Berks County's Dolfin Swimwear aiming to make a big splash

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MOHNTON, Pa. -- When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a new company seized an opportunity and started making rayon and nylon parachutes. Through the years, the company filled niches of the times: parachutes during wartime, then rayon and nylon lingerie and, in the 1980s, nylon running shorts favored by teenagers and Richard Simmons.

Today, Dolfin Swimwear is known for its affordable swimwear and Uglies, a popular line of practice suits in far-out colors and crazy prints. Dolfin is not as big as Speedo or TYR, but the company has a loyal following. It recently partnered with several Olympic coaches and launched a marketing effort to spread the word about the affordable brand.

"We need to stretch our limbs and spend to show people that we're not a cheap brand," said company president Jim Korth.

Dolfin produces one-quarter of its swimwear in a former hosiery mill in Mohnton, Berks County. Next to the sewing room, there's a wide-format pattern printer and an automatic cutter with a vacuum table. A wall is filled with sample bolts of stretchy fabric prints: rainbow lightning bolts, fluorescent paint splatters, acid-green stripes and a psychedelic red-white-and-blue print.

Finding experienced sewers is difficult, but the production facility is key to Dolfin's customer service, Mr. Korth said. While most of the swimwear is made in Asia, the Mohnton plant allows the company to turn around rush orders in just a few days.

Recently, a team asked for a rush order of 200 suits. Dolfin had most in stock, but hand-cut and sewed 20 to finish the order.

"You don't want to have five little girls not wearing the team uniform for the first meet," Mr. Korth said.

Since the parachute days, Dolfin has reinvented itself several times.

After World War II, the company became Jean Vernon Corp. and produced lingerie. Local coaches suggested the material would be great for swimwear and that led to nylon running suits made by a sister company, Dolfin.

By the time Thomas H. Lee bought the company in 1983, Dolfin was riding the tricot running shorts trend.

"They were incredibly popular, and they were incredibly profitable. That's why Tom Lee bought the company," said Mr. Korth, who was hired to run the company a year later.

"The problem was that it was a fad situation, and that died rather quickly. Every young girl in the country was wearing them. I was watching a movie last night and somebody mentioned, 'Oh, you look great in those Dolfin shorts.' They had people lining up. Foot Locker and people like that were sending checks in advance just to get the shorts, it was that hot."

But the fad didn't last and the million-dollar orders disappeared. Mr. Korth revived the swimwear business.

Mr. Lee sold the company to management in 1987, including majority shareholders Mr. Korth and Brian McElroy, who was bought out in 2008, and former CFO and minority shareholder Don Potteiger, who died in 2007.

As Nike and Reebok expanded their clothing lines, Dolfin pulled back from the running gear and expanded the swimwear business. The company focused on manufacturing private-label swimwear for companies like L.L. Bean.

The company also shifted some production to Honduras in the mid-1990s to find cheaper labor and meet the demand for lower prices. As prices continued to drop, production moved to Asia. Now, Dolfin works with an agent to produce about 75 percent of the swimwear in several plants throughout Asia.

The plant in Mohnton is a small but integral part of the company and provides the flexibility customers need. Odd orders are the norm. For example, one style's sales jumped 53 percent this year. Once a lifeguard store asked for 300 of the same size of a suit.

The company also works with several local subcontractors to handle things like flatlock stitching and woven fabrics, adding even more flexibility.

The headquarters houses Dolfin's design team, which buys prints and tweaks the colors, depending on what's popular and keeping in mind hot team colors: blue, red, green and purple.

Dolfin will jump through hoops to meet a demanding order, Mr. Korth said, which helps retain customers and grow sales. Gross sales have grown by 5 to 14 percent each year for the past few years.

That beats the national average annual growth of 0.9 percent since the beginning of the recession, according to a March IBISWorld report on the $14.5 billion lingerie, swimwear and bridal store industry.

Swimwear is a highly discretionary segment of the market, and sales nationwide decreased during the recession. As spending rebounds, business is projected to grow 4.4 percent annually through 2018, according to IBISWorld.

The company doesn't want to compete with swimwear giants Speedo and TYR and prices items about 20 to 25 percent less, Mr. Korth said. But the lower price can give some customers the wrong impression. Many customer reviews say they're surprised by the quality, considering the price.

In February, Olympics gold medalist Mark Gangloff and trials finalist Julie Stupp reviewed the top technical suits for Mr. Gangloff said he was pleasantly surprised by the lower-priced Dolfin suit's performance.

Ms. Stupp called the Dolfin suit the biggest surprise in her review.

"It was the dark horse competitor, who won from lane 8," she wrote. "It had compression, water resistance and a flexible fit, and seemed to mold to my body better, the more I wore it in the water."

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