Lebanon Daily News, Friday, January 26, Lebanon Valley Review, Sunday, January 28, 2007
After years, Sookie's still a tight-knit shop
Lebanon Valley Review Cover
January 28, 2007
By John Latimer
There was a time in Lebanon's not-too-distant past, about 40 years ago, when the garment industry rivaled steel production as one of the key engines driving the local economy.
There were nearly a dozen companies scattered around the city, and others outside it, with names like Milsan, Dianne and Dutch Miss. Their employees numbered in the hundreds, and the clothing they manufactured was worn by men, women and children around the country.
But today - like its brother, the steel foundry - there are a precious few garment factories left. They are the lone survivors of an early wave of outsourcing that sent jobs overseas, where their products could be made more cheaply.
One that came late to the game, but has managed to make it where others have failed, is Sookie Activewear. Located in the former Everite plant at North Lincoln Avenue and East Lehman Street, the business is operated by Sookie and Joe Boyer.
The Boyers said there are two keys to their success: the flexibility that allow them to create a niche product and the company's small but loyal group of employees.
When Sookie came to the United States from South Korea in 1979, she carried $500 and two suitcases, which contained all her possessions. Running from a pre-arranged marriage made by her father, the then 24-year-old arrived in Georgia with the dreams of becoming a computer programmer.
But not being able to speak English limited Sookie's options, and she took a sewing job at a lingerie factory.
Looking back nearly three decades, the now 51-year-old understands that simple twist of fate has turned out for the best.
Sookie Boyer and her husband, Joe (right), watch as Dave Musser cuts fabric at Sookie's factory in Lebanon. Sookie is wearing an example of one of the garments created there.
In Georgia, Sookie married a man of her own choosing who grew up in Annville, PA. When he was discharged from the Army, the couple moved to Lebanon County, PA. The marriage ended quickly, and Sookie went back to work as a seamstress for Danford in Lebanon.
Sookie was still working in the sewing factory when she met and married her second husband, Robert Stoner - a happier marriage that lasted 19 years. Eventually, she began thinking about starting her own business and spread the word that she was available for contract work. When she received some orders she began working from the basement of their home.
Driven by hard work, skill and ambition, Sookie's business steadily grew over the next 10 years, she said.
"When I came to America I worked seven days a week, sometimes 12 to 16 hours a day, and I'm still doing it," she said.
In 1999, she and Stoner decided to take the next step in building a business. They purchased the former Merchandiser building in Myerstown, PA and set to work with about 15 employees. They called their factory Stoner's Sewing.
The business was just taking off when Stoner died in 2001, Sookie said, leaving her the business to run and two daughters, one from each marriage, to raise.
"He left me alone with all the business," she recalled. " I was doing all the sewing, and he took care of the paperwork. After he died, for nine months I tried to do it myself, but I couldn't."
Sookie's fortunes turned when she meet Joe Boyer, a corporate accountant. The couple fell in love, and Joe agreed to leave his job to become her business partner.
"He didn't know sewing but he knew business," Sookie said.
In 2003, they had an opportunity to buy the former Everite plant. The once-profitable company, which at its height employed nearly 250 people, had closed in 1996 after a dispute between the co-owners over whether or not to borrow money to keep the business growing.
After Everite closed, others operated from its plant with limited success. They included a wholesale clothing manufacturer, who hired Sookie as a contractor. The wholesale clothing maker, whose sign still hangs beside Sookie's on the front of the building, offered the building to the Boyers.
"It was a big decision," Sookie recalled.
Sewing personnel fill the crowded floor at Sookie's in Lebanon. The shop employs 20, the oldest one of whom is 78
When the couple took over, they decided to make the store a factory outlet (they also took residence in a spacious suite upstairs). The showroom is full of colorfully decorated casual-wear, sweat shirts, and t-shirts that are designed by Sookie and are reasonably priced.
"Most of the stuff we make is designed for middle-aged and older women," she said.
The clothing is made on the premises with the exception of nursing uniforms, which are made by friends of Sookie's in Philadelphia.
But the sale of the clothing accounts for only about 5 percent of the company's business, Joe said. The company's bread and butter is the leotard and costume trade.
Two of its biggest customers are in Philadelphia and York. The York-based company has an impressive list of clients that includes professional gymnastics teams, dance studios, and cheer leading squads.
The business has changed so much since we opened," Joe said. "We aren't in the clothing business anymore. We are in the costume and dance-wear business."
The York-based manufacturer contracts Sookie to make its products, and she also supplies her own "Sookie Leotards" brand of nylon leotards. All of her material is purchased in United States, she said.
Self-proclaimed 'hands-on owner' credits her workers
"We got to be their largest domestic contractor," she said. "What we make is made in the U.S.A. That is what I push for. ...It is hard to find clothing made in the U.S.A., but it can be done. I want my business to stay in America."
The company does not compete with leading leotard manufacturers like Danskin or Capezio, Joe explained, because its product is made out of nylon and not the more expensive cotton/Lycra blends of those companies.
Sookie Boyer (right) and seamstress Donna Allwein work on a sewing machine at Sookie's. Sookie still considers herself a 'hands-on owner'. After years as a seamstress herself, she has not yet given up her seat behind the machine.
"Our basic leotard is a product that the average person used to buy at J.C. Penney's or Sears," he said. "But they discontinued selling them or only sell them in black and white. We make then in all sorts of colors. As far as we know we are the largest manufacturer of nylon leotards in the country."
The material may be less expensive, but the quality of the workmanship is not; said Sookie, who calls herself a "hands-on owner" and has not given up her seat at the sewing machine. She credits her employees, several of whom worked at her Myerstown factory, for making the business a success.
"We are growing because our employees are very dedicated and very loyal," she said. "We could not be doing this without all of them. ...We are sort of like a mom-and-pop shop. We are like a family."
The staff are mostly women who come form diverse backgrounds and countries. Sookie said she is concerned about finding workers in the future because young people are not as interested in sewing. Her door is always open for a qualified seamstress, she said.
"Our oldest operator is 78, and she is our best sewer," she said. " I am so proud of her."
Sookie is also proud of what she has accomplished since arriving from South Korea with $500 and a dream of becoming a success.
"I may not be a computer programmer," she said. "But I think I did the best that I could. My dream is fulfilled. ... If anybody has hopes and dreams, they can do it if they work hard."
photos by John Latimer / Lebanon Daily News