This story has a lot of names you are going to recognize, and one I am proud to introduce you to. Brooks Brothers. You know them, right? They had an executive named May Tan. Finance. Southwick Apparel? They had a CFO, May Tan. May has a big time resume in corporate, as do I, and when we started talking it became clear up front we had both left that behind.
Me? I got sick.
May? She got wisdom. After a “life changing loss” that came in the midst of a life changing pandemic, May Tan decided that ethics and quality are not mutually exclusive. Or, if they were, she was going to fix that.
“When I was CFO of Southwick we had to make the awful decision to close our plant in Massachusetts,” she said. “It was hard enough, closing an American factory. Watching it breathe its last breath. But what was even harder than being present in that moment was knowing what the future was for the people who worked there. These were people who didn’t need the job for a sense of purpose or to pay back a student loan or because they were on one rung trying to get to another, these were people in that factory who needed the job for bread. That is a different matter.”
“These sewers are at the very top of their profession. They left their homeland to get their 10,000 hours, acheive best in class excellence at their craft, and to make sure that the next generation of their family saw a better life than the previous,” May continued. “That isn’t something that I could live with, knowing that with the money I had made in my career so far, I could cobble together an American made, hand made, pant that came from the hands of the best in the world, in an American factory. I could at least try to restore what the pandemic had taken from these artisans.”
So May dumped her savings on the table, and started Lawrence Trousers. And she doubled down on the Made In America promise she made to herself. May’s been around the conference room table a few times. She knew she had the option of creating May Tan Trousers. Or American Artisan Trousers. In an act of self-definition, she chose to begin everything with a name that put the shovel right in the dirt from day one. Lawrence Trousers is named after the city it all started in 1929 and located in its original location.
“There were surreal days. My background is money, right?” May said. “All my training was in efficiency, volume, return. Starting a company with the leap of faith that betting on the best talent in the right place and structuring it so that quality came before numbers, that kind of thing was not in my DNA.”
“What IS in your DNA?” I asked.
May laughed. “When I was growing up, it was a different culture of course. There, the idea was that you would get married, and support your husband from behind. And do it with as little pushback as humanly possible. I remember my mother telling me, ‘May, you better work, because that life is not for you. Your mouth is too big.’ And she was right.”
So, work she did. Finance. Brooks. Southwick. A C-level executive with an any-job-you-want-is-yours track record. Which is why it is a marvel that she built Lawrence Trousers the way she did. But she doesn’t think so.
“Here’s where we are starting from,” May continued.
“These are people who are refugees from real horror. One of my first days on the floor, I spoke with a woman who saw her father get beheaded. Another woman told me how the mayor of her village died on a stake. These people are not fleeing a bad economy, these people are fleeing literally for their lives. Compared to that, my life was cushy. And I learned how short and valuable life is. And after what I went through, I thought, it isn’t even a decision to build a company this way. This is the only way, for me, to build.”
May didn’t stop there though. On day one, she opened the doors, and put her desk in the middle of the floor. “We were all going to make this work together, and I was not going to watch it, I was going to right alongside it when it happened,” she says. “So I worked every single job. Now, it takes years and years to get to the level if craftsmenship that these people have acheived. I can’t do what they do at the level they do it. But I can say that I have spent weeks doing each and every job, enough to fully understand what it is. That was my first project. Making sure that as I lifted this team up, that they knew I was alongside and not above them.”
“It humbled me,” May continues. “Watching what these people do with their hands, and how they do it. These are not mass produced pants lining hundreds of yards of retail shelves. These are pants that have been held by the hands of a craftsman who has put all of themselves, and the future of their family, into the quality. I think you can even tangibly feel it. The spirit of skill manifesting. People sometimes tell us that our pants are so much better than anything else they have, but can’t put their finger on why. I think ‘the why’ is that these pants aren’t produced, they are crafted by people who have bet their futures on the quality. That makes all the difference.”
“It also taught me about details,” May said. “I knew how to pay attention to the details in a spreadsheet, but there the computer does some of the work for you. On the floor, there is even a higher level of attention to detail, and it is your hands doing everything.”
So the people in these pictures? May has bet on them the same way they have bet on her. And it has created a family of sorts. May cooks for the employees, eats with them, knows the names of their extended families.
And that’s all very nice. It is the kind of thing you would announce if you were running for local office. What you wouldn’t do is establish a back end infrastructure that frames the whole operation. You would not take your own money, start an American manufacturing company with it, and then pay your employees to do less, and do it better. You would not take your own money, start an American manufacturing company with it, and then give part of that company to your employees.
Except May did that, too.
“In the industry, sewers are paid by volume. The more they produce, the more comes off their machines, the more they are make,” May explained. “So when you work in that situation, all you are concentrating on is how much you are pushing out the door. At Lawrence Trousers, we pay our employees by the hour, so they are incentivized not to get volume, but to get it right. And they can work on the pant until it is perfect without having an eye on their paycheck.”
“And we are employee owned,” May said. “Imagine the heart you would put into what you did if you fled everything you know and owned nothing but what you could carry, and then came to America, and actually owned a part of a successful company! You would extra-mile everything you did. And my employees do.”
When May and I hung up, I had two feelings. First, it is a very different kind of sweat that is going into Lawrence Trousers. Second, a renewed appreciation for a country where a talented leader like May can actually, and WOULD actually, make a place right here in our own zip code where America is represented by both the best in manufacturing and the best in realized dreams.
Next week I will tell you more about the company, highlight some of the people who work there, and review some more of the pants. Visit LawrenceTrousers.com right now though to see more, and buy more. Andover’s Essex is from Lawrence, and I have reviewed that. They are remarkable pants.
And today, feel good that May cares more about your trousers than you do, and she cares as much about people as she does about money. That is a person and a company worth supporting.