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)."