appeared and then slowly changed colors to end up sporting a patriotic red, white and blue.

Mr. Venezia said Spreadshirt keeps costs down by getting volume prices on the shirts that it buys -- more than 100,000 annually -- from manufacturers such as American Apparel, Anvil, Bella and Canvas.

Also, workers are cross trained so they can be used where the demand is, and bonuses are offered if the facility meets "time per piece" goals.

The hard part is figuring out what will sell and when. Spreadshirt tries to position itself to be part of cultural moments, and has sold thousands of shirts through its Wikileaks partner shop as well as its line with Evelyn Lozada of VH1's "Basketball Wives."

Ms. Maccagnan said last football season the staff quickly learned certain T-shirt orders would spike every time NFL quarterback Tim Tebow did his signature prayer move.

Sometimes the company just gets lucky.

Four years ago, the site had a deal with CNN that made it easy to turn headlines into shirts. Workers weren't expecting the 8,000 orders in three days that came in for the headline after the election, "Obama raises hand and lifts a nation."

This year's presidential election could bring some more big moments, but it's hard to know what they might turn out to be.

In the meantime, the Spreadshirt workers report that Honey Boo Boo, the 6-year-old beauty pageant contestant featured on cable channel TLC, has fans as does YouTube actor Shane Dawson.

"I learn a lot about pop culture just from working here," Ms. Maccagnan said.

businessnews - neigh_westmoreland

Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published September 20, 2012 4:00 AM


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