As Lion Group has grown over 120 years, it never lost sight of its mission and values
By: Erik Cassano
No matter where you live or work, you rely on first responders to keep you safe. But when the call for fire, police or emergency medical service comes in, what keeps first responders safe?
For decades, Dayton-based Lion Group Inc. has been the answer to that question. Founded as a work clothing shop for farmers in 1898, Lion has reinvented itself numerous times in the ensuing 120 years, serving emerging markets and finding new ways to apply its expertise in manufacturing and distributing protective clothing and equipment.
In the 1930s, the company transitioned from farmers’ clothing to uniforms for the service industry, and until the 1970s, that was its primary line of business.
“For about 40 years, we had focused solely on what we’d call ‘image apparel,’ for the service industry—uniforms for gas station attendants and things like that,” says Steve Schwartz (pictured above), co-owner and CEO of Lion. “We were selling station-wear uniforms to fire departments as a part of that. Through those connections, we started selling protective wear, and it quickly became the core of our business.”
Protective wear includes what is known in the industry as “turnout gear,” the coats and pants firefighters, emergency medical personnel and, in some cases, police, wear while responding to a call.
By providing station wear and turnout gear, Lion transformed itself into a one-stop clothing shop for fire, EMS and police departments around the country.
Schwartz and his brother Andy, the company’s corporate counsel and chief procurement officer, are great-grandsons of the company’s founder, William Lapedes. With four generations of the family’s hard work woven into Lion, the company’s survival is reliant on its ability to continue expanding and adapting, while remaining true to its mission and values.
Making and supplying uniforms may seem like a stable business, as many professions require them. But even in the uniform business companies have to be ready to adapt.
The Lion team saw an opportunity to transition to serving the emergency services industry in the 1970s because the business primarily supplied uniforms for gas station attendants, a job that was quickly disappearing.
“That was when most full-service gas stations were transitioning to self-service,” Steve Schwartz says. “The need for station attendants, and in turn gas station attendant uniforms was dwindling.”
Lion turned its attention to municipal emergency service departments because cities represented good credit risks and tended to request large made-to-order shipments of uniforms and protective gear.
“It was appealing because it meant having to keep less inventory on hand,” Schwartz says. “It was a better return on investment than a standard clothing business model, where you had to keep lots of inventory on hand.”
Applying expertise to an evolving market
Servicing municipalities meant developing new product lines and logistical capabilities that could produce and move large shipments quickly, capabilities Lion gained via a 1973 acquisition. With new areas of expertise added to Lion’s list of offerings, the company’s leaders began to think beyond uniforms.
“Our company has had six or seven different versions dating back to our founding in 1898,” Schwartz said. “But the biggest transformations we’ve really undergone were in the last 30 or 40 years. That was the point when we began to build out our presence in service and logistics.”
Lion began to redefine what it meant to be a one-stop shop for emergency services outfitting needs. The company already offered station wear and turnout gear, but it recognized the ability to do much more than simply sell clothes.
“We developed expertise in getting supplies to customers, and realized we could provide that expertise to customers as a separate service,” Schwartz says. “We could help them manage every aspect of supplying a large organization with clothing and gear.”
Lion also began providing uniform cleaning and preservation services under the Lion Total Care brand, which assists customers with basic cleaning services, in addition to repair and overall life-cycle management of uniform stock.
By the ’90s, Lion had gained a reputation as an authority in supply-chain management for emergency departments. That led to another major contract, this one with the U.S. military, which had many of the same supply chain needs.
“We have some customers in the military for which we provide logistical services,” Schwartz says. “We provide many of the same services we provide to fire departments, managing the distribution of clothing, body armor, backpacks, sleeping systems and helmets.”
In early 2011, with the help of Huntington, through an acquisition, Lion added its most recent area of business: fire and emergency training equipment.
Lion now provides emergency departments with rescue mannequins, fire training props, smoke generators and other equipment used to simulate fires and emergency situations.
“It’s another way to leverage our areas of expertise,” Schwartz says. “By providing uniforms, protective equipment, props, smoke generators and so on, we can provide everything a fire department needs to create a fully encompassing training environment.”
Lion has grown and evolved over the years, but Schwartz and Lion’s leadership team have made sure the company has never overstepped its bounds. They’ve controlled growth by retaining a tight focus on the company’s mission and core values. And no matter where Lion’s branches grow, the mission and values are the roots that keep the company firmly planted in its native Ohio soil.
“If you had to boil our mission down to a sentence, we keep first responders ready for action,” Schwartz says. “We talk about that a lot, both internally and to our customers. Our job is to help our customers in their critical job of saving lives and property.”
Any growth or expansion opportunity is carefully vetted through that lens. All team members at Lion must believe in that purpose as a guiding principle.
“For us, a great hire—a great person—is someone who feels passionately about our purpose of serving first responders,” Schwartz says. “If we’re going to hire someone, they have to exhibit that passion. We’ll interview and do behavioral profiling during the hiring process. We’ll even do some simulation training at the senior level and present a candidate with a scenario and talk about how they’d respond. It gives us a better idea of how they’d fit our culture.”
No company stays in business for 120 years without a deep and lasting understanding of what it is and who it serves. But even with 120 years of success, Schwartz knows future success is not guaranteed. That will require a continued focus on those essential principles, from the top tiers of management to the frontline employees who interact with customers on a daily basis.
“We are passionate about what we do, we strive to innovate and we listen to our customers,” Schwartz says. “Those are the qualities that have built our culture and enabled our long-term success, and those are the qualities that will allow us to achieve future success.”
Creative banking solutions
Lion Group Inc. has a 120-year history of creating solutions for its customers in the emergency services and military spaces. When the company needed help financing the acquisition of a fire training equipment company in 2011, it sought a bank with the same type of history and a similar culture.
That’s why Lion turned to Huntington.
“Huntington has been a great supporter of us,” says Lion co-owner and CEO Steve Schwartz. “They were the lead bank in the 2011 acquisition, and since that time, they have brought us many creative options to other financing issues. They have always been highly responsive to our needs.”
Huntington made it a point to learn about Lion’s business, with site visits to its Dayton headquarters to learn about the people and processes behind Lion’s long-term success.
“Our philosophy is to treat banks as a member of our team,” Schwartz says. “We want to collaborate with them in a very transparent way, and it’s important that our bank feels the same way about the relationship. We shared everything with Huntington about the 2011 acquisition, kept them informed along the way, and have done that ever since."
“To us, that’s essential to a good banking relationship, and we know Huntington feels the same way, which is why we continue to do business with them."
For more information, visit www.lionprotects.com.