PITTSFIELD, Maine — C.M. Almy, a 75-employee business in Pittsfield, has settled firmly into a niche, but it’s not the type of niche you might expect.
Many niche businesses specialize in certain products that have something in common, such as similar ingredients or manufacturing processes. The niche at C.M. Almy has more to do with the customers, namely, churches.
One end of the company’s Pittsfield plant is dedicated to textiles. Dozens of stitchers working on rattling sewing machines or cutting vast bolts of cloth collaborate to create vestments that any churchgoing person would recognize as a minister’s robes or an altar’s tapestry.
The work done in another portion of C.M. Almy’s shop is different in almost every way. Instead of soft cloths, the medium here is brass, metal, gold and silver. Instead of sewing machines and scissors, the tools at work are metal lathes, buffers and chemical rinses. The end result is a dazzling array of church decorations ranging from chalices to solid-gold crosses to be worn around the necks of clergy.
On top of those products, C.M. Almy sells other religion-related items ranging from Communion wafers to candles, though most of those items are manufactured by outside suppliers and marketed from the company’s Greenwich, Conn., headquarters, where there are an additional 30 employees.
“With our small shop, it’s impossible to compete with, for example, large shirt manufacturers,” said Michael Fendler, the company’s vice president. “We can, however, make a specialty product that a large shirt manufacturer wouldn’t be interested in because there’s such a small market.”
The more than century-old company started as a tailoring business and has diversified ever since. C.M. Almy & Son Inc. was founded in New York City in 1892 by master tailor Clarence Mortimer Almy and his son James, according to the company’s Web site. James’ cousins Donald Fendler, father of Donn Fendler, made fa-mous by the book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” took over the firm in 1929. After World War II, Fendler and his sons Thomas and Ryan moved the shop to Pittsfield. Today, the firm is led by Michael and Stephen Fendler, the sons of Ryan Fendler.
C.M. Almy, despite its specialized clientele, is not immune to stresses caused by the faltering economy, said Michael Fendler. Church budgets have seen a decline in the past couple of years, which has led to a 20 percent dip in sales in the past year, particularly among high-quality decorative items.
“We’re not seeing a decline in demand for many of the day-to-day supplies churches buy that are in our product line,” said Fendler. “We believe that the demand really isn’t down, but that money available to buy the things that we provide [is] down. Churches have many demands on their funds.”
As has been the practice during its history, the firm is continuing to diversify. It recently started making camouflaged vestments for military chaplains and is developing a business relationship with the Knights of Columbus.
“From time to time, we examine whether we should be in some other business,” said Fendler, who added that part of the success of C.M. Almy is its ability to respond to customers’ needs. “We have the capacity to respond to make-to-order products. If we tried to outsource our manufacturing, we’d have a difficult time respond-ing to our customers.”
Besides, said Fendler, most companies don’t have the benefit of such a highly skilled work force. Stitching together vestments for clergy and turning plates of brass into ornate cups are the kind of professions that border on the artistic.
“Most people don’t walk in the door with the skills we need,” said Fendler. “We’d like to pay higher wages and offer bigger benefits. As far as keeping people around, a lot of it has to do with recognizing that everyone here deserves a lot of respect. We encourage them to use their talents and capabilities on the job.”
That philosophy has led to a low turnover rate. Fendler said more than half of the company’s employees have worked for C.M. Almy for more than 15 years.
Asked whether the manufacturing plant has a churchlike atmosphere in any way other than the holy appearance of the products, Fendler said faith is not pushed on anyone.
“We consider personal beliefs something personal and we try hard to leave it there,” he said. “We really try to have some fun while we’re working.”