Riverside resident Cindy Baker, a Lion Apparel tester and sewing operator, at work at Lion’s Janney Road facility. Lion is rebuilding and hiring new workers after suffering damage in the Memorial Day tornadoes. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF
Photo: Thomas Gnau/Staff
Photo: Thomas Gnau/Staff

Local company rebuilds, grows after devastation of tornadoes

‘We’re putting it back together and we’re growing,’ Lion Apparel officials say.

As it was for much of the Dayton area, 2019 was a year of weathering the storm for protective gear manufacturer Lion Apparel.

It was also the year of growing past the storm, with a little help from some friends.

Much of Lion Apparel’s production building on Janney Road was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Damage was so bad, one early concern was making sure customers and the public knew that the company would continue to operate.

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“Lion reports operations up and running, despite tornado damage through headquarters city,” Lion declared in Facebook post May 31.

“We lost about 75 percent of the building,” Lisa Burr, Lion’s director of operations for Dayton manufacturing, said in a recent interview.

Today, the Vandalia-based company still anchors local production at 66 Janney, in old North Dayton, which was hit hard by the Memorial Day tornadoes.

The company has about 45 employees there, approaching 50 — about 15 more than when the tornadoes struck. (The family-owned company has about 1,000 employees nationwide.)

Getting to this point took old-fashioned hard work and more than little help from the community, including a timely leasing arrangement with the Dayton Sewing Collaborative.

Said Burr: “We’re putting it back together and we’re growing.”

The day after the tornadoes, Brenda Rex, director of the collaborative, was on the phone with Burr, offering Lion employees use of the collaborative’s facility at 721 Springfield St.

The collaborative is a 501(c)3 non-profit that trains people to be industrial sewists. Rex says there are some 700 sewing operator jobs in the Dayton area. The collaborative has trained plenty of Lion workers.

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“I said, ‘Hey, we’ll open our facility to you,’” Rex said.

Burr immediately said yes. A few weeks later, Lion workers were using collaborative equipment, with the company’s insurance covering leasing costs.

“I told her (Burr) we’re willing to do this free of charge,” Rex said. “They have been a good partner to us. We’re in this together.”

The bulk of Lion’s manufacturing operations are in West Liberty, Ky. Before the tornadoes hit, Lion was planning to shift some of the production from Kentucky to Dayton.

A maker of personal protective equipment for first responders, Lion shortly before the storms had unveiled expansion plans. In mid-May, the company pledged to hire 75 full-time workers over the next three years.

Lion invested $1.7 million to acquire the facility at 66 Janney.

“Our saving grace, really, was that our building was split into three sections — the office, the main production area, and then what we’ll call a ‘production expansion’ area,” Burr said. “And we were were really only working out of the offices and main production area at the time of tornadoes.”

Those areas were relatively unharmed in the May 27 storms.

“But we lost the entire back portion of our building,” Burr said.

Lost were more than a few heavy-duty, industrial sewing machines — about 20 pieces of equipment. The day after Memorial Day, Lion had planned to launch a new production line in the expansion area. Equipment had been staged for that launch.

“We lost all the machines there and all the raw materials to support that (new production) line,” Burr said.

One stroke of luck: The company lost no finished goods. Lion was able to recover about 200 finished orders that had to ship by the end of June.

Another piece of good news: No workers were hurt.

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Burr put the cost of rebuilding so far at more than $3 million. “For our company, I think, it was a pretty substantial loss,” she said.

Lion has customers all over world. One order the business completed this summer was for the Israeli Department of Defense. One noteworthy product is a one-piece “chem-bio” suit designed to protect users from hazardous materials.

By Aug. 12, production had resumed. In the interim, some production was re-routed back to Kentucky, with some Dayton employees being sent to Kentucky for training and work.

No employees were let go as a result of the tornadoes.

And the leasing agreement with the Dayton Sewing Collaborative proved invaluable.

“We were extremely fortunate that we had some strong community partners to help us through this time of need,” Burr said.

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