COVID growth: Dayton companies adapt, find good news in tough times

Lisa Burr is the Director of Operation from Lion Group in Dayton wear the company manufactures protective apparel.
Caption
Lisa Burr is the Director of Operation from Lion Group in Dayton wear the company manufactures protective apparel.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

The COVID-19 pandemic has shrunk the economy overall, destroying millions of jobs nationwide and altering the business landscape dramatically.

But even in this environment, some Dayton-area companies are finding ways to thrive — keeping employees on their payroll and even expanding.

In general, cleaning services, e-commerce and distribution businesses, groceries, liquor and wine outlets, game-producers and others are finding their niche in the pandemic. Nationwide, the U.S. economy added 49,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate fell to 6.3%.

Among the local successes: Shoe company Crocs is planning to break ground on the 760,000-square-foot expansion of its distribution center near the Dayton International Airport in about a month, the center’s senior director said in an recent interview.

“We just got approval at the end of November to expand the campus,” said Rob Tecco, senior director and general manager of the Crocs distribution facility on Dog Leg Road within Dayton city limits. “So here in the next, we’ll call it, in the next four to six weeks, you’ll see us break ground on our expansion.”

The new addition will be complete by the end of 2021, with operations expected to in place by mid-2022. The new facility will be connected to the existing center, giving the company a total of just over 1.3 million square feet locally.

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Crocs employee Fira Ilkham at work. Contributed

Crocs employee Fira Ilkham at work. Contributed
Caption
Crocs employee Fira Ilkham at work. Contributed

“We’re working through all those details; we just signed the lease,” Tecco added.

Crocs needs the room. The company has been hiring feverishly since it opened.

Initially, it was thought the company would have about 130 to 150 Dayton-area jobs. That number has been steadily rising, however, with Crocs employing right around 750 full-time jobs — and the likelihood of reaching 900 full-time jobs in the distribution center. Seasonal hiring can push that number even higher.

Crocs announced plans for the second distribution center in June.

The footwear company first announced in February 2019 plans to move its North American distribution operation from Ontario, Calif. to a site near Dayton International Airport.

“We’re excited about it,” Tecco said in an interview, referring to the newest expansion. “It’s built around executing the long-range plan of the business and building out capacity to support the business for seven to 10 years.”

Dayton is one of the company’s bigger employment sites, with more workers than Crocs’ corporate office in Broomfield, Colo., said Ben Morrison, Crocs human resources director.

Crocs, best known for its varieties of clogs and sandals, has had a streak of sustained e-commerce growth.

“We had the right product, right place, right time,” Tecco said.

Lion looks for talent

Another type of company thriving in the pandemic world — producers of personal protective equipment.

Lion Group Inc.’s Janney Road manufacturing facility weathered twin blows since its late 2018 opening — the 2019 Memorial Day tornado outbreak that wrecked 75% of the North Dayton facility (and many other area businesses) and the global pandemic itself.

Still, the company pushes on. In late 2019, Lion had 45 employees in Dayton, approaching 50 — about 15 more than when the tornadoes struck.

Today, there are 80 employees. And Lion needs even more.

“We’re in a unique situation because we’re not only keeping employees working, but we’re actively hiring and actively trying to grow this facility as well,” said Lisa Burr, Lion’s director of operations who oversees the Janney Road site.

Jon May, Lion Group’s senior vice president for human resources, puts it bluntly: “We’re looking for talent.”

Lion is a unique company, offering heavy-duty protective gear for the military, firefighters and first-responders, as well as training equipment and training buildings and structures for firefighters.

The protective gear part of Lion’s business appears to have met its hour.

Caption
Lisa Burr is the Director of Operation from Lion Group in Dayton wear the company manufactures protective apparel.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Lisa Burr is the Director of Operation from Lion Group in Dayton wear the company manufactures protective apparel.
Caption
Lisa Burr is the Director of Operation from Lion Group in Dayton wear the company manufactures protective apparel.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

“It’s the nature of our product and what we produce here,” Burr said. “We do produce personal protective gear. That has been in such high demand, especially with the global pandemic going on right now.”

Lion tries to get creative with its approach to hiring and retention. It offers incentives to reward perfect attendance, quarterly efficiency bonuses, celebratory lunches and more. Starting production jobs offer a wage of $15 an hour, with the potential to rise to $17.75. Jobs are seated and in a climate-controlled environment, Burr noted.

The number of applicants rises and falls, even in a time of relatively high unemployment. Lion works with community partners, such as the Dayton Sewing Collaborative and Catholic Social Services, to find new workers,

Projected growth today entails adding a production lines to the North Dayton facility, along with a new cutting line.

Lion’s issue isn’t sales in a time of strong demand, May said. It’s getting products get “through the chute.”

“Dayton is going to be growing,” May said, who added that he can envision 200 employees at that plant.

Lion’s corporate presence in Vandalia has about 80 to 90 people, most of whom have worked remotely since March.

The company has invested time and energy into virtual software, virtual conference rooms for marketing products, and moving customer interactions online, May said. Lion’s marketing group has been adaptive, he said.

Of Lion’s “fair share of obstacles,” Burr appears to take them in stride.

“It teaches you little bit of resilience,” she said. “And it teaches you not to sweat the same stuff.”

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