August 2015 – The management team at Support Enterprises, Inc. (SEI) is thorough, thoughtful, and understated. Michael Suppa, Vice President of Operations for Filling The Gap (a group of companies that directly or indirectly supports the work of the Resource Center), along with Jeremy Weilacher, SEI Prototype and Design Manager, and Gary Neel, SEI Production Manager, are eager to talk about their work, and to display the variety of products they manufacture.
But their excitement is almost palpable just beneath their professional demeanor. A quick tour through the facility at 85 Jones & Gifford Avenue, Jamestown, makes it apparent why they’re so enthusiastic.
With a staff of 25 employees, SEI won a contract with the Resource Center’s Allied Industries, and in October 2014, began sewing Individualized First Aid Kits used by the U.S. Marines in the field. By the time the project concludes next August, workers from the Resource Center will have filled 186,000 of the zippered pouches with medical supplies.
Allied Industries is one component of the Resource Center, whose primary function is to provide employment for persons with disabilities. As such, they are eligible to receive government contracts, including contracts that prohibit the use of foreign labor.
Everything manufactured by Support Enterprises is proudly made in the U.S.A. And while the Resource Center remains an important client, business continues to expand to other commercial enterprises.
Support Enterprises has grown to 90 employees now, and has expanded their physical plant from 3600 square feet in 2012 to over 15,000 square feet today. That growth resulted from a lot of creativity and ingenuity that expanded both the product line and the market.
One of Support Enterprises’ largest ongoing sub-contracts is with the Resource Center’s Allied Industries for straps. Made of strong polyester fabric with plastic batting for strength and flexibility, the straps are a key component of MOLLE Gear, used by the military and others. MOLLE stands for Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment, and the straps, which have heavy-duty snaps and Velcro on one or both ends, enable pouches, packs, and other equipment to be carried individually on belts, vests, or other apparatus.
Components and ideas from one project have spurred the development and manufacturing of a variety of products. Right now, Support Enterprises makes the first aid kits mentioned above, along with tourniquet pouches that are used by firefighters all over the country, ammunition pouches, training vests for the coast guard, keg insulators, and police vests for various law enforcement agencies, including the Jamestown Police Department.
The straps, a key component of the armored police vests, enable officers to attach some of their equipment to the vest itself, lightening their otherwise heavy belts.
The vests can also be customized for each police department.
A backpack, for sports equipment and other uses, is in the design stage.
Management at Filling the Gap and Support Enterprises bring a broad-based background to the table. Michael Suppa has a manufacturing background, going all over the world with Blair Corporation, headquartered in Warren, PA, before coming to Filling the Gap. Production Manager Gary Neel has a background in the automotive industry, food service, and furniture manufacturing.
“I started on the line,” says Jeremy Weilacher, the Prototype and Design Manager. “Then I sewed my way up.”
The production floor at Support Enterprises is buzzing with activity. Workers look up in greeting, but soon get back at it, some listening to music or podcasts as they cut, sew, trim or assemble one of the products. Questions are answered with enthusiastic responses.
“This machine trims off all the loose threads,” a woman explains. “We used to have people trimming with scissors. This is better.”
Underneath the activity, the sense of enthusiasm and pride in the work is apparent on the factory floor. It feels like a team.
“We listen to the workers’ ideas,” said Production Manager Neel. “If they come up with a better way to do things, we’ll make changes.”
Change seems to be the norm as this business grows. Like Jeremy Weilacher, Support Enterprises seems to be sewing its way up.