If you'd have asked Dave Bartman in 1971 what he'd be doing today, he'd have told you straight out: "Not this." But life often has different ideas. This is the story of a case in point.


Bartman, 56, is the president of Lifewear Inc., a Pottstown garment-maker that rose from the proverbial ashes of Yocom Knitting Co. Yocom, located in Stowe, closed down early in 1997, after several major customers of the firm declared bankruptcy in quick succession.


Bartman was Yocom's vice president of manufacturing at the time. He'd joined the firm 26 years earlier as a machine mechanic.


"After we found out (about the closing) the people all asked me, 'Why don't you open a shop?' I said, 'Yeah, right.' But then I thought, 'Well, what else am I gonna do?"


So that's what he did. And this, from a guy who returned home after his first day at Yocom back in 1971 and told Betsy, his wife, "(The job is) OK, but I'm not gonna do this for the rest of my life."


"We still laugh about that," Bartman admitted.

Today, the former Betsy Yocom is Lifewear's vice president and sales manager. That's right: The job Dave took all those years ago was in his father-in-law's plant.


An electrical engineer with a degree from the Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania, Dave Bartman certainly could have done other things. But after a stint with a defense contractor - building fire control test systems for the F-4 fighter-bomber near Baltimore - the couple's ties to this area brought them back.


"Military testing is not something too many people retire from," Dave said. "There's always new kids coming out of school, and the contractors snap them up pretty quickly. There's not a lot of longevity there."


On top of that, the couple missed their families, their home church, and just plain home, period. So back they came, and Dave found himself trying to adapt from wearing a shirt and tie in air conditioned offices to a mechanic's uniform in a hot factory.

Adapt he did, and rose eventually to the top post on Yocom's manufacturing side. 


The fast decline and closure of Yocom Knitting mirrors the fate of other mills in the tri-county area. "The biggest thing was NAFTA and GATT (the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade)," Bartman said, "when we started sending work to Mexico with no import duties, and to people in the Caribbean basin countries. 


"You know, those countries don't have the OSHA and L and I (U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Department of Labor and Industry) requirements like we do in this country, and you can't compete if those kinds of things aren't enforced on an equal basis." Not to mention the precipitously lower cost of labor in offshore operations.


But Bartman took a lesson from that, and a groundbreaking step in capitalizing on what he learned.


"We opened on June 3 of 1997, and when we opened I went to the union and said, 'I want the union in my new plant,' and they were astounded. They had never had an owner come to them (to unionize a plant)."


As part of Lifewear's marketing initiative, which Betsy Bartman heads up, the company sent letters to former Yocom customers. "Seventeen of 30 came back favorably," Dave said. 


That customer base has grown to more than 200 in just over two years. Bartman credits the company's targeting of union customers.


Though Lifewear sells much of its product to screen printers which serve labor unions, "We put a union label on everything we make," he said. "A customer recently told me there's about 30 million union members in this country, and we're finding they don't appreciate wearing a Mexico-made shirt." Talk about a market niche.


"They're coming to the terms that they'll pay a little more, rather than send the work out of the country." Lifewear's customers span the nation, with an especially healthy concentration in Detroit, home to thousands of United Auto Workers members.


Though his views are far from some of the more radical protectionist vitriol that often colored the NAFTA and GATT debates, Bartman does see a bigger picture that many in this country, he thinks, are missing.

"Generally, the American public doesn't care about quality. They are after the lowest price, and don't care if their neighbor loses their job. But when it happens to them, then they are interested," he said.


"The global economy is fine, certainly it helps us to buy a cheaper product, but you have to look at the other side of the coin too. We only need so many computer experts and fast food workers in the country." 


Bartman has nothing but praise for his own workers, without whom, he says, Lifewear would not have enjoyed its immediate and expanding success.


UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) local president Barbara Humphrey and shop steward Lyndel Crosby, lead a manufacturing team of 22, which assembles Lifewear's primarily cotton T-shirts, and sweatshirts.


The firm also makes specialty items including nightshirts and "capped-sleeve" T's, popular with recreational basketball leagues. Another product, "Protect-All," is a truly major-league commodity. The cotton-ribbed support brief, favored by pro baseball players, is designed to prevent brush burns caused by sliding into a base or after a ball.


Other Yocoms are also involved in the company: Jim and Helenmary, who were instrumental in setting up production equipment. Helenmary now oversees shipping operations, while Jim is a fabric cutter and helps with bookkeeping.


Bartman credits SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, for helping him assemble his business plan, and Security National Bank in Pottstown for signing off on that plan and providing the capital necessary to get Lifewear going.


But he always comes back to his people.


"If I had to tell you the main ingredient, it would be the dedication of the people I work with. We have a lot of good equipment, but it's personnel that makes the business go. If your workers are behind you, you can't fail, and that's really what keeps us going." 

Workers UNITE to Breathe Life Into Textile Business

By: Anthony G. Noel (Sunday, November 7, 1999) ~ The Mercury