American-Made Takes Root in Maine

By Jeffrey Bonior
American Roots co-owners Ben Waxman and Whitney Reynolds pose in the American Roots factory alongside some of the company’s staff, who are all members of the United Steelworkers union. | Photos courtesy American Roots

Stay warm this winter with jackets, pullovers, scarves, blankets and more from American Roots.

Ben Waxman’s mother, Dory, has worked in the textile business for nearly 30 years. Her fabric of choice was wool, convenient for the frigid winters of Portland, Maine.

“I grew up hauling wool, cutting fabric,” said Waxman, describing his teenage years helping his mother. “The first time I ever cut a roll of fabric I was in my parents’ barn before they built their own factory. I had to follow my father around with a hair dryer to keep the blade from freezing because it was February and March. So I grew up in the industry.”

The family company, Casco Bay Wool Works, made wool outerwear, wool shawls and blankets throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

“But like many people, my mother was devastated by trade deals in my home state,” Waxman said. “When the last woolen mill shut down in Maine, my mom knew it was time to sell because she just refused to but buy her raw goods from overseas and make it here.”

At the age of 19, Ben Waxman decided to head off to college. His studies were interrupted when he moved to Washington, D.C. to work in the political department of the AFL-CIO. It was a big change, moving from cutting wool to working for AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

But like the thousands of people that descend upon Washington, D.C. to find work in public service, Waxman eventually felt the urge to return to his home state.

In early 2013, after 10 years working for the union, Waxman decided to return to Portland.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I wanted to move home and I wanted to build something that created good-paying, living-wage jobs that was a union facility,” Waxman said.

A mighty task, indeed. It is safe to say Waxman learned a few things in Washington, D.C. – consider the whole picture, people and profits.

His mother, eager to get back into the textile game, suggested Waxman start a blanket business. Blankets are a necessary staple in the homes of chilly Portland, and Waxman wondered if he could develop a company that guaranteed every single thread, every zipper, every pocket was 100 percent American-sourced and assembled in his own factory. He would manufacture the blankets in his own union shop.

“I had a moment when I was standing in a factory in Oxbridge, Mass when I looked at my fiancé and business partner, Whitney Reynolds, and my mother, who is my mentor, and I said ‘we’re going to make things in America again,’” Waxman recalled.

That's when American Roots was born.

Putting Down Roots

It was January 2014, and Waxman spent the next six months calling businesses, political organizations and unions asking if they would buy 100 percent American-made, union-made and customizable outerwear.

“In textiles, margins are very thin so that’s why most of us are forced to wear stuff from overseas,” Waxman said. “I came to realize the reason margins are so thin is that we adopted a philosophy of ‘profit over greed.’ In other words, do Whitney and I someday want a lake house? Absolutely. But is it going to come at the expense of our workers? Absolutely not. You can still make a profit if you have the right business model and not be excessively greedy and have your profit margins right.”

After an extensive series of training programs to find qualified stitchers, American Roots store began making products in November 2015. But Waxman and Reynolds left the wool to Waxman’s mother, Dory. 

Inside the American Roots factory.

American Roots features cold-weather products made out of fleece. Soon American Roots will be rolling out a few items made of cotton. Its fleece is sourced from Polartec in New Hampshire, a 100 percent American-made fleece fabric supplier.

American Roots products can be purchased on its website for the immediate future. Waxman and Reynolds are currently building a factory outlet store in front of their new 5,000-square-foot manufacturing facility where there is room for a retail outlet. It doesn’t hurt that there is a brewery in the same building that attracts a lot of foot traffic.

“We will be open to the public at the end of October, and in all likelihood, between now and Dec. 31 we will double what are expectations were for production in the first year on units,” Waxman said. “We set the bar very low. We said 7,000 to 9,000 units in the first year but I think we are going to do closer to 20,000. It doesn’t mean we’re making millions, trust me.

“One of the things we clearly know is there does need to be a change in our trade policy and currency regulations. It’s abundantly clear.”

Waxman’s mother is back in business, too. She found an American-made woolen mill and with the help of her husband, son and Reynolds, is back stitching at her small company, Old Port Wool and Textiles

In addition to starting a new business with a union commitment, Ben, Whitney and Dory had to find a capable workforce. They launched a training program with help from Goodwill Industries, Coastal Enterprise and the Labor Department.

After two training sessions, the textile team hired eight people.

A third training program is underway and Waxman expects to have 12 to 14 top-notch stitchers who belong to the United Steelworkers (USW), North America’s largest industrial union which represents men and women in a variety of industries.

“Our workforce not only comes from south Portland but we are diversified enough to hire new Americans from Egypt, the Congo and Iraq,” Waxman said. “We are continuing to look at how to expand our workforce but it’s the greatest, hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Waxman cashed in every financial resource he had and just borrowed $100,000 from friends to increase its number of sewing machines from 14 to 24.

“We are at the point now where are greatest challenges are our vendors, making sure we have our supply chain intact,” Waxman said. “We plan to increase our number of products as our sales and workforce continue to grow.”

"I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I wanted to move home and I wanted to build something that created good-paying, living-wage jobs that was a union facility." Ben Waxman, American Roots

At present, American Roots offers seven fleece products on line – a blanket, a throw, a scarf, a hat, a jacket, a vest and pullover for both men and women. Each garment is 100 percent polyester, so it’s durable, machine washable and dries quickly. By the end of this year, they will be adding four more products including a golf shirt, long-sleeve t-shirts, short-sleeve t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts of differing weights. In these early stages of American Roots, Waxman’s business model is flexible.

“It’s make and sell right now,” Waxman said. “The major focus during the first three years is making in bulk. We’ve been selling to other companies because the Business to Business (B2B) world is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Eventually, we would like to see a business model that is half B2B and half retail.

“The interesting thing about it is don’t tell me you can’t make something in America anymore because it’s simply a choice. Here you have the wherewithal to figure out a supply chain. You have the risk ability to figure out what you are actually investing in. The American people are at a point where they want to see that Made in USA on their tag.

“Our goal in 10 years is to be a household name. Ten years from now, it would be a great thing if everybody knew who American Roots was in the United States.”