Making military hats part of its mission

Scott Iverson, president of ORC Industries, stands next to sailor hats in the company’s Dixie hat production room. ORC Industries produces 13,000 to 14,000 hats for the U.S. Navy every month along with a number of other items. The nonprofit organization also does some light assembly work as well.

ORC Industries is the nearly 60-year-old company known for making 13,000 to 14,000 Navy Dixie hats every month, but the nonprofit business is making an impact not only in several arms of the military but in keeping with its mission — serving individuals with disabilities who make the company’s wheels turn daily.

ORC Industries is both a manufacturer and a nonprofit established to enhance the lives of people with disabilities through employment opportunities. It’s located at 2700 Commerce St. in La Crosse where about 75 percent of the company’s direct labor hours come from individuals with severe disabilities. Much of the company’s government contract work focuses on fabric and textiles although ORC Industries also does some light assembly work as well.

“We have folks with disabilities, but I like to think about them as people with all different abilities,” said Scott Iverson, president of ORC Industries. “What one person can do might not be the same as the person next to them. We can adapt the work to our individuals so the work they do provides a feeling of success and accomplishment.”

That’s been the focus since 1966, when James Holtan’s desire to create a nonprofit organization where people with disabilities could find employment opportunities began. His intent was to create a nonprofit that would run as efficiently as a business, guided by its overall mission. That ultimately led to ORC to incorporate ISO 9000 compliant processes in its manufacturing outfit just as many of its manufacturing peers have. It also resulted in a variety of dynamic and growing divisions ranging from specialized sewing of apparel for the Armed Forces to cutting and spreading of material, light assembly, packaging, sorting, embroidery, warehousing, snowshoe manufacturing and more. All endeavors are focused on the underlying mission of providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

ORC Industries’ goal is to provide a workplace that provides opportunity. The La Crosse location has a full-time cook on staff, a cafeteria and a wellness center featuring a director of wellness who can tailor physical activity recommendations to each individual’s abilities.

“No matter who you are, you get the 401(k) match, vacation time, medical fund, etc.,” Iverson said. “Everybody here is treated the same.”

Since 1976, ORC Industries has supplied the U.S. Armed Forces and Special Operations Forces not only with the U.S. Navy’s Dixie Cup Hat — a Naval tradition since 1880 — but also ponchos, the Improved Rainsuit, soft-shell jackets and pants, wind shirts, hard-shell rain suits, field tarpaulins, tents and more.

“The Dixie Cup Hat is a namesake product for us as we are the exclusive producer of it. If you see a sailor with a Navy hat on and ask them to take it off, the tag will say ORC Industries,” Iverson said.

In addition to performing a significant amount of government contract work, ORC Industries includes a few other divisions: Vibrant Linens commercial laundry in Brownsville, Texas, added about 25 years ago, and the Redfeather Snowshoes that are the most widely-known offerings of the Redfeather Outdoors brand the business is focused on building further.

“We’re one of the last remaining snowshoe manufacturers in the U.S., making our snowshoes right here in La Crosse,” said Iverson.

The outdoor focus extends to the manufacturing of high-end composite canoes, all of which are intended to broaden what the business does well: advancing the independence, productivity and self-sufficiency of people with disabilities through employment opportunities.

“The Redfeather Outdoor brand we just launched is about creating products that fit into the skill-sets we already have here,” he said. “We have hundreds of sewers, great sewing capabilities and technology. We can utilize the skills we have in the Department of Defense world to build our own Made-in-America brand with the public.”

In addition to the primary administration office and manufacturing location in La Crosse, which is where the Dixie Caps, light assembly, snowshoes and canoes are manufactured, ORC Industries has locations in Arcadia, Wis. and Westby, Wis. The Brownsville, Texas location focuses on a lot of the government contract work (Dixie Caps withstanding) such as Marine and Army tarps and one-person combat shelters. That location also features a commercial laundry that washes, dries and folds much of the laundry for the South Padre Island hospitality industry. Of the 255 employees company wide, about 100 of those work in Wisconsin.

The company’s sewing and light assembly work keeps those 100 employees busy. ORC Industries’ assembly side of the house supports several large brands including a large global furniture company and large Midwestern convenience store chain as well as Winona, Minn.-based global manufacturer of sports memorabilia and publicity materials. “That’s been a great customer for us because we can take special projects off their plate when they have trouble finding people to do the work,” Iverson said.

The majority of ORC Industries’ revenue is generated through its government contract work, allowing that to supplement the financial loss inherent in the light assembly work.

“Everything is about our mission,” Iverson said. “The more people we employ, the more we are hitting our mission. We do it many different ways, and we are unique because we do play in many industries. That’s on purpose to a large degree because our primary revenue generation is through government contracts, but those can be cyclical. My focus is for us to be at less risk when cyclical downtime happens. When that time is slow, my goal is for our business to have full control over and to support the people we have here.”

Iverson joined the company in March 2021 and took the helm as president in January 2022, serving as only the third president in the history of the business. He points to that as proof of leadership’s strong passion for the company’s mission.

“Our previous president served as president 20 years but was here for 45 years, and I met with her several times over several years because she didn’t want to hand it off to just anybody,” he said. “Every day is about saying ‘hi’ to the entire place and hearing what’s happening in everybody’s life. It’s an awesome community. We have an unbelievable culture of people.”

Iverson is quick to point out, however, that ORC Industries operates just like any other workplace including meeting the exacting standards of its customers. “Everybody has a big heart and wants our people to do well, but at the end of the day, we have to provide a quality product at the right price,” he said.

Part of making that a reality involves a warehouse project in the works that will entail the use of robots. “Anybody, and I mean anybody, will be able to pick and pack an order through the use of these robots,” he said. “We’re excited for this to launch this summer.”