For many companies, 2020 has been a time of crushing negativity and loss of business. With economic uncertainty becoming the norm, many consumers have lessened their consumption and many companies have been threatened by the fear of having to shut down.
Terence To, BC ’09, was one of the people grappling with uncertainty when the pandemic hit the company he works for, AW Chang, in early March. AW Chang is a vertical men’s clothing manufacturer that works with apparel companies. With sales slipping and production halting, AW Chang needed to switch gears. Like many other retail companies impacted by the pandemic, they turned their focus to making masks to help the public stay safe.
But this wasn’t the first time that To was faced with an uncertain future. He graduated in 2009, when the job market was still suffering from the economic crash of 2008. Companies weren’t hiring—a college graduate’s nightmare. His plans to work at Macy’s or any other retail company owned by TJX, a department store company, grinded to a halt.
“Everyone kind of went into a hiring freeze,” To said.
He credited his time at Boston College with helping him take these challenges in stride. He mentioned one class in particular, Operations and Competition with professor Joy Field, which was part of the Carroll School of Management core curriculum. With a double concentration in operations and human resources, To enjoyed the real-life applications of his classes. When he competed with his Operations and Competition class to create a presentation for consultants for Deloitte, his team had the winning presentation.
While the class’ real-world experience was beneficial, his teammates in particular helped him later in his career, he said.
“One of the members in my group that I worked with on that project now works at Amazon and was actually someone I got in touch with when we were getting this mask project off the ground, and she helped us get set up on Amazon,” To said.
Another well known BC class influenced To’s college experience, he says. Perspectives with professor Kerry Cronin had a great impact on his career, he said, as he reflected on her ability to create a tight-knit group in class.
These classes helped To cultivate useful tools to present his ideas. Even though he ended up in a career in retail, which isn’t common for his major in operations, he emphasized that the way BC professors design their classes allows students to learn valuable skills such as collaborating with others. During To’s junior year, he realized that while consulting seemed like the obvious career choice, he wanted to take a different path. He began attending retail info sessions, which piqued his interest. Immediately after applying for a corporate position at TJ Maxx and Macy’s, the job market froze.
To showed up at his graduation knowing he had to start again from scratch. He struck up a conversation with Dean of CSOM Andrew Boynton, who helped land him a position at Party City. While working at Party City, To made sure to stay in contact with the recruiters he met during his days back at the Heights, and once the economy started to get better, he secured a position at Macy’s.
While there, To focused on menswear, a path he’s been on ever since. After five years, he jumped from the buying side of retail to the manufacturing side. For another five years, he was in the position of sales clothing manufacturer at Macy’s, before moving into his current role at AW Chang—a salesperson for a dress shirt, neckwear, and sportswear manufacturers. “Macy’s now is actually one of the main accounts I handle,” To said, speaking to how his experiences have come full circle.
But not every step in To’s career path has been easy. In March, AW Chang, like many other companies, was impacted by COVID-19, as men swapped their upscale clothing for athleisure. None of his partners had stores that were open, so AW Chang didn’t make any profit. This is where To’s unique business model came into play.
Unlike most manufacturing companies, AW Chang is completely vertical—meaning that instead of being outsourced, the different parts of the manufacturing process are internal. It owns everything from the fabric mill to the manufacturing company.
Unfortunately, halting production is not as simple as turning off a light switch, To explained. It’s a time-consuming process of slowly ramping down production and then figuring out what to do with the products that are already on the assembly line.
Being vertical also means there are a lot of employees who depend on production in order to support their families. If there’s no money coming in, there is none to give. To needed a solution, and he needed it quickly.
“It really was a matter of survival,” he said.
It wasn’t long before an opportunity popped up. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked manufacturing companies to support the medical field by pivoting to producing medical supplies. To and his team quickly brainstormed ways to pull a 180 and begin production. They came to the conclusion that it would be too great of a challenge to obtain all of the permits and overcome the other obstacles related to selling hospital-grade products.
The clock was ticking, and they wanted to assist in some way. They had a surplus of already woven fabric in their warehouses that wasn’t being used, so they decided to make masks for everyday people. Because of their vertical manufacturing model, they were able to move faster than other companies.
“We went from prototype to production in probably about two weeks,” To said, “which in manufacturing and the garment business is unheard of.”
To said that masks are “a simple item to make, but a difficult item to master.”
To and his team took into consideration a variety of factors, from comfort to shape and fit to overall aesthetics and design. One of their focuses was on the actual packaging of their product. The team had to find a way to maximize safety by minimizing the amount of handling by the manufacturers, so the product is heat sealed.
To says that AW Chang’s ability to get started so quickly is what sets them apart from other companies. The mask market took off due to COVID-19, but while most companies needed six to eight weeks to start production, To needed only two. Producing vertically also allows AW Chang to ensure quality while not having to mark up their prices. They were also able to print digitally instead of using a screen print, allowing them to broaden what they could put on their masks.
“The range [of] designs that we’re able to do is much broader than other companies that screenprint,” he said.
To hopes to use this ability to collaborate with educational products company Follett to create custom masks featuring logos from different universities. This means that scenes from BC’s history, such as Doug Flutie’s famous pass or any popular BC landmark such as Gasson, could be printed on a mask.
To has stayed in contact with his alma mater and tries to give back in any way he can, he said.
“We want to find ways to give back,” To said. “That really ties back to the core values of BC, men and women for others.”
To’s company has started a variety of initiatives to give back. When To began his mask venture, he collaborated with Macy’s to support an organization called Clothes4Souls, which provides clothing for the less fortunate in cities around the country. To has recently donated 20,000 masks to this organization.
Early in To’s mask-masking process, a good friend of his, Kristen Dacey, BC ’09, was one of his first customers. Before a lot of people knew about To’s brand, sales like these were key to building a reputation, To said. To had been posting on Facebook and reaching out to family and old friends before he connected with Dacey, an elementary school teacher in New Hampshire. After she purchased his product, To made custom masks featuring her school’s colors and logo and was able to donate them to all of the students and faculty.
Around a month ago, he began conversations with Follett about supplying bookstores around the country with his masks. With these conversations still in the works, To began getting news about what was happening on campus and wanted to directly support BC students.
Speaking from his own experience, To’s advice to BC undergraduates is to network and take advantage of all of the opportunities that BC has to offer.
“One of the biggest keys to networking is you should do it when you don’t need anything,” he said. “Once you have established these connections and you do need something, you have those connections in place.”
But it shouldn’t be a one-way street, he explained—the process of networking may lead to lending help to another person looking for guidance. To also encouraged students to stay positive in the face of the unknown.
“I think the best analogy that I could put to everything that’s happened is when life hands you lemons,” he said, “figure out how to make the best lemonade that you can.”
Photo courtesy of Terrence To