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Best foot forward: FIT opens new plant in Tenn.

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FIT USA ribbon-cutting
Cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of FIT's new plant are, from left, Jamie Stitt, Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development; Clifford Einstein, retired from Dailey & Associates; Scott Ramsland, Sears Holding Corp.; Loretta Lee, Merchant House International Inc.; Raymond Cheng, SoZo Group; and Mark Potts, Jefferson City mayor.

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn.—Footwear Industries of Tennessee Inc. recently opened a manufacturing plant in Jefferson City.

The company currently is producing a line of men's work and hunting boots, but it is open to any line of products, said Paul Lloyd Jr., a representative from FIT USA.

The 40,000-sq.-ft. plant is “very nice, and even though it's a 20-year-old building, it's in very good shape,” he said.

Loretta Lee, founder of the Merchant House International Group, FIT USA's parent company, made the decision to set up shop in Jefferson City.

“We are thrilled that this exciting day is finally here,” she said in a statement. “By expanding our international presence to Jefferson City, we will be better positioned to serve our customers and the United States market. This is a terrific location for our company because it is centrally located and makes distribution convenient.”

The plant is located in the Jefferson City Industrial Park. FIT committed more than $5 million to the first phase of the project, and Lee said the firm will continue to invest in manufacturing in America.

“We intend to triple the business in the next two years with the goal of having 25 percent of our shoes made in America,” she said. “I believe this is only the beginning, and we will be encouraging other supply-related industries to invest in re-shoring to America.”

As of July, Lloyd said the company hired 45 employees with plans to continue adding more as they are trained. “When we get up to full production, it'll be 300-plus people.”

He estimated that at year end, the company will be at a third of its capacity. “We just need to develop and build the business,” he added.

Many of the firm's employees are experienced sewing machinists and material cutters, having worked previously in the apparel industry in East Tennessee.

FIT USA said it is operating a state-of-the-art, direct-injection molding machine to fabricate the soles of the boots.

“The reason why we're here in the first place is because the customer base is asking for Made in the U.S.A. product, and we are trying to develop that capacity,” Lloyd said.

The Footwear Division of the Merchant House International Group was established in 1980. Initially specializing in work boots, it diversified in 2003 and began manufacturing American-style western boots.

The division operates two shoe factories and in recent years has added production lines to increase capacity to more than 5 million pairs of shoes annually.

FIT USA said it has moved production of a footwear line from its headquarters in Tianjin, China, to Jefferson City with the goal of shortening manufacturing lead times and reducing inventory overhead for its customers.

“They've been a great company to work with,” said Garrett Wagley, director of economic development of Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce. “We're thrilled that they are here.”

He said Jefferson City has a history of skilled workers in the industry, and FIT is moving at a rapid pace.