Each Hardwick Clothes employee got a wave and was greeted by name — greetings which were returned with smiles and a “How are you doing?”
“It is very much a family,” he says noting many of the employees have spent decades performing their art as they help produce what was considered America’s best tailored clothing.
The emotions on this day are just a little more on the surface.
As Hopper passes each station, there is at most of them a copy of the new company logo that will become the emblem of the iconic company under the new ownership of Cleveland businessman Allan Jones.
That change in ownership became final on Monday when Hopper and Jones signed the papers making the transition official.
Both men are expressing optimism about the company’s future.
But talking with Hopper, there is a sense of, “It’s not business, it’s personal.”
That is a tone not of bitterness, but one of some disappointment and one of some sadness knowing a family tradition of more than 130 years is coming to somewhat of an end.
During the walk, Hopper caught himself once speaking in the past tense and quickly corrected himself.
He said the company was probably going to face some hard decisions no matter what happened.
“This is a very labor-intensive market,” Hopper said. “That is why much of the business had gone overseas.”
He said the decision to file for bankruptcy protection was a forced one.
“I wish we could have avoided that process; but as our attorneys told me, it is a process to protect one from unjust creditors,” Hopper said.
Hardwick maintained there was a good faith effort to negotiate the more than $4 million debt with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation — a debt that had been incurred due to the company’s discontinuation of its pension program due to a slowing economy.
PBGC wanted the money almost immediately and left the company with no good option.
“It was going to happen sooner or later,” Hopper said. “We gave it our best.”
But, he added from the beginning there was the passion to take care of the Hardwick family.
“These are good workers and good people,” Hopper said. “We could have just liquidated and said goodbye. But, nobody appreciates the peripheral consequences of what that would have meant — the loss of jobs, the employees, the vendors we buy from, the local economy.”
He has some sense of humor about the situation.
“My mother is the Hardwick of the family. My father chose not to enter the family business. He went into real estate,” Hopper said. “That might be why he lived to be 95.”
He said Jones might have had those same thoughts after his initial studies of the business.
“I think Allan and his team might have had the notion you could come in and hit a proverbial switch to improve things,” Hopper said. “But, Allan, much to his credit, kept his word and it is just amazing the potential the future holds.”
Hopper will remain as Hardwick president, but he is more than happy to relinquish the chief executive officer role and be a team player with Jones in the lead.
“Allan is bringing in a new CEO and he should. It’s appropriate. That is the way most owners do when they purchase a business,” Hopper said. “I am going to be there to help and advise in any possible way they may ask or need.”
The employees of Hardwick have been consistently praised for their craftsmanship, loyalty, longevity and, after the last six months of uncertainty, courage and tenacity could be added to that list.
Another word that could be added is appreciative.
The efforts of Hopper to help protect their jobs was rewarded last week when those same people who design, sew, pack and ship came together to throw a surprise barbecue dinner for the man who has led them for so long and through so much.
Just talking about those employees makes Hopper tear up — he even did it while testifying in court.
The same appreciation is now being directed to the man who ensured those employees will at least have a chance to continue with the company and work to make it even better and more successful than it has ever been.
Jones has been consistent with his assertion it is the Hardwick employees who are the most important part of Hardwick Clothes.
“The most important asset wasn’t on the balance sheet. It was them,” he said. “We want to be real loyal to the employees because we need them.”
Jones has been a frequent visitor to the building and is now experiencing the Hardwick employee family waves, greetings and hugs.
Within today’s edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner, he will also experience their appreciation.
A full page ad has been placed in this issue by Hardwick employees as a way of thanking Jones for his efforts and continued support and encouragement — as well as the opportunity to realize yet unimagined potential.
With the new leadership, as well as a respect for the past, Hardwick Clothes now enters a new chapter with hopes the oldest traditional suit maker in America, as well as second oldest business in Cleveland, maintains those titles with quality and style.
“We’ve got to build on that tradition, and I think we can,” Jones said.