What You Missed in New Orleans - Conference Recap

It is hard to believe it has been three weeks since the 2019 SPESA Executive Conference in New Orleans. As we catch up on sleep and catch our breath before diving in to the next big project, we wanted to share a few insights from the conference for anyone who was not able to attend.

Keynote Speakers
Day one kicked off with industry remarks from SPESA Chairman Nina McCormack, followed by an opening keynote with Chris Pilkerton, Acting Administrator and General Counsel to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Mr. Pilkerton was appointed by President Donald Trump to oversee the interests of small businesses. During his remarks, he highlighted SBA’s initiatives in the textile and apparel industry, its pledge to American workers, and push for foreign manufactures to pursue and invest in U.S. manufacturing of the equipment necessary to see the textile and apparel industries once again thrive in the United States. He also explained that SBA specifically chose the sewn products industry to develop its first research factory initiative because he sees it as one of the most innovative industries in the country. He believes SBA can then expand what they learn from our industry to all industries across the United States.

The highlight of Day two was definitely the Q&A with our second keynote speaker, campaign strategist and political commentator Mr. James “the Ragin’ Cajun” Carville. SPESA decided to invite Mr. Carville to join us mostly because he is the first person you think of if you are discussing New Orleans and politics. But the fact that he is on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Mr. Pilkerton provided a nice balance for the conference as we discussed the upcoming election and the impact it will have on SPESA members. Wearing a purple LSU hat and a mischievous smile, Mr. Carville answered questions from the audience about his career, reaching across the aisle, and the newest battleground states (North Carolina is at the top of the list).

Panel Discussions
We learned during our last Advancements in Manufacturing Technologies Conference that SPESA members prefer interactive discussions over presentations (who doesn’t?), so we decided to give the people what they want and feature three panel discussions focused loosely on geographic locations.

The first panel, featuring Lloyd Wood, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Textiles, Consumer Goods, and Materials, U.S. Department of Commerce International Trade Administration (acknowledged among industry insiders as the longest title in the U.S. Goverment); Kim Glas, National Council of Textile Organizations; and Jeremy Wootten, HomTex, and moderated by Daniella Ambrogi, Lectra North America, focused on reshoring and what it means to be “Made in U.S.A.” The panel discussed the benefits of reshoring (speed to market, brand strategy, avoiding tariffs), the challenges of reshoring (high costs, labor shortage, no systematic identification of bottlenecks), and what needs to be done to make it a more viable option (investment in technology, adapting to new production models). The panel also discussed the opportunities that already exist relating to customization and made-to-order products. As Jeremy Wootten stated, “On-demand manufacturing is not a fad. It is not a trend. It is here to stay.”

Panel two sort of took on a mind of its own – in the best way. The original plan was to focus on sewn product manufacturing in the Americas. However, the speakers we recruited – Carlos Botero, Inexmoda; Gary Simmons, Intradeco; and Guy Carpenter, Bear Fiber, Inc. – have worked all over the world and it seemed like a wasted opportunity not to ask them about Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean while we had the chance. Led by the king of backronyms, Dr. Mike Fralix, each speaker shared his personal experience taking advantage of the opportunities and overcoming the challenges they faced in a variety of emerging sourcing hotspots. The conversation also led to a discussion on industry trends, specifically the increasing importance of sustainability and transparency in the supply chain (a topic that will be discussed more during the Texprocess Americas 2020 Symposium).

Panel three was full of spirit – both a spirited debate on the current U.S.-China trade war and team spirit as our two Washington D.C.-insiders, Nicole Bivens Collinson from Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A. and Stephen Lamar from American Apparel & Footwear Association, both proudly sported their Nationals gear (we credit them for the Nats’ win later that night). Ed Gribbin, SPESA’s Vice Chairman and the panel moderator began the discussion by explaining why SPESA members should be paying attention to trade – because what happens at the macro-level in the industry affects all parts of the supply chain. The panel discussed what companies can do now and at pivotal points down the road to mitigate the impact of increased tariffs on their businesses.

Hot Topic Sessions
Interspersed between the three panel discussions, the 2019 conference included shorter “hot topic” sessions which focused on topics that have piqued the interest of SPESA members and their customers over the past year.

The first session hit on workforce development, an issue we can’t talk about enough. Fortunately for us, we had three fantastic speakers – Tea Yang, The Industrial Commons and Work in Burke; Tanya Wade, Carolina Textile District; and Dan St. Louis, Manufacturing Solutions Center – who actually have some answers for us. Each of these speakers is involved in an initiative (or several) that attracts and engages workers in the textile, apparel, and sewn products industries. Their programs can serve as templates to be implemented in other U.S. cities and help restore the U.S. workforce we so desperately need.

The second hot topic session featured Arnie Kravitz of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) discussing automation and robotic technology for the sewn products industry. Arnie explained ARM’s goal of increasing U.S. global competitiveness by accelerating innovative technologies that make robots more accessible to U.S. manufacturers. By embracing technology, manufacturers can automate simple tasks and allow workers to be more efficient in higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs in other areas of the factory or supply chain.

Mick Reed, Senior Director of Strategy & Enterprise Risk Management at VF Corporation and our final hot topic speaker, is a U.S. veteran and former pilot on Marine One. Mr. Reed utilizes his background in military operations and strategic planning to inform his expertise on companies in the sewn products industry and how to activate enterprise risk management as a system to predict and shape their futures. This forward-looking approach can help companies anticipate emerging forces of change – industry, technology, society, geopolitical influences – that can impact their business and where they want to be in the future.

Networking Events
We were so excited to host our first Executive Conference under SPESA’s new management in New Orleans, and we wanted to spend as much time as we could exploring the city as we could. So we were thrilled to host all of our networking events outside of our hotel. SPESA’s Board of Directors got the ball rolling on Monday night with a fantastic dinner overlooking Bourbon Street and an obligatory stop at Pat O’Brien’s – home of the New Orleans hurricane. On Tuesday, we took all of our conference attendees over to Red Fish Grill for a crowded, but delightful networking reception full of oysters, cocktails, and making connections. To close out the week, we ventured to Mardi Gras World, where conference attendees had a backstage float tour, joined a parade, and met not one, but two baby alligators!

Several attendees also participated in a photo scavenger hunt to win a small prize and show off their time in New Orleans. You can follow their posts on Twitter and Instagram with #SPESAdoesNOLA.

Looking Forward
Overall, we are very proud of how the conference turned out and extremely grateful to our sponsors – Messe Frankfurt, Lectra, and Gerber Technology – our speakers, and all the attendees who made it all possible.

There is always room for improvement and we are already making notes for things we want to do better next time (Fall 2020 in Boston, stay tuned!). If you have any suggestions on how we can make the SPESA Executive Conference a better use of your time and resources, please let us know. Otherwise, see you later alligator!