To the moon and beyond

How many manufacturers can say their products have been to the moon?

That question may be hard to answer, but it seems a fair bet that AB Emblem is the only Weaverville-based company that can make that claim.

Ready to fly: Judy Baldwin sews a NASA mission logo patch while astronaut Jerry Ross looks on at the Weaverville-based AB Emblem factory. From left to right: Andrew Nagle, AB Emblem executive vice president, Weaverville Mayor Bett Stroud, Ross and CEO Bernhard Conrad. Photo courtesy AB Emblem

Besides sewing logo patches for NASA that have adorned astronauts’ flight suits since 1969, the company’s three factories—in Western North Carolina, Mexico and China—produce emblems and patches for firms around the world.

AB Emblem’s patches accompany astronauts on every space shuttle launch (roughly every three months), reports Executive Vice President Andrew Nagle, the son-in-law of Chief Executive Bernie Conrad. Each mission patch is unique, and shuttle crew members help design it.

The company typically produces 20,000 to 25,000 patches per mission. NASA buys half, and the rest are sold to museums, NASA gift shops and individual collectors. Online, the patches sell for between $5 and $15 apiece.

Because the U.S. military is required to buy from American companies, all military patches are produced at AB Emblem’s Weaverville plant, along with the NASA patches. The 80 employees also fill local and rush orders. The foreign factories help the company meet customer demand and desire for cheaper products.

“Ironically, we’d like everyone to buy ‘made in the U.S.A,’ but we realize that not everyone can afford it,” Nagle says.

Opened 12 years ago, the Mexican factory now employs 125 workers who produce about 15 percent of AB Emblem’s products, says Nagle. Spanish companies, he notes, often prefer to buy items manufactured in Mexico rather than China.

The Chinese plant, which opened in 2007, employs 50 people, though Nagle expects that number to grow. “If it wasn’t for the operation in China, we’d be either very small or out of business,” he says. “People won’t ever pay for us to export U.S.-made emblems to Europe. They want to buy them as inexpensively as possible. In order to protect our base in Weaverville, we need to grow elsewhere.”

AB Emblem also produces patches and merit badges for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; identity patches for such businesses as Midas, Pabst Brewing Co. and Benjamin Moore paints; and patches for schools and sports leagues.

The fifth-generation family business originated in Germany in 1892 as an embroidery firm. The family moved to New Jersey in 1933 and to WNC 30 years later, so the company could expand. It continues to grow—and, in fact, they’re hiring at the Weaverville factory now.

“Although it’s tough to find people who want to sit down at a sewing machine for eight hours,” notes Nagle.

Info: AB Emblem, 291 Merrimon Ave., Weaverville NC 28787 (800-438-4285; www.abemblem.com).

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