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As new HQ goes up, Carhartt doesn't wear thin with building trades

Date Posted: April 4 2003

For more than a century, building trades workers have been the backbone of the customer base for Carhartt, a leading manufacturer of quality work clothes.

Now, Carhartt is returning the favor, making it a point to employ union labor to build its 57,000-square foot headquarters in Dearborn.

Construction of the $7 million building began Sept. 23, and there are currently 55 Hardhats on the project. Campbell/Manix Project Superintendent John Shamery said the two-level structure is on target to be complete in late June.

"So far so good," Shamery said. "Schedule-wise, the work is moving along fine. Our workers are doing a good job. I find that you can reduce the problems you have on the job with good communication."

Carhartt has been manufacturing work-wear since 1889. At the time, traveling salesman Hamilton Carhartt rode the trains, selling a number of products including overalls, which were a popular item among railroad workers. Taking note of the demand, he began a sideline business of manufacturing overalls, initially renting a 600-square-foot room and two sewing machines.

"I soon found out that I was up against it good and proper," Carhartt wrote. "I could not manufacture overalls and compete with sweat shop products. The first buyer I approached with my samples said he could buy overalls cheaper than I could steal them, and he came pretty near proving it. It made no difference to him what pay the workers who made the overalls he bought received, nor that the lifeblood of the gaunt workers was on every garment."

Carhartt wrote that he consulted with a railroad engineer on the Michigan Central Railroad between Detroit and Jackson, who said that if he made an overall "thus and so, railroad men would fall for them hard" since most of their overalls were individually built for them by hand.

Following that advice, Carhartt said his business then grew by "leaps and bounds." Today the company has continued the tradition of treating its employees well, and owns and operates 13 unionized manufacturing facilities and two unionized distribution centers , employing about 1,800.

"Over the years, Carhartt has made it a policy to hire union workers," said Carhartt representative Nancy Sheedy. "We try to have a good relationship with our workers, and union people support us by buying our clothes."

Carhartt's current headquarters are in the twin Parklane office towers in Dearborn, not far from where the new HQ is being erected at Mercury Drive north of Ford Rd. The company has been renting space for nearly 30 years, but their offices are on three different floors and in separate towers.

Shamery said the new building "is a pretty typical office building," with one minor exception. In the new building, plumbers are installing hook-ups for a laundry room, complete with a pair of Kenmore washers and dryers. Laundry rooms are certainly not common in office buildings, but Carhartt will use them to test clothing for durability, colorfastness and shrinkage.

As a goodwill gesture on the project, Carhartt has provided each construction worker with a new pair of pants and a winter jacket. Sheedy said their new headquarters is also providing Carhartt designers with a convenient "laboratory" for looking at the way construction workers wear their clothes. For example, she said the designers were surprised by the wide use of vests by construction workers during the winter - so marketing clothes that allow cold-weather flexibility might be in the company's future.

In recent weeks, Hardhats have been shedding their vests and winter jackets in the warmer weather as they go about erecting Carhartt's new building.

"It's going to be so much easier to work together in the new building," said Sheedy. "Plus we're doing more hiring, so we're going to need more space. We've been renting space for so long that it's just exciting to have a building of our own. It's been fun to look our of our windows and watch it being built."

DUCT-TAPING 4-inch primary and secondary conduit that will serve the new Carhartt headquarters in Dearborn is Tom Smith of IBEW Local 58 and Midwest Power and Light Co. Carhartt provided Tom and other Hardhats on the project with a pair of pants and a new winter coat, and Tom's is hanging at right. Tom said there are a lot of Carhartts in his closet. "I love 'em, they're the best," he said.
THE NEW Carhartt headquarters.