Manufacturing in the United States allowed Joseph Abboud Manufacturing to be nimble in an ever-evolving world of fashion — a strength not held by foreign competitors.

NEW BEDFORD — Decades ago Tony Sapienza shared some feelings of uncertainty with Matt Morrissey, who at the time was the executive director of New Bedford’s Economic Development Council.

The number of American clothing manufacturing jobs continued to decline as companies exported them to foreign countries.

“There was a sense of when was the last shoe going to fall in New Bedford,” Morrissey said. “That was very much in the thinking of that period.”

Sapienza feared Riverside Manufacturing Co. would be next. The facility, which now houses Joseph Abboud Manufacturing, under Sapienza's guidance, wouldn't be silenced.

“Tony was very instrumental in holding that together and realizing the value of the factory,” Joseph Abboud said. “You have 750 families there that maybe wouldn’t be there if Tony hadn’t sort of stuck through it and persevered. We owe him a lot. We really do. That’s a big statement.”

Joseph Abboud celebrated its 30th anniversary in New Bedford last year. Sapienza’s trust in the city, it’s workforce and his innovation preserved the factory.

As he looks toward retirement in 2018, the 70-year-old Sapienza, CEO of Joseph Abboud, is SouthCoast Today’s Businessperson of the Year.

“He is clearly the guy that deserves it,” Abboud said. “Because that factory could have easily been gone, which would have been a disaster.”

Sapienza, regardless of how dire the circumstances appeared, said he never entirely lost faith in New Bedford.

He trusted GFT (Gruppo Finanziaro Tessile), the Italian clothing company which owned Riverside. But even more he knew the workforce, made up of mostly Portuguese women, would prevail.

“Folks who came to this country as teenagers, as young adults, kids sometimes, but who grew up in a family environment where, first of all, there were needle trade skills, so they knew how to thread a needle and run a sewing machine and had a tremendous work ethic,” Sapienza said.

The addition of Abboud completed the ingredients for the resurrection of the manufacturing facility.

“He kind of synthesized the brand and the look and he was an American designer born in America, making clothing in America," Sapienza said. “It was a great story you could tell about his commitment to being an American and being in the right place.”

But it was Sapienza who made the most out of those ingredients, both Morrissey and Abboud said.

During the 1990s it made business sense for companies to outsource jobs. Sapienza looked at having a facility in New Bedford as a positive, specifically in men’s fashion.

As the country exited the 2002 recession, Sapienza introduced an idea Americans take for granted in 2018.

“That was all about treating the consumer to the kind of (service) we’ve all become accustomed to,” Abboud said. “We go online. We order something and it shows up two days later. With men’s clothing we’re not quite as fast as two days later, but when you can get a product in two weeks or three weeks particularly made to your specifications, that’s a pretty good deal.”

Foreign competitors needed weeks to ship products to the United States. Joseph Abboud Manufacturing worked to provide customers with the quickest transaction possible.

“So we made significant investments in 2004 in efficiency and in getting the product to market that much faster,” Sapienza said. “That was probably the single most important additional thing that we as managers here in New Bedford were able to do.”

New machinery cut six days out of the production process.

Sapienza also brought the New Jersey distribution facility to New Bedford. It created upwards of 30 jobs and saved at least another week in shipping.

Often, shipments out of New Jersey required overnight shipping. Since Sapienza had streamlined production, overnighting packages wasn’t needed as often. Not only did Sapienza provide better customer service, he saved the company money.

Manufacturing in the United States also allowed Joseph Abboud Manufacturing to be nimble in an ever-evolving world of fashion — a strength not held by foreign competitors.

“We make a lot of high quality products offshore but there isn’t anything quite like what we do (in New Bedford),” Abboud said. “He was extremely instrumental in understanding the value of the factory to the brand.”

As early as 2009, Sapienza ushered one of the oldest trades in the world into social media.

"We realized we could do it on social media. It's pretty cheap to do," Sapienza said. "You don’t have to buy $20,000 ads in men’s magazines. You can blog and do a whole bunch of other stuff."

As Sapienza steps into retirement, he sees the industry stepping into different, uncharted territory.

Malls are struggling. Brick and mortar retail may not have a future.

“Who could have predicted Amazon and Wal-Mart battling the way they are,” Sapienza said. “That you get your groceries from Amazon. It’s a whole new landscape out there.”

At his core, though, Sapienza believes tailoring is a craft done best with the customer present. That aspect will always steady any uncertain waters.

"I think we’ll see the best retailers are going to survive when they provide exemplary customer service and when they’re selling a product that needs a little bit of hand holding," Sapienza said.

Abboud refers to Sapienza as royalty in the tailored clothing industry. The two met in their 20s. Sapienza worked at his father’s factory in Haverhill

“You can’t necessarily put down on a checklist, he’s a very special guy,” Abboud said. “I think he’s very connected with the community, committed to the community and I think that makes him. And he’s seen the world.”

Retirement or not, the world will see the chair of the Economic Development Council and trustee at the Whaling Museum and Bristol County Community College again.

“This isn’t the last of me,” Sapienza said. “You’ll see me.”

Follow Michael Bonner on Twitter @MikeBBonnerSCT