By Dusty Sonnenberg
The last line in the FFA Motto is “Living to Serve.” That motto is being lived out in real time during COVID-19 by Universal Lettering of Van Wert, maker of the official blue corduroy FFA jacket.
Little has changed from the original FFA jacket that J.H. “Gus” Lintner had Van Wert Manufacturing/Universal Uniform Company design in 1933. The Fredericktown FFA Chapter Band wore the jacket when they played at the national FFA Convention in Kansas City that year. The blue corduroy jackets were later adopted as the official dress for all FFA chapters.
A good deal has changed, though, with the company producing those iconic blue and gold jackets over the years. The original jackets had snaps instead of zippers and embroidered emblems instead of sewn on patches. Today a state-of-the-art process at Universal Lettering, which includes a chenille machine to create the patches and computerized sewing machines to stitch each individual member name on the front of the jacket, replaces hand-operated machines.
Universal Lettering is now operated by the Hoops family. In 1991, Mark Hoops and several business associates in the Van Wert area purchased what is now Universal Lettering. Mark is the president of the company. Mark’s brother, Cory Hoops, is the General Manager, and Mark’s children, Alex and Kate, are also involved in management capacities. Alex and Kate grew up helping at the company as children, and in 2015 Alex came back to join the company managing production and as a process engineer. Kate returned to the company in 2017 and manages the warehouse aspects of the company.
Universal Lettering has seen growth over the years, moving from a downtown Van Wert location to a 12,000 square foot facility back in 1996, to a 20,000 square foot facility in 2011. In 2019 they expanded to 30,000 square feet, as they added engraving and warehousing for the National FFA Association, and now occupy 32,500 square feet. During that time, the company has grown from a basic inventory with 20 to 30 items (primarily FFA jackets), to now over 2,500 items including FFA t-shirts, pins, plaques, and FFA banquet supplies to compliment the original FFA jackets. They are now using a warehouse management software system to track inventory. Universal Lettering will ship over 84,000 corduroy FFA jackets every year. They individually tailor make over 6,000 jackets each year.
Like all business savvy companies, Universal Lettering knows the value of diversifying, and also the importance of focusing on their competitive strengths. Universal Lettering prides itself in their ability to individualize items in a highly efficient process. They also have the ability to use their machines for products beyond the blue and gold corduroy jacket. Universal Lettering utilizes the chenille machine, which stitches the State and Chapter on the back of the FFA jacket, to also create varsity letters and award patches for high school and collegiate varsity letter jackets. Their most recent initiative, prior to coronavirus, was the development of a website for customers to create their own varsity letter jacket, and personalizing it via the website software. “It is a one stop shop where customers can design and order their letter jacket,” said Alex Hoops. “The software program allows them to design the jacket and see what it will look like to include the jacket style and colors, varsity letter style and colors, and any patches or personalized stitching.”
The hope is to have the site launched in early July.
Business had been booming at Universal Lettering, with expectations for a record year in 2020 in terms of sales, and the volume of products moved.
“Spring and fall are our busiest times of the year for FFA orders,” said Cory Hoops. “The fall had always been our busiest time as the new school year begins and FFA members order jackets. While we will ship close to 85,000 FFA jackets each year, about 40,000 of those will ship in just three months, from mid-September to the end of November. When we added the National FFA warehouse in 2019, April became our biggest month with all the engraving of plaques and State
FFA convention merchandise and banquet supplies.”
Universal Lettering will engrave around 80,000 plaques and awards annually. Approximately 35,000 of those will be done in the month of April for the FFA convention and banquet season.
The management team at Universal Lettering was gearing up for a record spring and reviewing staffing needs with plans to hire additional employees to prepare for the flood of orders that were expected for the coming weeks. Then COVID-19 hit, and on March 23, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued the Stay at Home order and closed schools in the state of Ohio. Several other states around the nation followed, and in a matter of days everything stopped.
“Schools were closed, events were cancelled, and FFA Chapter advisors were consumed with figuring out a new way to teach and advise students remotely,” said Alex Hoops. “We were also forced to close, and no one was in this building for nearly three weeks, during what should have been our busiest time of the year.”
During that time, the Hoops family was forced to re-envision what the future of Universal Lettering would look like.
“Our machines only make money when the needles are moving,” said Cory Hoops. “We have the equipment and great employees with a skill set to make things happen.”
As more was learned about the coronavirus, a request was made by the governor for companies to produce PPE to help front line workers fight the COVID-19. Kate Hoops connected with a friend working in the medical product sales industry. That relationship led to Universal Lettering becoming an “essential business” and opening back up to produce facemasks, and then expand to sewing hospital gowns.
“We knew we could play a role, we just needed to find the materials, and design a flow process to make it happen efficiently,” said Cory Hoops. “It took some thinking to redesign and go from cutting and sewing corduroy jackets, to now making PPE masks and hospital gowns out of much lighter material. We had to source materials, re-tool our equipment and develop a system to produce large numbers quickly.”
Universal Lettering is now producing face masks as well as both disposable and washable gowns.
“It takes two yards of fabric to make one gown,” said Kate Hoops. “We just received 20,000 yards of fabric, so that should be sufficient for another 10,000 gowns. So far, we have shipped out over 20,000 gowns and 7,000 masks. Most of the fabric comes from China, and sourcing fabric and elastic has been a challenge because everyone is looking for it.”
Almost as quickly as things closed down, Universal Lettering has accelerated back into full production.
“With the task of producing PPE, we became an ‘essential business’ at the end of March. By mid-April we started sewing and bringing a few employees back. By the first of May we brought the rest of the employees back and were full go making PPE,” said Cory Hoops. “We are now hiring and training additional employees to help meet the demand for PPE.”
The next challenge was managing the growing backlog of orders for FFA products.
“We started getting FFA orders in early May, and have built up about a two-month backlog,” Cory said. “Currently our primary focus is filling the urgent need for PPE. We have now simultaneously resumed production and shipping of FFA items and plaques.”
Looking to the future, Universal Lettering understands that their competitive advantage is still their ability to efficiently personalize large quantities of items for customers.
“The PPE is something we are doing in order to serve our community and get the company operating again,” said Alex Hoops. “Moving forward, we know our future lies in positioning ourselves with our state-of-the-art automated embroidery machines, and specialized personalization software. In the short term, we need to find a balance between our strategic goals versus the immediate needs. PPE is an immediate need, but it is also a commodity that many companies can produce. Strategically, our ability to create detailed products with the chenille machine as well as engraving equipment is more of a niche that better aligns us to meet our long term goals.”
PPE masks can be ordered directly from Universal Lettering at https://ppe.universallettering.com/
Personalized varsity letter jackets and patches can be found at www.varsitycart.com.