This week we proudly present another one of the top essays submitted by high school students.  You can see that we had many great essays and picking the top ones was difficult.  This essay won our second highest prize. 

Gary Hoover

Executive Director

American Business History Center

Author Frances Connors is a seventeen-year-old senior at Hawken School in Gates Mills, Ohio. She plays varsity soccer and lacrosse at Hawken and is also a member of the speech and debate team. She is interested in journalism, so she runs her school newspaper as Editor in Chief. Because of her care for the environment, she started an environmental club at school, and in college, she plans to major in Environmental Studies or International Relations. In her home in Cleveland Heights, OH she likes to bake and take care of houseplants.

A Family of Brands in a Family Business: The Story of National Safety Apparel

Frances Connors

When we think of current textile manufacturing, our minds immediately take a trip overseas to factories in China. However, National Safety Apparel and the Grossman Family prove that through continual growth and flexibility a company can succeed for over 85 years producing protective clothing in the USA. Catch a flight back to the States and hear how they did it.

In 1935, Walter “Wally” Grossman graduated high school during the Great Depression and one of the worst job markets our country has ever faced. Unable to find a job, he joined the ranks of the unemployed with his father George Grossman who had recently lost his job in the textile industry.

Desperately needing to help his family, Wally decided to start manufacturing heat protective clothing—mainly gloves—for industry workers in his father’s basement in Cleveland, Ohio, and National Safety Apparel was born.

Before National Safety Apparel, or NSA, most employees in steel mills or foundries made their own protective apparel or bought from a variety of small businesses. Instead of selling his goods to employees like his competitors did, Wally went after the biggest consumers: the twelve big steel mills in Cleveland who employed these workers. This method of direct sales to steel mills allowed Wally to offer lower prices, giving him an edge over the competition, and a bigger share of the market.

Cleveland’s steelyards where Wally sold his products

World War II was a double-edged sword to a young NSA. On one hand, the industrialization of the country to support the war effort increased business, as steel mills and other dangerous workplaces needed more protection for more workers. On the other hand, rations limited NSA’s access to the materials they needed for their products. Fortunately, George, who at this point was co-running the business, had connections to the textile industry from his previous job, so he could secure the necessary products.

Even after the production increases during World War II, money was still tight in the early years of NSA. Charles “Charlie” Grossman recalls that his father Wally worked one main job and two side jobs in addition to running NSA to ensure his company was properly funded. Charlie even slept with three of his brothers in one bedroom because his father didn’t want to waste money on a bigger house as the family grew. Wally’s frugality was not unwarranted. Because his finances were tight, banks did not want to loan him money for his business, so he had to save most of the funds for it himself.

By the late 1940s, NSA had moved to a small storefront in Lakewood, Ohio. They used the basement to store inventory and did all the sewing on the first floor. Unfortunately, the operation was incredibly inefficient; it took thirty minutes to transport cloth from the basement to the first floor, and they couldn’t fit their whole business into such a small space. It was time to expand. The doors of NSA’s new building on West 150th opened in 1953. This first factory was a huge milestone in the business’s history because it signaled that they had become a “real” company. NSA was no longer a small endeavor Wally had started in his parent’s basement; it was a fully functioning business with a factory.

Walter “Wally” Grossman

Although NSA prides itself on being a family business, things did not always go smoothly among siblings or parents and children. Shortly after the factory opened, Wally’s brother George A. Grossman, a WWII veteran and full time employee of the company, was upset that he had no ownership of NSA. Unsuccessful in his attempts to get some, he left NSA, which was a huge blow to the company. As a college graduate, George A. had been in charge of manufacturing and creating the cost system, so Wally, who never went to college and preferred sales, struggled without him in the new building at first.

In 1966, Wally’s son Charles “Charlie” Grossman started working at NSA, and that year the company hit $1 million dollars in annual sales. Although the business was doing well financially, there was still a bit of internal conflict. Namely, Wally and his other son Larry argued over the price of goods, as Larry wanted to lower the profit margin to attract more customers and Wally wanted to keep it higher.

These debates lead to one of Wally’s most famous quotes, which he both told his sons and typed out for them so they would not forget it: “When sales were $1,000,000 a year we made money. Sales can be $4,000,000 a year or higher and we can go broke if the company isn’t run correctly. Prices are the lifeblood of our business. It’s better to go broke sitting on our a** than to work our a** off and go broke.”

Wally valued the work his family and employees put into the business, and he did not want to undermine that hard work by lowering prices to the point where the business folds. He would rather lose money with higher prices that reflected the high quality of his goods and the hard work of his team than by undercharging and overworking everyone. Today, NSA’s prices are higher than many of their competitors who have moved operations overseas, but customers are still willing to pay more because of their quality, safety standards, and domestic production.

Upon his retirement in 1982, Wally handed over the company to Charlie who started the innovation and expansion that are integral parts of NSA today. After nearly fifty years of business, he knew that NSA needed to adapt to continue its success. He entered NSA into the glassworkers industry in the 1980s followed by the electric workers industry in the 1990s. Charlie also engineered NSA’s first acquisition when he bought Firedex, a firefighter’s uniform company that makes fire resistant clothing.

The biggest shifts in the company came with the arrival of Charlie’s son Charles “Chuck” Grossman in 1998. He wanted to fundamentally change the way NSA sold their products by shifting from the original and successful direct sales technique to sales via distribution. In an interview, he compared direct sales to selling at a farmers market versus distribution to selling at a grocery store. A farmer may have higher profit margins at a farmers market, but they will have access to far more customers at a grocery store. Although his father was originally hostile to the idea of abandoning the old sales model, eventually NSA started to increase its distribution sales. Still, Chuck waited until his dad was out for a knee surgery in 2001 before making his first distributor acquisition. Today, 100% of sales are done through distributors, which reaches more customers.

Chuck made another important change to NSA’s manufacturing process. He switched to the Toyota Sewing System, a team-oriented approach that reduced labor costs by 30% and created an incentive system where employees who consistently hit the sewing time for products get pay raises.

Toyota Sewing System in practice

Chuck took over as CEO from his father in 2007, and in the past nine years alone, he has acquired nine more companies and created an NSA house of brands that includes Union Line, HYDROlite, DriFire, Ecgen, Hautework, and Vizable. With all these acquisitions, Chuck integrated these companies into NSA’s culture and, “Took good brands and made them better.

He envisions NSA being like Frito-Lay in the chip aisle. When consumers choose between Doritos and Lays, they probably do not realize both brands (and most of the other brands in the aisle) are owned by Frito-Lay. Chuck hopes to have a similarly large share of the safety apparel market.

In addition to acquisitions, NSA has expanded their product line through innovations such as cryogenic gloves and safety apparel kits. NSA now sells in seven different market segments and makes protective clothing for the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. military, electricians, construction workers, and steel workers among others.

NSA’s House of Brands

In 2019, just 53 years after NSA hit the $1 million mark, the company reached $100 million in annual sales, and that number jumped to $120 million in 2020. This required an increase from 70 employees to 700. To accommodate this growth, in 2011, NSA moved its operations to a new factory on Industrial Parkway in Cleveland, and seven years later they opened a fulfillment center a few miles away. As the business grew, they also acquired a plant in Chicago in 2017.

Alongside the expansion of NSA, the company has maintained and improved its culture and principles. Customer responsiveness and flexibility are still very important to NSA, as they want to give their customers the best products and experience that they can get. The company continues to value innovation and being a USA Made brand that can deliver small batches of higher quality clothing to consumers faster than foreign competitors can.

Charlie credits his son Chuck with creating a more team-oriented workforce than in the 1960s, and as a fourth-generation family business, family is still an important part of NSA. Chuck owns the business with his wife, his brother Joe Grossman runs the new fulfillment center, and his son Nate

Grossman is an intern there as well. Family goes beyond just blood relatives at NSA; every employee is a part of the family culture there.

Because NSA is always looking to do better, they have quarterly Opportunity for Improvement or OFI meetings where all employees submit suggestions for improvement, and NSA gives prizes to the best ones. The OFIs highlight the “in-it-together” family spirit of working at NSA, as everyone has an interest in making the company succeed.

Part of the NSA family

Over the years, the makeup of the NSA family has changed, as the world has too. NSA has always offered good paying entry level jobs for immigrants who have just come to America, and they currently have workers from 36 countries within their walls. At first, most of their workers were Eastern Europeans, then Cambodians and Vietnamese joined the mix after the Vietnam War, immigrants from Soviet States followed after its collapse, and now there are many people from the Middle East. Immigrants do not only stay in the entry level positions; some have moved up to higher positions including supervisor. Wally Grossman started with nothing and created a successful business, and in turn, NSA gives immigrants who come to America with nothing the opportunity to start a successful life.

Automated mask machine
Gloves: where it all began

The coronavirus pandemic put NSA’s adaptability to the test. Facing the challenge of decreased demand, they quickly pivoted to manufacture PPE, and they made over 1 million masks for the State of Ohio. To do so, they converted a building used for sewing training into a manufacturing space for masks. Teaming up with Buckeye Mask Company, they installed nine of the first ever automated machines for reusable face masks in the converted building. Although the pandemic may have slowed down their business in some markets, NSA rebounded into new markets, and today it is continuing to provide quality products across many sectors.

National Safety Apparel truly reflects the American Dream. A family with four kids sharing one room worked hard, overcame challenges, adjusted as needed, and built a business that now produces over $100 million a year. The Grossman’s ability to work as a family allows them to enjoy success and also provide jobs for hundreds of workers and protection for thousands more.

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