PORTLAND, Maine — It started with a gift.
The sensible fleece jacket Ben Waxman received one winter got him thinking. The lightweight synthetic material was made nearby in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but the jacket was designed and sewn thousands of miles away overseas.
“Why can’t this be made in Portland, Maine?” he wondered.
As of this month, it is.
Seated in a small factory in the Old Port with his fiancee, Whitney Reynolds, and mother, Dory Waxman, Ben Waxman, 36, left a successful career in Washington politics to return to his roots.
“I wanted to come back for my family, the people I grew up with, and for my quality of life,” said the former adviser to the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
In that role he roamed the countryside to run Barack Obama’s 2008 Ohio campaign, and he visited boom-and-bust factory towns such as Flint, Michigan, and Youngstown, Ohio.
“Towns where someone made a choice to say ‘we are not going to make it here anymore because we can make more money if we make it somewhere else,’” Waxman said. “Our family has made a choice. We are going to make it here, make a living and provide jobs.”
Enter American Roots.
The union shop on Danforth Street, which also houses Old Port Wool and Textile Co., his mother’s 2-year-old company, makes fleece pullovers, jackets, vests and blankets from Polartec in Lawrence. Launched last week, American Roots is a business-to-business manufacturing company in which immigrant and disadvantaged women have been trained to work with fleece. The apparel, everything from zippers, to tags to labels, is 100 percent made in America.
“It’s not a classic story of a guy who grew up in textile industry. I went to D.C. Now I’ve come home to bring jobs to the United States,” said Waxman, who is working with his parents and bride-to-be on the new venture. Though his future in a way was dyed in the wool, his trip to fleece entrepreneur was circuitous.
A mill moment
When Waxman returned to Maine in 2013, he worked to educate low-income children and searched for the next step.
“I thought I was going to build boats, get into development or the building trade. And my mom said, ‘What about helping me build a blanket business?’” recalled Waxman, who initially shrugged off following in her footsteps.
On a routine textile mission last spring with his mother and Reynolds to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, it hit him.
“I walked into the mill and said to Whitney, ‘We are going to build a factory,” he said. “It was an avenue to create a union shop. I knew people wanted to buy ‘made in America,’” he said.
They spent six months trying to figure out, “what do we really want to make?”
Searching for a new venture and to create jobs in Maine, he turned, not to business school or a corporate mentor, but to his mother, a former Portland city councillor and community leader whom some call “the Godmother of Portland.”
The hard-working, self-taught craftswoman Dory Waxman started in textiles in the 1990s with Casco Bay Wool Works, a popular shawl and cape company. She gently urged her eldest son to consider wool.
“I grew up lugging wool up stairs of the J.B. Brown and Sons building, and I said, ‘Let’s do fleece because it’s a lot lighter,’” Ben Waxman said.
Once he told friends, the idea made sense.
To find, train and maintain a workforce, American Root’s sister company Old Port Wool and Textiles tapped a network of Maine-based organizations eager to help.
Coastal Enterprises Inc., which helps women coming out of poverty and recovery get back on their feet, Goodwill Industries and Portland Jobs Alliance were chief among them. The groups helped with training programs, job placement and secured the business a loan for new machinery and grants to hire instructors.
This summer, teachers from Portland Adult Education came to the Danforth Street factory to teach workers English and math. A half dozen women — from the Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Peru — sailed through the program.
Apphia Kamanda, a fashion designer who moved to the U.S. four years ago from Africa, received two months of training in subjects like math. A teacher taught her to measure in inches, not in centimeters.
Still in a training program, she will be hired full time at American Roots in November.
“I’m excited to find something in my field,” Kamanda said. “I love it.”
For the most part, language was not a barrier, “because you are sewing. They do know yes and no,” Dory Waxman said, but she added that many did not know how to work with fleece.
All employees must register with a union, an important pillar of the business.
“If you want to work, the door is open. I don’t care where you are from, this is America. We are looking for people who want to work and make a good wage,” Ben Waxman said.
Researching stitcher’s wages, which he said average about $8 per hour, Waxman’s goal is to get American Roots employees’ salaries up to $15 per hour.
“All of our workers will have a living wage. An opportunity for annual increments in raises, a bonus and 401(k) plan. As we grow, we want our workforce to grow,” said Waxman, who was inspired by the movie “The Company Men,” as well as Maine firms such as Auburn-based Lamey Wellehan shoes.
The Waxmans’ No. 1 reason to launch American Roots was to create jobs in their hometown.
“We could have made it anywhere with another company that’s already set up. ‘You have a sales plan, go find another factory,’” advised a business owner who favored outsourcing the manufacturing.
As a pro-union professional, that ran against the co-founders’ core beliefs.
“I come home and see a lot of people who can’t find a good job, afford health care, can’t even contemplate retirement, who barely pay the rent,” Waxman said. “We may not be the highest paid company in Portland, Maine, but everyone in our company will eventually live the life I grew up with … if you work hard you will be rewarded for your work. Little League on Saturdays, Patriots’ games on Sunday and Sebago Lake on weekends in the summer.”
“This is a lot of work, a lot of banging into each other and trying to figure out what to do. At the end of the day you have to hug each other and say, ‘We’ll get through this and I love you,’” said Dory Waxman, who, now a grandmother, can see retirement on the horizon.
“It’s a great gift. It’s an honor to have someone appreciate the work that you’ve done and carry it over,” she said. “How lucky can you get?”