As more manufacturers are moving offshore, and more small businesses are unable to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, only firms with quality products, superior customer service, innovative management and dedicated employees can survive. We are quite proud to be one of the few American firms from the 19th century still thriving today. Here is a brief history of A.H. Rice / ELC Industries.
EARLY YEARS and GROWTH
In 1878, S. K. Smith, foreman of Saunders Silk Co., purchased part of Saunders’ machinery and erected a building for his new enterprise in Pittsfield, MA. William B. Rice loaned him $5,000 to get started, putting his 22 year old son, A.H., in the business to protect his investment. On January 1, 1884 A.H. Rice & Co. became the successor to Smith & Rice, with capital of $14,000 and bills payable of $32,000.
Arthur Rice, in recalling the first year of the A.H. Rice Co. wrote: “Naturally, we were very anxious about the results of the first seasons business after dissolution, as our future depended on it. At the end of six months we took our first inventory, and after making some necessary reductions in valuations we found that we had broken even. I think I was more gratified by this result than I have been by any inventory since, though we have at times made as high as 30% on our capital. It meant that we could get along for at least another season.” The business quickly prospered. In 1886 A.H. Rice paid $3,800 for a vacant woolen mill that had been occupied by a company known as Farnham & Lathers. The site served as the company’s home until its 2005 relocation.
Arthur Rice, in recalling the first year of the A.H. Rice Co. wrote: “Naturally, we were very anxious about the results of the first seasons business after dissolution, as our future depended on it. At the end of six months we took our first inventory, and after making some necessary reductions in valuations we found that we had broken even. I think I was more gratified by this result than I have been by any inventory since, though we have at times made as high as 30% on our capital. It meant that we could get along for at least another season.” The business quickly prospered. In 1886 A.H. Rice paid $3,800 for a vacant woolen mill, and the site served as the company’s home until its 2005 relocation.
A.H. Rice incorporated in 1905. During its history the company has made several acquisitions: 1893, Barnes Braiding; 1928, two additional braid mills, Sutro and Waitsfelder; 1963, Trienis Knitting Company. As competitors floundered or went out of business, management astutely purchased their braiding machines, adding to Rice’s array of unique patterns, stripers and size options. Plant additions took place in 1893, 1900, 1930, 1948, 1955, 1965, 1975, and 1994.
Ownership changed hands a few times over the years. The Rice family eventually sold out to Gerli & Company of New York City, long the supplier of silk fiber to Rice. John Sullivan ran the operations remotely, during which time there was much growth at the company. In 1989 Gerli sold out to George Unhoch, owner of New Bedford thread, who initiated a robust period of modernization. George turned the dye house into a state-of-the-art operation, able to produce the quality and consistency required for the uniform trade. The plant was managed primarily by on-site management – growth and quality control were employee driven, and the braid and thread product lines steadily grew.
In 2001, the assets of the company were purchased by YLI, Inc. Their expertise was in thread, and the braid division was not properly managed. In an effort to cut costs and reduce overhead, ownership chose to abandon its Pittsfield home of over 125 years and relocate to Rock Hill, SC in 2005, causing a major disruption of operations. The dye-house was dismantled, raw materials were run down, machines were damaged in the move, customers were not notified, and the dedicated employee team in Pittsfield was left behind. It almost destroyed the company, leaving many in the uniform industry without a critical supplier for their finished goods. Customers ranging in size from small uniform dealers and dressmakers to Fortune 500 firms were left without a key supplier.
One of these customers was the Eiseman-Ludmar Company, a family-owned NY manufacturer of uniform accessories such as epaulettes, shoulder boards, chin straps, collar brass, embroideries and trimmings. In June, 2006 the Ludmar family purchased the assets of the braid division of A.H. Rice under the name ELC Industries LLC. Together with Richard Cizek, CPE, a Rice veteran of over 30 years, and William Stammetti, a consultant with a lifetime of experience in braid, they set about the task of rebuilding the company. Over 400 specialized braiders were reassembled, some of which were over 100 years old, and some of which had not run (even in Pittsfield) since before WWII. Customer service staff was overhauled – gone were the disinterested temps who didn’t know braid from bread, replaced by a dedicated, courteous and thorough team, available to help. And while the thirty-plus years of experience the Pittsfield production crew had could not be replaced overnight, new employees were trained in the nuances of braid manufacture, a specialized art that can only be mastered through experience. Back-orders were filled, raw materials were replenished, and customers regained confidence that they could rely on ELC for their braid needs.
Recently, an ELC customer remarked, “It’s hard to believe those problems ever existed.” We are proud of the work we have done to make this happen, but we are also looking forward to future growth. With the addition of a weaving department over the past couple years, we have become an important supplier to the military of high-quality woven laces for the Army Uniform. We have added new colors to our line, such as French Blue and New York Gray, to keep up with current styles and preferences. We have developed reflective braids, purchased high speed braiding machines, and revamped our technology systems to further improve our operations and efficiency. Our history is important, but our attention is focused on the future.