As the warm weather turns and you prep for pool and pond, you can thank Bryant students for diving deep into the global supply chain so all your favorite inflatable products make it to shelves this summer.
Like mega-corps Apple and Nike, popular inflatable water toy company WOW Sports was burned by supply chain disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before COVID hit, the company spent no more than $4,000 per container to ship their finished goods, made from PVC, from China to the United States. When the supply chain fell apart, that cost rose to an eye-popping $20,000. Adding insult to fiscal injury, getting the containers to ship the goods proved nearly impossible.
“We were exposed,” says Bryant alum Bryan Fournier ’05 MBA, WOW Sports’ director of operations. “All the expertise resided in China. There were no alternatives.”
“Nearshoring is a major trend. To consider moving your supply chain, or part of your supply chain, from an established overseas vendor to the United States is a huge undertaking. If we can have five of our students work on it on a high level, that’s going to be cost-effective.”
With their inflatables sourced and manufactured solely overseas, WOW Sports lacked a secondary market to pivot. That led Fournier to investigate the possibility of bringing their supply chain home, tapping Bryant University’s renowned Global Supply Chain Management capstone program for research support.
“Nearshoring is a major trend. COVID is really what is driving a lot of these changes,” says Professor of Management Christopher Roethlein, who leads the Global Supply Chain Management’s capstone program. “To consider moving your supply chain, or part of your supply chain, from an established overseas vendor to the United States is a huge undertaking. If we can have five of our students work on it on a high level, that’s going to be cost-effective.”
Roethlein assigned a team of seniors, Alexandra Fluegel ’23, Jonny Colon ’23, Lauren Lehoullier ’23, Isaiah Stephens ’23, Zack Tucci ’23, and Raquel Perez ’23, to the project and the students took a two-pronged reshoring approach: sourcing PVC sheets cut to precise specifications and finding manufacturers in the United States with the know-how to fabricate the inflatables. They looked at various case uses for similar PVC materials, and then through old-fashioned legwork began cold-calling pool and pond supply companies, roofing companies — basically any company that worked with PVC sheeting, sewing, and high-frequency welding.
“The project was frustrating at first, when we didn’t get the responses we were hoping for,” says Lehoullier. “But when we started making progress, and sharing it with Bryan, it really began to resonate that we were actually helping to build a new supply chain for a real company.”
“After a project like this, students have experience with a key trend and, when they go out into the world [they] will already know what to do in those situations.”
The students screened more than 100 companies and identified 40 potential raw material and fabrication sources for WOW Sports, finally narrowing it down to 10 for Fournier to begin conversations. At the end of the project, they located a supplier that could meet WOW Sports requirements for PVC in the U.S. in addition to potential suppliers that could meet the company’s requirements for sewing.
“After a project like this, students have experience with a key trend and, when they go out into the world, whatever company they go to is going to be facing the same issues regarding reevaluating foreign suppliers and lowering the risk of a bad experience,” says Roethlein. “Our students will already know what to do in those situations.”
According to Fournier, there are additional benefits to reshoring. Bringing home the supply chain would cut down on shipping time, making the company nimble to market demands. If an item isn’t selling, they can cut off production, so less unsold merchandise is sitting in storage. Tighter inventory also means more cash on hand to invest in growth. Proximity to their manufacturing base gives them room to experiment with new additions to their line, as well.
But what about the higher labor costs associated with U.S. manufacturing?
“The team worked through some pricing or costing calculations because there are some puts and takes with sourcing outside of Asia,” says Fournier. “You don't have the import duties, you don't have the tariffs, you don't have a shipping cost. So, there's those cost savings, but you will pay more for labor rates.”
Even with the higher labor costs, the students’ calculations show that nearshoring could save WOW Sports more than $1,000,000 annually.
“It’s starting to look like a lot of work is coming back to America, which is contrary to the consensus and what a lot of us have been told,” says Colon. “The extent of it actually surprised me.”
Then there is the value you simply can’t put a number on. Says Fournier, “Being able to go to a Walmart or a Target and say, ‘Hey, we have this product that’s made in the U.S.A., and guess what? It's the same price out of China’ — I think that's a huge win.”