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Providing troop support is a critical new mission for Heart & Core Athletic Apparel, a small St. Louis Park company that's producing thousands of sports bras for a U.S. defense purchasing agency.
The founders and sole employees of Heart & Core -- enterprising sisters Jen Swendseid and Lara Severson -- won the contract over the summer after a whirlwind of activity that included lining up domestic manufacturing facilities and sourcing materials, down to the thread. Manufacturing in the United States is a requirement of the contract.
Heart & Core's first order is to ship at the end of December to the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Troop Support center in Philadelphia, Swendseid said. If the one-year contract, with four one-year options, runs its term, Heart & Core could sell 60,000 to 300,000 bras to the agency -- at a total value of slightly more than $2 million in sales.
The Heart & Core bras are going to the Army and will be available through an online ordering program used by deployed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other locations, to replace uniform items. Heart & Core's experience, price, and technical evaluations and ratings of its products weighed in its favor. The military was required to choose the lowest price from among companies that met the technical standards.
"I feel like I've earned my MBA this year with the time and money I've spent, but I don't have the paper," Swendseid said. "We've learned a lot, grown a lot and picked ourselves up by our bootstraps. We're gaining momentum."
Contributing to that momentum, in addition to the defense contract, was Heart & Core winning the "Nothing-Ventured-Nothing-Gained" award last month from WomenVenture, a St. Paul based nonprofit business development and consulting organization. The award may lead to new high-profile promotional opportunities for Heart & Core, said Swendseid, a massage therapist and personal trainer who serves as the company's CEO. Severson, Heart & Core's chief marketing officer, has a separate full-time job in marketing.
The sisters were inspired to go into business after failing to find workout gear with suitable performance or appearance for their mother, a two-time breast cancer survivor. They did market and medical research and realized they could make a sports bra that would "encapsulate and compress" without an underwire, which many women find uncomfortable during strenuous activity.
They now have a patent application pending for their premium sports bra, which they sell through their website. They're moving production from China to Los Angeles and plan to begin a renewed push to get their sports bra into retail stores next year.
The sports bra they're making for DLA troop support is in full production in California, Swenseid said. That model, however, is designed to the agency's specifications and differs from Heart & Core's premium product.
Fledgling companies (Swendseid and Severson only founded theirs in April 2009) don't always enjoy overnight success in winning government contracts, said Mark Cooper, metro area manager for the Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).
PTAC, a program of the Minneapolis-based Metropolitan Economic Development Association, is administered in partnership with the Defense Logistics Agency, a division of the Defense Department. It helps companies identify markets and navigate the complexities of securing federal, state and local contracts.
Still, Cooper said, the case of Heart & Core illustrates the potential value for companies, no matter what size or what product or service they offer, in at least trying to win government business.
"The government is really trying to expand the landscape of small businesses that can compete," Cooper said. "They're willing to listen. However, I don't think they would have moved forward if [Heart & Core] didn't clearly demonstrate they had the capabilities to deliver and fully understood this business and the contract requirements."
Doing business with the government makes even more sense in a tough economy, when private-sector spending is down and credit often harder to come by, Cooper said. Those points have not been lost on local business owners: PTAC's 1,308 active clients in September 2009 represented a 31 percent increase from the year before, according to the agency's latest available data. At that time, 162 client companies reported getting contracts totaling close to $489 million.
Cooper and Swendseid hope that the defense contract will help open doors to Heart & Core's premium sports bras at retail locations run by governmental agencies and educational institutions such as the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system schools and other colleges.
That, along with retail sales in sportswear stores, would help diversify the company's revenue streams and customer base, which is something the defense agency also would like to see, Cooper said. He said he also wanted to work with Swendseid to improve the company's website, to improve its visibility on search results.
Susan Johnson, a vice president at Fidelity Bank in Edina, said Heart & Core's premium sports bra is "really fabulous." Johnson is a WomenVenture board member.
"I do a lot of exercise," Johnson said. "Maybe because I'm a banker, I'm a little bit more conservative. I'm more comfortable wearing it when I'm working out; it holds up really well."
Carol Mackey, a resident of Northern California who placed an order through Heart & Core's website, said she found the sports bra to be "sturdy and well made."
"The fit was spot-on and it has washed like a dream," Mackey said in an e-mail. "I did not know that this was a small business when I ordered, but was astonished and delighted to receive a handwritten note thanking me for my order."