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A Lesson In Perseverance

2000 Award For Innovation Recipient Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon Mills Cuero, Texas, plant part of the companys Brentex Division recently celebrated 99 years of producing textiles in southeastern Texas. The plant, whose product line includes 100-percent drill fabric, fabric for boat covers and 65-percent/35-percent cotton greige goods for apparel, recently completed an expansion and renovation project that has taken place over the past two years. For Mount Vernon, the road the Cuero plant took to reach its current status as one of the most modern plants in the textile industry wasnt nearly as smooth as it had expected.After acquiring the Cuero facility, along with the Brenham, Texas, plant in 1992, Mount Vernon decided, in 1996, to expand its Cuero location by building a new warehouse and manufacturing location to adjoin its existing manufacturing facility. The ground breaking took place in July 1998. Three months later, what happened within about a five-hour time period caused Mount Vernon to drastically alter its initial plan. The plant, the town and much of south central Texas were decimated by a natural disaster that many people in the area call the 500-year flood.  The Water's WrathThe decimation began with a weather system that dumped approximately 22 inches of rain in the area around San Antonio, Texas, about 80 miles northwest of Cuero, and produced about six inches of rain in Cuero itself. Cuero was given notice that the nearby Guadalupe River would crest in two days at 50 feet, more than six inches higher than any other time on record. However, those predictions proved to be wrong. The river did crest at 50 feet, but only hours after notice had been given.When the floodwaters crested, the Cuero plant, like most of the town, was under water. An estimated 9.7 million gallons of water filled the existing portion of the plant and the section under construction within about two hours. Almost four feet of water filled the plant, leaving a months worth of clean up in its wake. The water and silt damaged or destroyed many of the machines in the plant and buckled the wood floor. All of the companys inventory was lost, as was the yarn, sliver and fabric that was in production.As devastating as the flood was for Mount Vernon, the community of 7,000 fared far worse. While there were no fatalities from the flood a situation that would have undoubtedly been much different had the floodwaters risen at night the damage was severe.Robert D. (Bobby) Heyer, plant manager, Cuero, was one of the many people key in the evacuation process, as he rescued people from their homes via helicopter. Others in the tight-knit community used their boats to evacuate people trapped in or on their homes.Its hard to believe that water will rise five feet an hour, Heyer said. Its like backing your truck down a boat ramp to put your boat in the water and to come back half an hour later to find that your truck is under water.There was catastrophic damage throughout the town. Approximately one-third of the homes in Cuero (800 homes) were destroyed. More than 100 of those homes vanished without a trace. Many homes suffered a varied amount of damage, as only the downtown area of the city was spared the water's wrath. Starting OverThe waters receded within a week, and the overwhelming clean-up process began almost immediately. The flood had destroyed more than homes. Livestock was lost from nearby ranches, and the fear of water contamination was a major concern as streaks of chemicals could be seen in the floodwater. For those whose homes had been destroyed or damaged, there was little initial relief. Many of the affected victims moved in with family or friends, some lived out of their cars, and some left the town altogether.According to Heyer, only one Mount Vernon employee was among those who left. For those employees who did stay, Mount Vernon immediately granted financial assistance.The Pamplin family, owners of Mount Vernon Mills, provided greatly needed assistance to those devastated by the flood by giving $2,500 to each of the affected families. The company also gathered clothing, bedding and other non-perishable goods at its plants across the nation and sent truckloads of items to the flood victims. So many items were donated by company employees that excess goods were given to the Red Cross and other relief organizations for other flood victims. Cueros customers also sent first-quality clothing to the towns victims. Luck In TimingAs the town began its recovery efforts, Mount Vernon began its own clean-up and rebuilding efforts. The Cuero plant was actually quite lucky. Much of the machinery that was to be installed as part of the initial expansion and renovation project was ordered but it had not arrived prior to the flood.Said Kent Snow, president, Brentex Division: We really werent planning on buying 10 more cards, but the flood basically decided that for us. The timing, as bad as it was, was very fortunate from the standpoint of how far along the project was. We had cards coming in for the expansion that we put into production so we could run until we could get the new ones in. Within 45 days of the flood, the plant was up and running, although it took some innovative techniques to get there. One of the biggest achievements of the restart was the pouring of the concrete floor in the spinning area while the spinning frames continued to run.   Kent Snow, president, Brentex Division,checks out the new weave room at Cuero. Extreme Innovation As a result of the massive amount of water and silt, the wood flooring had buckled, causing many problems throughout the plant, including the inability of cans to be used effectively.The buckled flooring was to be removed and replaced with a concrete floor. However, if the spinning frames were to be removed from the area while this was done, at least a month in production time would be lost. The need to maintain production was made that more pressing because one of Mount Vernons largest customers was in immediate need of the 100-percent drill fabric produced at the plant.Plans were immediately devised to rebuild the flooring with as little downtime as possible. The existing flooring in the spinning room had a three-foot crawl space that would provide the space necessary to pour the structural support for the new floor. It was decided that the 12 Schlafhorst SE9 spinning frames would be kept in place and running while the new floor was being constructed.The spinning frames were jacked-up and stabilized with large dowel rods, while the old flooring was removed and the new flooring was installed. A temporary plywood floor was built and lightweight concrete was poured through holes cut in the plywood for structural support. After the support beams were in place, the rest of the concrete floor was poured.  Making It Modern Even before the flood, a great deal of forethought was put into the project. As with Mount Vernon in general, the focus of the renovation was on how to improve its product for its customers.A large part of the Cuero expansion was oriented toward the customers in terms of defects levels, Snow said.Heyer continued: We only have approximately 20 machines that were in here before the flood. There were the 12 Schlafhorst spinning frames, two Rieter Uniflocs, two Unimixes and two A80s.The plant itself was built to be both flexible and customer oriented, as shown by its ability to run 2.25- to 1.2-denier polyester. Cuero uses Rieter exclusively in its opening, cleaning, blending, carding and drawing operations. The plant was the second operation in the United States to have the Rieter A80 blending line installed when it was brought to market, and its carding process uses the C51 Rieter card, which can operate at a rate of 200 pounds per hour. The Rieter system has given the company great flexibility, especially in opening.Along with the 12 Schlafhorst spinning frames, the company also has nine Rieter R20 spinning frames with foreign fiber detectors. The foreign fiber detection was purchased primarily because one of the companys major customers wanted to reduce the number of seconds it was producing. The Cuero facility is also currently the only operation in the world to use the Barco clearer on the R20s.This is the first Barco installation on the R20 spinning frames, said Heyer. This is unique, no one else has done it.Mount Vernon also purchased two WestPoint Foundry and Machine Co. warpers and slashers. An automated kitchen for slashing, which will eliminate the manual handling and mixing of chemicals, has also been added.The new weave room has 145 Sulzer Textil L5200 and L5300 air-jet looms running at upwards of 870 picks per minute. Of those looms, 45 have a width of 210 cm, allowing customer fabric use to be optimized. Because of space limitations, the company decided to build its weaving operation with two levels, with the looms on the top floor, and with the Alexander Machine take-up machines in the lower area. By using this arrangement, the company has been able to optimize its weaving operation as seen by a 150-percent increase in production.Snow and Heyer agreed that the new Williamson wrapper that was recently installed has been a hit both with the company and its customers. The wrapper is located on the lower level of the newly built weave room along with the take-up operation. It is designed so that the rolls of fabric can be moved from take-up to a conveyor, and then moved to and wrapped by the wrapper. After the roll has been wrapped and labeled, it is moved via conveyor to the upper level where the warehouse is located.This process has eliminated most of the manual handling and, according to company estimates, saves approximately 120 cm of fabric per roll from damage.The companys warehouse, which was initially used to store new machinery while the renovation was underway, is designed to hold two weeks of inventory but has the flexibility to hold more if necessary. Staying Power While life in the town of Cuero has yet to return to the way it was before October 1998, it is slowly getting back to normal. Thanks in large part to Mount Vernons commitment to its employees, customers and the town, the transition to life after the flood has moved on as smoothly as possible. Today, there are still many residents living in government-supplied housing while more permanent homes are built.For Mount Vernon, the rebuilding process has been completed at the plant as well. The expanded and renovated plant is now able to produce approximately 750,000 yards of fabric per week up from 300,000 yards per week before the renovation.The renovation of the Cuero plant was truly unique. This is the first time a plant has been rebuilt from the ground up in this company, said Snow. The closest thing was the Alto, Ga., facility in 1966 but that was a new construction. This plant was totally rebuilt piece by piece with several areas running while another area was being renovated.In the conference room is a prime example of Mount Vernons resourcefulness and innovation: the conference table. The table was made from the useable portion of the wood salvaged from the wood beams that were damaged in the flood. This unique table will not only provide functionality for years to come, but also serve as a centerpiece of the Cuero legacy.

May 2000