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Alissa Conner assembles a hazmat suit at Lakeland Industries, near Beltline Road. Lakeland makes disposable clothing to protect wearers from hazardous chemicals, firefighting apparel and heavy-duty chemical suits for use in biological or chemical warfare, Kevlar gloves and arm guards for industrial use and dozens of similar products. The firm has been in the Decatur area for around 25 years.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Alissa Conner assembles a hazmat suit at Lakeland Industries, near Beltline Road. Lakeland makes disposable clothing to protect wearers from hazardous chemicals, firefighting apparel and heavy-duty chemical suits for use in biological or chemical warfare, Kevlar gloves and arm guards for industrial use and dozens of similar products. The firm has been in the Decatur area for around 25 years.

Quiet Decatur contributor
Many unaware international firm Lakeland Industries has been in city for 25 years

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

Tucked away south of Beltline Road, off Central Parkway Southwest, Lakeland Industries Inc. has been a quiet contributor to Decatur’s economy since it was founded here 25 years ago.

“Nobody much knows we’re here unless they work here,” co-founder Harvey Pride Jr. said, “and that’s fine by me.”

Its international economic presence, however, is splashier.

The company, traded on Nasdaq (LAKE), had $100 million in sales last year, 12 percent of which were overseas. It has a market cap of $72 million.

In addition to Decatur, it has two facilities in Mexico, one in China, one in Canada, one in England, one in India, one in Chile and facilities in New York and Pennsylvania.

Protective gear

The object of all this activity is protective gear. Lakeland makes disposable clothing to protect wearers from hazardous chemicals, firefighting apparel and heavy-duty chemical suits for use in biological or chemical warfare, Kevlar gloves and arm guards for industrial use and dozens of similar products.

Most are made of synthetic products from DuPont, or from proprietary synthetics developed by Lakeland.

Pride co-founded the company May 22, 1982, and he walks through the plant with, well, pride.

“We started with just a handful of people,” Pride, senior vice president of manufacturing, said, gazing around the 92,000-square-foot warehouse. “And we sure have grown.”

He helped start the business in a leased 12,000-square-foot building.

Now the company is sprawled over its eight acres, straining for space against the railroad tracks to the east. Decatur is Lakeland’s manufacturing headquarters.

It also is home to the computer system linking the parts of the far-flung enterprise.

The financial and administrative headquarters of the 1,400-employee company are in New York.

As he walks through the plant, the 160 workers interact with him comfortably. His bull neck does not intimidate them. They josh with him, but stick to their work.

“We’ve grown because of the great people we have,” he said. “You can’t build a business without good people.”

It is the people, said Pride, that have kept Lakeland in Decatur. That plus excellent transportation — the intermodal center and trucking — make Decatur ideal as a distribution point.

Decatur also is a manufacturing facility. Automated knitters churn out gloves, employees sew apparel for custom or rush orders, massive devices stretch synthetic materials and cut them to computer-drawn specifications.

While Decatur is ideal as a distribution and quality-control point, Pride hedges a bit on manufacturing. Decatur has an excellent labor force, and a relatively inexpensive one by U.S. standards.

By global standards, however, Decatur labor is not so cheap. Lakeland built a plant in Mexico shortly after NAFTA passed. Now it is enjoying inexpensive labor in China.

During the interview, a crew unloaded a sea crate full of protective coveralls trucked to Lakeland from the intermodal center at Huntsville International Airport. It had arrived at Huntsville by rail. It came to the United States by ship. All that shipping, and the labor differential still mandates overseas production.

Care of NAFTA, Lakeland cuts fabric for some of its products in Decatur, ships them to Mexico for labor-intensive stitching, and ships them back for packaging and distribution.

Asked if the company feels pressure to move the Decatur manufacturing operations overseas, he is quiet for a moment.

“Who knows what the future will bring,” he says finally. “There’s no plan for that on the drawing board.”

Lakeland went public in 1986. At the time, Pride said, it made sense.

“We did it for growth, to financially sustain the business,” Pride said. “We were growing exponentially in those years.”

Like many small publicly traded companies, however, it finds itself laboring under the weight of ever more costly financial disclosure guidelines. “Whether we’ll eventually go back private? I can’t answer that,” Pride said.

His focus is quality products. The quality is not just a selling point. In this business, a defective product could mean a lost life. He and his employees rely on teamwork to keep standards high.

“I call it our Bear Bryant team,” Pride said. “I try to let people do their job, but be there to help if they need it. We all strive to be No. 1.”

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