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The Merrow Sewing Machine Co. was old, analog and grappling with its identity after 165 years as a market leader when Charlie Merrow and his brother, Owen, bought back the company in 2003. Since then, the seventh generation of Merrows has used lots of tech, namely cloud, to bring it into the 21st century and drastically change its business model.
We went from trying to figure out how many sewing machines we had sold last month to being efficient and confident enough in what we were doing that we flipped over to being a start-up incubator in addition to running the core business.”
- Charlie Merrow
Organization: Merrow Sewing Machine Co.
Along with: WoolPRO board member, Merrow Salt Works Startup managing director
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In certain circles, the name Merrow has been synonymous for centuries with quality, and with quality stitches. Technology and innovation, though? Not so much.
Then Charlie Merrow and his brother, Owen, took control of the company.
The Merrow Sewing Machine Co. “was having a difficult time being a competitive international machine manufacturer,” Merrow said. “The market had been devoured, and Merrow didn’t have an obvious place in the industry. My job was to make it a lot more obvious where we needed to be. When your back is against the wall, in effect, you look to change, and my job was to be a change agent.”
That was almost a decade and a half ago. Since then, the 179-year-old Fall River, Massachusetts manufacturer has shifted from nostalgic analog — bills and materials written on index cards, customer orders filed in cabinets, a fax machine as the primary source of orders — into the digital world with an ERP system. “And it nearly sunk us,” Merrow said. “It made almost every process harder, less efficient, and the reporting around it not only didn’t help us at all, it was full of bad data.”
This is the part of the technology success story not told nearly often enough, Merrow said, “because people spend so much money on software and ERP and MRP, and they make it work.” You spend and spend and, in an effort to justify the financial investment, “figure out a way to kind of muscle through it and make it work.
“Fortunately, we were in a position where the person running the company — me — had a technology background. Instead of forcing it, or throwing money at it, and making it passably productive and probably incredibly vulnerable, we changed. We changed fast. And I think we got lucky.”
As part of the seventh generation of Merrows involved with the company, and its current CEO, Merrow implemented Kenandy ERP and MRP, and Salesforce CRM, along with dozens of smaller custom applications that supported those major apps. The evolution has taken years and transformed the company from little more than an old sewing machine manufacturer to an incubator that Merrow said he can envision someday becoming a holding company for multiple brands.
“We went from trying to figure out how many sewing machines we had sold last month,” Merrow said, “picking through data in the system, Excel sheets being managed by dozens of different people — to being efficient and confident enough in what we were doing that we flipped over to being a start-up incubator in addition to running the core business.”
IndustryWeek: What was the impetus for change back in the early 2000s? And why turn to cloud to move away from analog?
Charlie Merrow: It’s a deceptively simple answer. We like to say that we have all the problems of a major multinational company with the resources of a small business. In a nutshell, there’s the impetus for change. How do you run that? How do you manage that? You can do it by having lots and lots of people who do lots and lots of things, or you can use technology. I came from a world of technology, so my decision, when I bought out the other companies with my brother (Owen is the company’s COO) was to rebuild our business around a narrower focus for product, and through a far more efficient infrastructure to manage what is, effectively, a very complicated company. We have a lot of stuff that needs to be managed, and we needed technology to do it.
IW: Neither you nor your brother was involved with the company when you purchased it back in the early 2000s. Why buy it at all? Just a certain pride to uphold the family name?
CM: I’m probably as narcissistic as anyone you’ve ever met, but (the name on the company) had very little to do with it. The brand strength and product strength are why Owen and I bought the company. The brand is sold into 87 countries, and we have installations in more than that. The brand is well enough known that on Project Runway, they use the term “Merrowing.” It’s an unusually strong brand in an industry that has commoditized almost everything. And we have a product that really is unbelievable. The core product line and the innovation around that product line was significantly underutilized. So it was brand strength, product strength, and customer base. Even in 2003, when we looking at the company, it was remarkable the quality of the customers that existed. Merrow just needed to change what it was doing with those customers in order to have those customers 12 years, 15 years later. And that was really clear.