SKOWHEGAN — Bill and Julie Swain traveled to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, last summer as the company held an open call event in search of American-made products to sell in its stores.

While there, they ran into Wal-Mart President and CEO Greg Foran in the building’s lobby and took advantage of the moment.

“We were able to give the president our sales pitch right there in the lobby,” Swain said. “And we thought, ‘I think it went pretty well.'”

The pitch paid off. On Wednesday, the first of 11 pallets of Tick Repelling Safety Dog Vests made by the Swains’ Dog Not Gone Visibility Products were loaded onto the truck to be shipped, eventually, to nearly 200 Wal-Mart stores across the country. In all, 800 blaze-orange safety vest for dogs were loaded into trucks Wednesday at the company’s factory on Dane Avenue.

“Today is proof positive that it did go very well,” Swain said as a variety of local business leaders and officials, as well as representatives from Susan Collins and Angus King’s U.S. Senate offices “helped” load the truck. “We thought this was a pretty special event because we are a very small family business and thought it was appropriate to celebrate it a little bit.”

The Swains bought the former Dirigo Stitching factory early in 2015 and opened last March, making the safety vests originally designed for dogs, horses and other domestic animals as a way to keep animals from being mistaken for deer or moose during hunting season.

While they have state and regional customers, the Wal-Mart contract is the company’s first national one, Swain said.

Michael Hersey, of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, helped out, maneuvering a pallet jack Wednesday morning from a loading dock into the back of the waiting tractor-trailer.

“I couldn’t be happier today — to see a rebirth of the textile industry here in the Skowhegan area,” said Hersey, the department’s director of businesses development and innovation. “It was great to put Maine-made products in the truck. Things don’t get much better than this.”

Cory King, executive director of the Skowhegan Area Chamber of Commerce, lifted the last box of vests into a UPS truck destined for Bangor.

“It feels great to be part of a day like this, where we can connect with a local family business,” King said. “What we’re helping load is going to go national. It’s going to put us on the map, and it’s a great success story that we get to share.”

The Swains bought the 45,000-square-foot Skowhegan building and about 100 pieces of stitching-related machinery with a mix of federal Community Development Block Grant money and private financing a year ago. Since then, their company has grown from 11 to 22 employees.

Swain said the Wal-Mart contract could open the door to greater national sales for both Dog Not Gone and their connected company, Maine Stitching Specialties.

“We want to ramp up, but you can’t ramp up until you have the customer,” Swain said. “This opportunity has been really good for us because we can get our process and our supply chain established and then ramp it up.”

There is the potential for another large shipment sometime this summer, he said, depending on the how the dog vests are greeted in other parts of the country.

Wednesday’s shipment went out to 189 stores, and there may be another order in July “that could go to a larger number of stores,” Swain said. “And after that, we would hope to become a regular stocked item that would go to a broader range of stores.”

The shipment was part of Wal-Mart’s 10-year commitment to locally source $250 billion in products that will support American jobs, company officials said.

The event is a good example of a small company getting its product to a large market, said Christopher Buchanan, Wal-Mart’s director of public affairs and government relations, after a tour of the manufacturing floor of the Swains’ factory,

“What a great day today is. We’re thrilled to do business here in Skowhegan,” Buchanan told a gathering of more than two dozen people. “It’s a real special opportunity for our company and our commitment to bring jobs back to the U.S. That program continues to grow. It’s very meaningful for us and we’d love to see you guys do well. You’re exactly the type of entrepreneur we want to do business with.”

Founded in 2005, Dog Not Gone Visibility vests feature a double Velcro closure to ensure the vest fits well and will not come off, and reflective striping. The Tick Repelling Safety Dog Vest has those elements as well as a permanent coat of permethrin, which repels ticks and other insects.

The Swains’ dog, Max, modeled one of the vests during Wednesday’s event.

The company, which supplies products to L.L. Bean, Reny’s and other Maine and regional stores, plans to branch out soon into a line of tick-repellent visibility wear for people.

Swain said the Wal-Mart contract, which is a six-month market test, eventually will mean more jobs at the plant; but it’s hard to estimate how many, because employment of stitchers and other production-related employees is based on orders and depends on all the company’s products.

Jeff Hewett, Skowhegan’s director of economic and community development, said the day was a first step in what he hopes will be a rebirth of the local business economy.

“This is a first step for them and expanding their employment,” Hewett said. “They’re bringing jobs back to the United States and to Skowhegan through the Wal-Mart program. It hits on all sides. It hits on the employment side and keeping a production building in full production. It’s a positive thing.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]



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