Moving Up

August 18, 2003

Specialty Textiles quietly climbing ladder of success

By Devin Steele

KINGS MOUNTAIN, NC — Sometimes, when you sit in the shadow of a mountain, it’s easy to keep a low profile.

After awhile, however, it may become harder to exist in relative anonymity — even in the shade of a lofty foothill.

 
Weaver Margaret Bush operates a Dornier rapier dobby loom.

Especially if you’re an organization such as Specialty Textiles, Inc. (STI), a residential upholstery maker that does business just a holler away from Kings Mountain, a 1,020-foot peak where, incidentally, a pivotal victory by American Patriots over American Loyalists occurred in 1780 and changed the course of the Revolutionary War.

Even in a tough environment for U.S. textile manufacturing, STI is figuring out ways to not only compete and stay afloat, but to prosper and grow. And, as such, the one-plant, 143-employee company is gaining attention in the marketplace, turning the heads of peers and, well, getting its day in the sun.

Whether it likes it or not.

“It’s gotten more difficult to stay low under the radar,” admitted Mark Hovis, STI’s vice president of operations, who has played a big role in the company’s ascension in recent years.

No, this company is hardly one to shout from the highest mountain, isn’t one to seek publicity. But when you’re one of the few companies that has managed to sidestep the industry’s slippery slope and scale new heights, publicity often comes seeking you.

So here, in our 16th annual Textile South edition, we bring you STI as our Featured Company of the Year — a company that came highly recommended by several of its suppliers and, after some slight arm-twisting, agreed to be spotlighted.

Constant state of flux

Through constant reinvention, innovation and modernization over the past decade, STI has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the residential upholstery market, say outsiders who have watched the company’s growth. The privately held company has been successful by acting instead of reacting and by refusing to follow the old-style textile manufacturing play book, according to others closer to the situation. This has resulted in the company’s being in a constant state of flux, which is paying big dividends.

STI has bucked the status quo by creating its own set of rules and by, ultimately, staying in touch with the marketplace. In general, ingredients in place at STI include progressive sales and marketing strategies, cutting-edge manufacturing techniques, a lean management structure, a team culture, a fast-paced business environment, a willingness to take calculated risks and investment in equipment and human capital.

This formula has produced a sales increase of 290 percent over the past eight years, which, in effect, has enabled STI to expand its work force, assets and facilities. Last year, the company registered sales of $30 million, according to company officials.

“Their entrepreneurial spirit in the midst of a sagging market has been key for them,” said Harrell Ligon, vice president of Lang Ligon & Co., Inc., which has supplied STI with filling feeders for looms for more than 25 years. “Where there were some people wringing their hands, they spent money to increase capacity and improve efficiency while also developing sales. They just did their jobs. They didn’t sit around and hope for something good to happen. They didn’t let the steamroller flatten them.”

 

Dale Owen (L), maintenance supervisor, and Johnny Proctor of the maintenance department examine a burner on the tenter frame.

Turning points

STI and its predecessor company, Kings Plush, Inc., have been a continuous operation since 1964, although current principles trace the beginnings of its modern-day structure to 1985. That’s when Maurice J. Walsh III, who had been servicing the textile industry since the early 1970s through the Walsh Chemical Companies, bought the company from Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co. and began to put in place the components that have made STI what it is today.

Since then, the company reached watershed junctures on three occasions, each time altering its course to evolve into a stronger, more viable entity. In 1989, STI began to exit the van conversion, recreational vehicle and residential markets while maintaining its grospoint (loop pile) products to concentrate on the aircraft and mass transit markets.

Recognizing that those products offered only a limited market for growth, STI re-entered the residential furniture markets in 1994 through a partnership with Gaston Fabrics, a national sales company owned and operated by Bill Gibbons and his son Sean.

The company invested in additional equipment and began servicing medium-to-upper-end residential furniture manufacturers while still producing transit products. Sales increased by 179 percent between 1994 and 1998.

In late 1999 and early 2000, management saw more opportunities for growth, so it redefined its product and marketing strategy and began to introduce more promotional-type products while getting away from medium-to-upper-price products and exiting the transportation market altogether.

Through 2002, STI invested heavily in more-efficient prep and weaving equipment, replacing older equipment, and made major additions to the physical structure to address warehouse, manufacturing, sampling and quality efforts. From 1998-2002, sales increased another 111 percent, assets rose by 65 percent and the company expanded its facility 70,000 square feet to reach 170,000 square feet.

Today, the company is setting its sights on even more growth, with plans for further expansion and investment in capital equipment and resources. STI is in the process of expanding from its bread-and-butter product, dobby chenille base cloth, into Jacquard fabrics, which it has woven in years past.

The company’s blueprint for present and future success is rather simple, according to Sean Gibbons, vice president of sales and marketing: “Spend the necessary capital and keep making what our customers want and what the market wants, at the best possible value and delivering it quickly.”

 

Scary leap of faith’

STI’s growth since 1998 occurred only after the company took a “scary leap of faith,” Gibbons said. Finding it more difficult to grow in the mid-priced to high-end upholstery fabric market, which was becoming more and more price competitive, the company began to look at the mass market in order to produce more volume, he said.

“People wanted to see a better-looking fabric for less money and we didn’t have it at that time,” Hovis said. “And that’s when Sean came up with a plan to help us create that.”

With growth potential projected at such retailers as Rooms To Go, Value City, JC Penney and Rhodes, the company started producing promotionally priced fabric while seeing its price-per-yard drop in half — the idea being that volume would offset that price decrease, Gibbons added.

“In 1999, we had to price products cheaper than we could truly make them,” Gibbons said. “But we had to look not at where we were but where we wanted to be a couple of years later.”

Added President Jim Brown: “We knew if we could get the growth in volume, then we would be able to meet the cost structure that we had projected and deliver the product at a profit.”

In shifting to these products, STI began to bring more styling in design and color to the promotional furniture business. And, through Hovis’s expertise, the company started developing processes that gave the fabric a nicer, softer, more supple feel.

“We took the look, the color, the design and the hand of the higher-end products and put it in lower-end promotionals,” Hovis said. “And all of a sudden we gave the customer more value for less money. Wal-Mart’s philosophy works every time.”

Delivery and quality, part of the company’s main strengths, also figured into the equation, Brown said. “We were able to deliver in a very, very short order the sampling and the marketing look with the right quality that they could consider,” he said.

“All that we’ve said about price, design, look and feel — none of that would mean anything if we didn’t deliver goods of excellent quality quickly,” added Gibbons.

From a marketing standpoint, STI didn’t follow traditional “rules” and set its price point at the highest possible level to make the sale. Instead, it set its prices to the lowest possible level in order to still turn a profit.

“We were trying to sell products almost cheaper than we could make them in order to get established,” Hovis added. “We had to get the volume level up to justify the price point we were offering.”

Also playing a big role in STI’s strategy was its ability to service the customer because, in their business, it’s all about retail dollars per square foot, Gibbons said.

“When things slow down, all of a sudden they call and say, ‘that 30,000-yard order we’ve got coming next week, don’t ship it to me,’ ” he said. “When business slows down, the pipeline stops, and you have to be able to address that. On the flip side of that, when it starts picking up, you have to be ready for that, too. You have to be able to service the customer on both ends. Servicing the customer and giving more value for less money works every day.”

In Rooms to Go and others, STI found downstream customers who liked what they saw in the company’s new products.

“Rooms to Go, especially, recognized the value we were bringing to the market and supported us early on,” Gibbons said.

Soon, that leap of faith would begin to pay off handsomely for STI.

Management structure

STI’s lean management structure plays a big role in its success. The word “team” is used a lot around STI — and even among those familiar with the company.

“There really is a good team spirit there,” supplier Ligon said. “There are no kings around, no cocky guys with fancy ties. They’re all very hands-on. Nobody is a big shot.”

Gibbons describes it as a “pancake” design, while Hovis added an even more colorful description. “There is a line of VPs with nobody underneath them. We kind of like to refer to ourselves as ‘special ops’ — we don’t have a lot of foot soldiers underneath,” he said.

Greg Sellers, chief financial officer, referred to it as “the big-plant, little-office concept,” adding, “we operate under a team concept, which enables a much higher degree of information flow in a more efficient manner. There are no turf battles here. It’s all working toward a common goal.”

A majority of STI’s principles also are managers in the company, which is another strength, Gibbons noted. “This is our baby. The 8-to-5 mentality doesn’t exist here,” he said.

Hovis called the working environment “casual, but very demanding.”

The “that’s-not-my-job” mindset also doesn’t exist at the company, Gibbons said. All managers are required to be involved in various aspects of the company, in order to work toward that common goal, he added. Gibbons, for instance, manages the sales force nationally, but also sells the product in his territory, serves on the board of directors and is intimately involved in product development.

“And I’ve seen him cutting samples and packing them up,” interjected Sellers, who joined the company from Parkdale Mills in April. “And Mark’s out in the plant every day. Jim and I do things on a daily and monthly basis that most CFOs and presidents don’t have to do. But that’s just the way we are. We don’t have a bunch of assistants running around to delegate to. We all get our hands dirty.

“But at the end of the day, everybody has their eye on the same ball. And that is a bottom-line return and we get there by providing that value product to our customers and having them place repeat orders.”

Rick Hahn, vice president of manufacturing, put it this way: “One thing that’s made us successful is that every manager here is almost like an entrepreneur. In large companies, you get pigeonholed into your area of responsibility and just making it look good, no matter what the consequences are to the overall company. We’re so small and we all interact so much that we pretty much have a picture of all the different facets of the company and are able to make a decision as it relates to the overall company.”

The firm is able to make decisions and move fast because of its committee structure, Gibbons added. An executive committee covers more of the big-picture issues, while a larger management committee meets on matters of day-to-day operations.

“We’ve called several executive committee meetings on a spur of the moment,” Sellers said. “We sit around and talk about an issue for awhile and make a decision. And when the decision’s made, that’s it. We go do it.”

Human capital

Rebecca Burris (L) and Deborah Gladden inspect fabric prior to its being packaged for delivery.

STI’s hourly employees are invaluable to the company’s success, a reflection of their buying into the company’s mission and their willingness to go beyond the call of duty, the managers added.

Employees are informed early on that they may be pushed to the limit at times, given the volatility that exists in the marketplace. The company has in place a five-day, three-shift structure, which gives STI the flexibility to run six or seven days a week during busy times and four days a week during slower times.

“When a customer has to have something, or when business picks up more than we normally run, we can handle it,” Hovis said. “When business is not there, we can drop off and run a strong four days. It’s all about servicing the customer.”

Developing that “above and beyond the call” and “the customer comes first” manner of thinking goes all the way back to the hiring process, according to Candace Nichols, human resources manager.

“I always tell prospective employees what a fast pace we’ve been on, and with our business projection, it looks like that fast pace is going to continue,” she said. “All employees are aware that business demands dictate how much of their time will be required.

“I also stress that they’re going to need to be able to adapt to change very quickly, because if we’re doing something one way today, it might change tomorrow. That will be crucial in their success with our company.”

Communication, which ensures that everyone is on the same page, also factors into STI’s success, according to managers.

“This is the first company that I’ve ever worked at that when a major decision is made, the impact on employees is discussed during the very first meeting,” Hahn said. “And that impact is discussed with employees.”

“One of the things I tell employees is that this is corporate,” Nichols added. “We don’t have a non-visible person at a corporate level making a decision. This is corporate and this is the plant. Our president knows the majority of the employees’ names and their family situation.”

Nichols also pointed out that STI employees consider themselves an extended family.

Management visibility and involvement also figure prominently into employees’ embracing the team concept, Hovis said.

“Sean, John Kay (vice president of product development and marketing) and myself are on the floor with our employees, spending time with them, helping to get things accomplished. They know who we are. They see us working just as hard as they are.”

Such visibility allows for problems to be addressed in a timely manner, Brown said.

“Our planning man is not sitting across town in an office,” he said. “He’s out walking the floor and checking the looms and he knows if we’re short on this yarn or short on that yarn. Our plant manager is here and he’s really involved in getting samples and production out the door.”

Other crucial elements to STI’s success are cross-training and pitching in by employees. For instance, during our tour of the plant, Claudine Cobb, an inspector, and Valerie Young, a creeler, were helping in the sample room, where the workload was unusually large because the company had just participated in a trade show.

“Our people know that wherever they’re needed, they’re willing to help where extra work is needed,” Hahn said.

“We wear many hats,” Nichols said. “We have to interact together and be a team player here. And that goes for everyone from managers to entry-level employees. All job descriptions include the phrase, ‘other duties as assigned.’ ”

Teamwork also extends from one shift to the other, Nichols added.

“All shifts are seen as one big unit,” she said. “If someone comes to first shift from third shift, they fit right in and don’t say things like, ‘we did it like.’ ”

STI has a safety program in place, but the company is always in “continuous improvement mode,” Nichols said.

The company provides its employees competitive pay and benefits that not only match that of the Cleveland County area, but the U.S. textile industry, according to Nichols. Health insurance, life insurance and short-term disability are 100 percent paid for by the company, and STI also offers dental insurance and supplemental insurance options.

The company also has in place a 401(k) plan, which STI matches 50 cents on the dollar up to 6 percent, she noted. In addition, the company offers a tuition aid program as well as a credit union option.

The company also gives gift certificates and gifts during the holiday season, Nichols said.

“If it wasn’t for the hard work and dedication of our associates, we wouldn’t be here today, so we want to compensate them with competitive wages and benefits,” Nichols said.

The average length of service for all employees is 7.16 years, which skews the fact that dozens of employees have been with STI for more than 20 or 30 years, Brown said. The number reflects STI’s growth in recent times, with the employment rolls nearly doubling in the last three years, Nichols added.

‘Sail(s)’ are up

Marketing and product development, under the direction of John Kay, are critical cogs in the STI engine. “The ship needs all its parts, but that’s the sail,” Gibbons said. “That moves it through the water.”

Where a typical upholstery producer at STI’s volume level may develop about 200 new patterns every six months, STI creates only about 50. “We tend to shoot with a rifle instead of a shotgun,” Hovis said. “We’re precise in what we do from a marketing philosophy. However, it has its down side because when you miss, it really hurts.”

Related to its precision-guided marketing approach, STI has three fabric finish options as opposed to dozens, Hovis said.

“But I think that’s a huge advantage,” he said. “And yet, we’re giving the customer what they want, with minimum set-ups. It’s all in through-put. Our goal is not to be everything to everyone. We define what we want to be and who we want to be and that’s what we try to limit our business to.”

All aspects of creating fabric — design, styling, yarns, finishing techniques, et al — affect the decision-making and buying processes, managers said.

From a raw materials standpoint, STI sources yarn on a global basis, managers said. But the company doesn’t buy fiber based on price alone, they pointed out. Instead, it seeks yarns that will provide the best feel and look for a particular fabric and will run at desired processing speeds. So, in effect, what STI may give up in price, it makes up for in physical characteristics, production speeds, quality and efficiency.

“If we were only looking at buying yarn as cheap as we can buy yarn, you completely miss that other part of the equation,” Hovis said. “Your hand may get stiff, your tenter speed may be half of what you’re running and your needlepunch and physical testing are not going to be as good as they need to be. So we tend to look at every area of the plant as what is most beneficial to the overall success of the product. It even influences the equipment we buy.”

Customer base

STI’s largest customer is Huntington Fabrics, a Tupelo, MS-based distributor. Others include Klaussner Furniture, Lane Furniture and several companies that are major suppliers of Rooms To Go. STI also is doing business with Aaron Rents, Bauhaus, Jonathan Louis International and several manufacturers who supply Big Lots.

A member of the International Textile Marketing Association, STI exhibits in the semi-annual trade shows — Showtime in High Point, NC, and the Tupelo Fabric Show in Tupelo, MS — and its products have a presence at numerous other shows.

Speed, quality and even price points — which are comparable to foreign-made fabrics, Gibbons said — have made STI more immune to import pressures than some of their industry brethren. And the fact that STI is in a style-driven, retail-oriented business as opposed to a commodity business is an advantage.

“You can’t overcome the fact that China is all the way around the world,” Gibbons said. “It takes them six to eight weeks to react, just to get something loaded up. And furniture, even at these low prices, is still a fashion business. There are a lot of different frame and fabric combinations that sell.”

In following the trend of moving manufacturing offshore, STI even looked at that possibility a couple of years back, but customers reassured the company that they served a need as a U.S. producer.

“Our customers are still telling us, ‘your value, your quality, with your delivery and innovative product, are in a great position. Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re going to continue doing business with you,’ ” Gibbons said.

Another benefit of being a U.S.-based manufacturer is the fact that STI’s locale gives it more flexibility, Hovis said.

“If a customer cancels an order, we can probably steer that yarn into something else,” he said. “But if you’re China and you have a container load headed over here with 40,000 yards of fabric in it, and the customer says ‘don’t ship me that next week,’ what are you going to do? That’s an advantage we have.”

“And that advantage does not come without a lot of planning in advance of sales,” Brown interjected. “And that planning could not take place if Mark and others were not aware of what’s going on out there.”

‘They win, we win’

STI’s suppliers have good things to say about this forward-thinking firm.

“It’s a great company to work with as a vendor,” said Al Ferguson of Schlumberger USA, which supplied an Asselin needlepunch machine to STI and works with the company on an ongoing basis. “It’s a mutual arrangement — they win, we win. The entire relationship has been like that. They’re very straightforward, very focused on their goals and it’s paying off for them.”

Ferguson added that STI looks for partners more than merely suppliers.

“They really do look for people who are willing to try things with them,” he said. “And we’ve tried some mechanical adaptations that we normally wouldn’t try and have grown as a company as a result of that.”

Trust and loyalty have characterized Lang Ligon & Co.’s relationship with STI, Ligon pointed out.

“It’s a pleasure to serve these guys, because they’re clear thinkers and communicators,” he said. “And they think in big ways. They move fast. They accomplish a lot. They have some trusted suppliers, and they count on them. And they kind of let us go. They just call and order some more of this and some more of that. So it is a real partnership.

“Even if you were a scoundrel, you wouldn’t want to hurt them.”

Ligon related a story about a recent trip he took to STI’s operations with Giulio Motterlini, marketing director of Italy-based LGL Electronics, which Lang Ligon & Co. represents in the U.S. and Canada.

“He was so excited to see the energy and the expansion going on in that plant,” Ligon said. “He stood there with his hands on his hips and said, ‘this is wonderful! I’m so pleased to see that American mills can do this.’ He was encouraged about the U.S. market because he had read so many bad stories.”

Gary Bradley, vice president of sales for textured polyester yarn supplier OMTEX, and Carroll Santos, sales representative for softening equipment supplier American Santex, also used the “p” word to describe STI.

“I would describe our relationship as a partnership,” he said. “STI is a very dynamic company. Their ability to work with OMTEX on common goals to achieve the best end result for both companies makes STI a unique company to do business with.”

Added Santos: “STI certainly has a history of growth and innovation and we like to be a partners of company’s like that. We see them as partners for a long time to come.”

Peter Brust, president of American Dornier, Charlotte, NC, called it a “privilege” to serve STI and a “compliment” that the company operates Dornier looms exclusively.

“I really enjoy working with them because they are straightforward people, they are experts in their field and their success story is absolutely amazing,” Brust said. “During these difficult times, they have found the right concept to stay successful.

“Obviously, they are convinced that the Dornier weaving machine is still the best choice for specialty weaving,” he added. “They know that when the market changes, they are able to respond in a timely manner with the equipment they have. With another machine, that is next to impossible.”

Brust, who has experience in the upholstery business, said he was impressed the first time he walked into STI’s weave room.

“It’s a very lean, smooth and clean operation,” he said. “The machines are extremely well maintained, so you can see there is someone there who really cares, and that someone is Mark Hovis. He definitely is the driving force behind their production.”

Alexander Machinery, Inc., Simpsonville, SC, has supplied its off-loom take-ups to STI for several years.

“It’s a very good relationship,” said Alexander’s Jeff Davis. “We supply them with particular equipment they need that no one else has. They’re exclusive to us and we’re exclusive to them.

“They have a philosophy there that is working and working quite well,” he added.

Strategy for growth

STI’s strategy for “managed growth” starts with investment, Brown said. In fact, the company plans to put more money back into the business over the next two years than it has over the last six.

The company is planning an physical expansion of another 50,000 square feet to accommodate its move back into Jacquard fabrics. The company, which previously wove Jacquard fabric for the transportation market, envisions Jacquard growth to be similar to the explosive growth it experienced on the dobby side.

To put that growth in perspective, consider the fact that in 1998, STI was producing about 15,000 yards of dobby fabric a week; today, it churns out about 300,000 yards in a full production week.

In recent years, the company has decided its need all manufacturing under one roof in order to better serve the business and reach its growth potential.

Movement seen after
coalition steps up pressure

August 18, 2003

Allen Gant Jr. (R) of Glen Raven, Inc. opens a press conference in Greensboro, NC, that is attended by 37 industry executives who formed a grassroots lobbying campaign in support of the group’s battle to slow the surge of Chinese textile imports.
Photo by Devin Steele

By Devin Steele

Large groups of senior textile executives gathered in two Carolinas cities last week to step up pressure on the federal government, days before some movement was seen on the China “safeguard” issue.

Meetings organized by the so-called Textile/Fiber Coalition took place in Greensboro, NC, on August 11 and Spartanburg, SC, on August 12, during which time a grassroots lobbying campaign in support of the group’s battle to slow the surge of Chinese textile imports was announced.

By August 15, the U.S. Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements (CITA) told coalition members that three China textile safeguard petitions have been accepted and that it will shortly begin the process that could result in the imposition of quotas on knit fabric, cotton and manmade fiber dressing gowns and cotton and manmade brassieres.

A fourth petition, regarding cotton and manmade fiber gloves, was denied because some of the products were still under quota and because U.S. government-produced domestic production data was incomplete.

 
John Emrich of Guilford Mills speaks during the Greensboro event.

Fourteen textile and related groups on July 24 petitioned the U.S. government to invoke the special textile China safeguard and slow the surge of Chinese imports on those four categories.

Several textile executives spoke during press conferences last week, following meetings in which they formulated plans for voter registration drives and lobbying campaigns aimed at communicating to lawmakers the China threat and the need for action.

In Greensboro, John Emrich, president and CEO of Guilford Mills, Inc., said that the erosion of jobs in the industry has become personal for him.

“We’re tired of looking people in the eye and telling them that we no longer have a job for them because of unfair trade and an unfair playing field,” said Emrich, joined on the dais by 37 other industry representatives. “I have watched people cry and, frankly, as an industry we’re tired of it.”

Also speaking were Allen Gant Jr. of Glen Raven, Inc., Glen Raven, NC; Jim Chesnutt, CEO of National Spinning Co., Washington, NC, and chairman of the American Yarn Spinners Association; Jerry Rowland, CEO of National Textiles, LLC, Winston-Salem, NC; Woody Anderson, vice chairman of the National Cotton Council; Billy Moore III, vice president of Governmental and Investor Relations for Unifi, Inc., Greensboro, NC, and chairman of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute; and Joseph Lanier, chairman and CEO of Dan River, Inc., Danville, VA.

In Spartanburg, textile executives echoed the sentiments of their counterparts.

“We are not talking protectionism,” said Roger Chastain, CEO of Mount Vernon Mills, Greenville, SC. “We are talking people.

“We’ve heard a lot from our elected representatives and higher-up officials in this government that free trade is good. It creates jobs. And they are absolutely right. It creates jobs in Mexico, China, Indonesia and every place else but here. We are tired of it.”

Richard Dillard, director of Public Affairs, Milliken & Co., Spartanburg, noted that the U.S. has lost 2.6 million jobs in just the last three years.

“We are angry, we are fed up that the U.S. government is ignoring these massive job losses,” he said. “To bring it closer to home, we still have over 60,000 textile jobs in South Carolina — jobs that will be virtually wiped out if the China safeguard is not invoked.”

STI succeeds by
deviating from status quo

August 18, 2003

By Devin Steele

 
Mark Hovis, STI’s vice president of operations, has been credited by fellow managers and company suppliers for pushing the envelope in the production room in order to achieve unheard-of results that meet STI’s specifications.
Photo by Devin Steele

KINGS MOUNTAIN, NC — Part of STI’s success lies in its non-conformity, especially on the manufacturing floor.

And that non-conformity translates into better efficiency, quality, speed and delivery, according to those close to the situation. In effect, those attributes figure into the company’s primary mission: to provide customers value-added products at the lowest price and in a timely fashion.

A key to how efficiently STI’s production facility runs is its willingness to invest in new equipment, despite the manufacturing recession that has existed in the U.S. for several years. Its weaving and finishing machinery is no more than 12 years old, with much of it newer. Relative to its size, STI’s capital expenditures as a percentage of sales is high, according to managers.

But increasing production and efficiency with better through-put on newer machines has not come at the expense of jobs. In fact, STI’s employment roster has increased relative to business growth.

When the company installed a new automatic wrapping machine, for instance, two employees who were responsible for bagging fabric rolls were not displaced. Instead, they were transferred to the loading area.

STI increased efficiency, quality and capacity not only by investing in new equipment, but also by improving processes through experimentation and by choosing raw materials that would process best without sacrificing required characteristics, managers said.

The company has developed several innovative methods of production and learned to refine its state-of-the-art equipment to its best advantage. Supplier Al Ferguson of Schlumberger USA, Fort Mill, SC, which represents Asselin of France, knows this firsthand.

“STI in general is willing to try a lot of things within reason, and I think that’s one of the things that makes them a very progressive textile company,” he said. “There are so many textile companies now that are so conservative because of the financial situation or whatever and, frankly, it’s hurting them. They really do need to be more willing to try new things, like STI is doing.”

Ferguson has witnessed this progressive nature in the needlepunching area in particular. When most manufacturers in this business were using a particular brand of needlepunch machines, STI stepped out and bought an Asselin machine, which operates completely different than the popular brand. STI, under the engineering expertise of Vice President of Operations Mark Hovis, then figured out how to modify the process to meet the company’s goals.

“It’s a common phenomenon that when you needlepunch woven goods, you have a natural contraction,” Ferguson said. “There’s a fine line between too much needling and not enough needling. So we’ve worked with them extensively on needle patterns and especially on improving through-put.”

Ferguson acknowledged that Hovis and others worked to refine the process in ways he never thought possible.

“I have told him on numerous occasions, ‘there’s absolutely no way that will work, Mark,’ and he’s come right back and said ‘well, let’s try it,’ ” Ferguson said. “And we tried it. He’s had quite a few successes. Everybody has some hiccups, too, but if you don’t try, you never learn anything.

“Plus, Mark has worked very closely with various needle suppliers and they’ve come up with some very unique needles, too, that’s specific to their applications.”

Hitting the Mark

STI’s fellow managers credit Hovis, who holds textile management and engineering degrees from N.C. State University, for pushing the envelope in the production room in order to achieve unheard-of results.

“Mark brings a lot of out-of-the-box thinking here,” said Sean Gibbons, vice president of sales and marketing. “A lot of people may look around and say, ‘well, this is the way we did it somewhere else’ or they look at a larger company and say, ‘this is the right way to do it.’ But Mark has never accepted that. And he’s never said, ‘OK, it’s good enough now.’ Mark works that thing like a dog working a bone and he doesn’t just get it good enough, he gets it better than good enough.”

Ferguson expressed similar reverence to Hovis.

“I’ve been around needlepunching woven goods for many, many years and he’s probably caught me and passed me as far as knowledge, what type of needles are best, what you should look for, what’s too much needling, what’s not enough needling — all the things that take a lot of time to learn. He’s remarkable in that regard.”

Through further trials, the company also has been able to up the capacity of its finishing range, resulting in a substantial increase in speed — but not by sacrificing quality, according to President Jim Brown.

“One of our big advantages is through-put,” Gibbons added. “We are able to move goods from weaving to shipping in less than 24 hours.”

In fact, the company’s improved speed and efficiency allows it to turn its inventory more than 20 times a year, he added.

Modernization and experimentation also have improved efficiency in the weave room, where dozens of single- and double-width Dornier rapier looms operate. In addition to redesigning the layout there, the company invested in off-loom take-ups for every weaving machine and began updating all the filling feeders to the looms.

“A few years ago, they told themselves that they were going to have more business and they started spending money before they even had an increase in sales,” said Harrell Ligon, vice president of Lang Ligon & Co., Inc., Greenville, SC, a longtime STI supplier of filling feeders. “And so, when the increased business came, they had a productive capacity increase and the efficiency had already gone way up.

“They took entrepreneurial risks, but when the sales came, they had already spent the money and just began filling orders.”

Hovis’s refusal to accept what is normal came into play in that regard, too, Ligon said.

“Mark is an extremely detailed person,” Ligon said. “He’ll ask a lot of questions and he’ll change his mind a lot. But once he finally decides, he doesn’t even talk about the price.

“He’s got his ear to the ground in his plant and in the marketplace,” he added. “He works so hard, moves so fast, puts in a lot of hours and sweats a lot out there.”

Brown put it thusly: “Mark has turned the manufacturing area sideways.”

The off-loom take-ups came from Alexander Machinery, Inc., Simpsonville, SC, but, again, that equipment wasn’t installed without some customization.

“We worked with them on some specifics they needed for their particular process, which improves the package they supply their customers,” said Alexander’s Jeff Davis. “They’ve put together a manufacturing process that allows them to do what they need for each customer, and we were fortunate to be able to play a small part in that.”

Again, Hovis was credited for taking the production process to the next level.

“One thing that’s unique to STI is Mark,” Davis said. “He’s not only a good manufacturing guy, he’s a darned good machinery guy. He understands the processes and he’s smart enough to design equipment or either get close enough to it to tell you what he wants. And he knows what he wants. So it’s not like he’s shooting in the dark. They have a lot of input into the design of their equipment simply because of Mark’s working knowledge of equipment.”

Another unique aspect of the weave room is the fact that STI doffs only 600-yard rolls and nothing less, which they said also improves speed and efficiency.

“And this is all a custom product. It’s all made to order,” Gibbons said. “There’s not a roll of fabric in the plant that isn’t being made for a specific customer order.”

STI also has added softening equipment to support its expansion into Jacquard weaving, Brown said. But, again, the company’s non-conforming — dare we say “revolutionary” — nature led to a unique process.

“We’re softening fabric completely different than the way everybody else is,” Gibbons said. “And we didn’t go into it and say, ‘OK, give us a machine. How does everybody else do this?’ Mark said, ‘I don’t really care how they do it, what do I think is the best way to soften fabrics?’ ”

Carroll Santos, sales representative for American Santex, worked closely with Hovis and staff on trials using softening technology and equipment.

“Mark is very aggressive when it comes to technology,” said Santos, whose Spartanburg, SC-based company is the U.S. arm of the Switzerland-based Santex Group, which supplied STI with SANTASOFT softening equipment. “He wants to be on the leading edge of new developments. He is very innovative and this gives them an edge in a way over some of their competitors. They’ve developed processes that are unique to them and that has given them an advantage.”

As the company expands on the Jacquard side, Hovis said he is as exacting in that area as he is in others for one simple reason: to satisfy customers.

“With Jacquard weaving, you jump up in price point,” said Hovis, adding that machinery vendors were a little skeptical about some of his ideas. “But the customer is looking for more value and a lot of that has to do with hand. So we put in some softening equipment and tweaked it to get us to where we needed to be on the Jacquard side.”

After all, meeting the customer’s needs is the main reason for STI’s deviation from the status quo.

“Our plant here is nothing if it’s not adaptable,” Gibbons said. “We’re doing things today so much differently than we were doing them just two or three years ago. And I’m sure it’s going to be a lot different two or three years from now. We’re just going to watch the market and our customers and adapt. And spend a lot of money. But that’s the reality.”

Editorial

August 18, 2003

Destiny’s darlings

PSSSSST ... come here, buddy. Can you keep a secret? Have you heard of the textile company in Kings Mountain, NC, that is turning lemons into lemonade? Yep. It is cranking out 300,000 yards of upholstery fabric a week — all of it previously ordered. Yeah, you might say this company is “rolling” — fabric, that is. This company, Specialty Textiles, Inc. (STI), is thriving in this fierce manufacturing environment because it has adopted a damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead mentality.

But don’t tell anyone. Mindful of the danger of vanity and empathetic to the plight of industry brethren, company managers want to stay relatively low-key about their “little ol’ company.” They agreed to let us take a look only after we convinced them that their story is worthy of recognition and perhaps even useful to other U.S.-based producers who are still finding their way in this global market.

So, in this 16th annual Textile South edition, read — in confidence — our report about the (Reluctant) Featured Company of the Year. We hope it reassures you that a means of survival exists for companies willing to take calculated risks and leaves you with a feeling of optimism about this industry’s future.

We trust we’ve told STI’s refreshing story in a manner that reflects the company’s true modesty, without giving away too many of its secrets. We doubt, however, that anyone could walk through STI’s offices and production facility and find a single reason to say “a-ha — that’s how they do it!” Instead, you would have to closely study at least 20 operating areas that were assembled and function from this out-of-the-box thinking.

And don’t tell anyone, but you can’t spell “destiny” without “S-T-I” ...

Airing of grievances

FOR WHAT IT’S worth, the plight of U.S. textiles in particular and manufacturing in general is beginning to get a little play in media outlets that aren’t preaching to the choir. In fact, the crisis has even been given a little national attention lately. Unfortunate circumstances, particularly the Pillowtex closing, has been the culprit behind some of this publicity — but, hey, textile leaders are sick and tired of closing plants and parting ways with employees, so they will take any soapbox that’s placed before them. So it’s about time someone hears this industry’s distress signals.

Just to name a few: On Aug. 12, Jim Chesnutt, CEO of National Spinning Co., Washington, NC, and chairman of the American Yarn Spinners Association, was interviewed on the nationwide National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program; on Aug. 14, Jock Nash, Washington counsel for Milliken & Co., was a guest on The Keith Larson Show on WBT radio in Charlotte; and on Aug. 15, the China/globalism issue and its effects on U.S.-based textiles/manufacturing was the subject of the day on the Spires and Krantz program on WBT.

It’s good to see this industry’s issues reach the forefront of public discussion, regardless the circumstances that led them there. It’s also encouraging to see some of our leaders creating their own soapboxes, as the “Textile Coalition” has done this summer, including last week. The group of 14 textile and related associations held meetings in Greensboro, NC, and Spartanburg, SC, to mobilize, galvanize and publicize. The meetings and subsequent press conferences garnered their fair share of coverage from media outlets regionally and nationally.

We urge you to keep up the fight, industry movers and shakers. If someone calls you for a comment or sticks a microphone in your face, by all means, give ’em your take on why this domestic industry is in demise and why this country is suffering as a result. Consumers, who hold the trump card for your future, need to be aware of well, the, “tradeoff” they’re making for that $10 pair of China-made jeans at GAP or that $3 India-made towel at Wal-Mart. Until they connect the dots and begin to make more pro-American buying decisions, we’re going to continue to decline as a whole. Is one less American job and one less income worth the sacrifice?

Help them decide.

Textile News Index