AAPN Carolina Mill Tour
Wow! I'm not normally speechless but I'm close to it this week having just concluded a four-day, five-stop tour of some of the most innovative leaders in our global textile supply chain and, oh by the way, they're all here in America. It's been fifteen years since I've been directly involved in manufacturing and more than twenty since I've visited textile mills and I can testify that a lot has changed. Technology and automation, efficiency and cleanliness are al alive and well in US manufacturing but I have to say the most impressive thing about the week was the people. Passionate, knowledgeable, open-minded, flexible, caring and extremely hard-working people. And, on the unfortunate side, not enough of them. Every facility we visited was growing, already running three shifts nearly every day of the year, and struggling to recruit. I may do a separate post on the H/R side of things down the road because there is an interesting story there but, suffice to say for now, if there were more people looking for good, well-paying jobs, our industry would be hiring them and growing even faster.
First stop: Unifi's Repreve plant in Yadkinville (north of Charlotte), largest producer of continuous filament polyester yarn in the hemisphere - all of it recycled. #sustainability. Amazing facility. 1,000 employees, with state-of-the art automation and energy self-s, producing 1.5 mm lbs of recycled poly yarn per week. Each pound of recycycled polyester yarn requires 27 water bottles. I'm thinking our house (not me, I drink Britta water...:) could supply a couple of pounds per week with the right investment...... #madeinamerica. Interesting that they also have an ownership stake in the hemisphere's largest cotton spinner, Parkdale (more later on them).
Next stop, three hours later in Lumberton: Contempora Fabrics and it's dynamic, charismatic president, Ron Roach. All credit for this tour to Ron (fellow AAPN board member) as it was his idea, and Sue Strickland who showed her real super powers in organizing the entire week! Contempora has been around over thirty years but in 1987 became an ESOP so all 210 incredible associates are also owners. They are circular knitters, knitting both tubular and open-width knit jerseys, interlocks and specialty fabrics in poly (70% of their business), cotton, blends and more. They specialize in active/athletic (team sports, think MLB!) and 85% of their fabric is shipped to CAFTA countries or Mexico for cut and sew (after being dyed and finished in various facilities in North and South Carolina). They are not a huge company but they constantly reinvest (a lot) in the latest machinery and technologies to improve efficiencies, quality and service to their customers. The passion and care of the people we met was apparent throughout this trip but at Contempora, it was to another power. Amazing people!
Next stop was one of the destinations for Contempora's knit fabrics: Carolina Cotton Works, a family-owned dyeing and finishing facility in Gaffney, SC (remember House of Cards and Frank Underwood? the big peach? yep, it's there.......). Again, common themes: great technology, automation, sustainability, and incredible focus on customer service, but once more: it's all about the people. The Ashby family seems to include not just the founder, the CFO and the head of production, but every single associate in every single role. This tour was really about showing US retailers and brands that there are sourcing opportunities in the Americas that can help them get faster; make smaller lots but more frequently; improve their responsiveness to trends and their customers; and improve sell-throughs and reduce markdowns. But back to speed: two (should be obvious but often missed) insights here were from Stacy, the head of sales: "to get speed, you need smart"; and "to get speed, you need inventory", somewhere, in some form: so, yarn, greige goods, finished fabrics (what Zara does well), even garments ready-to-dye; and in the US, Central America, Asia or elsewhere. The key to speed is trust, transparency and partnership; if brands or retailers continue to pursue purely transactional, cost-based relationships with their suppliers, they are doomed to be among the next wave of bankruptcies.
Sorry to be so long-winded here, but I've got more in part two to follow with our visits to Parkdale and A&E (American and Efird Thread). And, please, any questions or comments, please leave them and I promise to respond to every one........See you next time....