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A Passion For Perfection And Innovation

Mount Vernon Mills is the recipient of

2000 ATI Award For InnovationMount Vernon Mount Vernon Mills is the recipient of ATI's 2000 Award for Innovation.  Editors Note: This special report was compiled and written by Executive Editor Alfred Dockery, Assistant Editor Chuck Norton and Editorial Director Monte G. Plott. As the 2000s begin, it is fitting that Mount Vernon Mills, Greenville, S.C., a company that experienced exponential growth in the 1990s, is recognized as ATIs 2000 Award for Innovation recipient. Mount Vernon, whose commitment to customer satisfaction and new technology is unsurpassed in the textile industry, has been able to not only expand its manufacturing locations to 19, but also increase its sales to more than $770 million in 1999. All of this at a time in which foreign competition has never been greater, and product costs havent been lower.While Mount Vernon has made many technological improvements, made possible by the companys owners commitment to capital investment, it is Mount Vernons innovative approaches to management, its employees and its communities that are the integral parts of the companys story. There is an underlying current of optimism at Mount Vernon; a confidence that the company will remain successful even in the most trying times of the industry. This confidence and optimism comes from the top. Both the Pamplin family, who owns the company, and Roger Chastain, president and chief operating officer of Mount Vernon and current president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI), provide the pillars for this belief. Employees and customers alike believe in Mount Vernons vision. In The BeginningWhile it is Mount Vernons place in the industry that ATI is awarding, it is the culmination of blood, sweat and tears that began in 1847 that fully tells the story.The Mount Vernon story begins in Baltimore with the naming of a local cotton duck manufacturing operation as Mount Vernon Mill, No. 1. Mount Vernon Co. was soon formed to focus on producing cotton duck cloth for sails and tents. Roger Chastain, president and chief operating officer. By the turn of the century, many changes were underway. From 1900 to 1915, there were many acquisitions, combinations and divestitures as the company increased its presence in the cotton duck market and shifted its focus southward. One of the first was the acquisition of the Tallassee, Ala., facility in 1900. Through reorganization in 1915, the company became Mount Vernon-Woodbury Mills.Mount Vernon-Woodbury remained focused on cotton duck and canvas manufacturing through the 1940s. By 1946, net sales had risen to $46 million. In 1956 the company changed its name to Mount Vernon Mills Inc., and by the 1960s the product line had expanded to include dryer felts, industrial and commercial conveyer belts, heavyweight apparel fabrics and yarn for upholstery fabrics. In 1971, Mount Vernon relocated its corporate offices to Greenville and by 1972, closed the last of the Baltimore mills.The first of two major changes that reshaped Mount Vernon Mills took place in 1982 Mount Vernon was acquired by R.B. Pamplin Corp. This signaled the beginning of a remarkable growth period for the company.On September 30, 1985, the company acquired Riegel Textile Corp., a prominent Greenville company whose sales were four times that of Mount Vernon. This brought the Trion and Alto, Ga., and the Johnston, La France, McCormick and Ware Shoals, S.C., plants into Mount Vernon. The move allowed expanded its product offering while aggressively moving into the apparel fabrics, home furnishings and consumer products market.The 1990s brought more change for Mount Vernon. In December 1991, the company purchased the Cleveland, Ga. and Commerce, Ga., facilities of Harmony Grove Mills Inc. to supply unfinished greige goods to the Trion facility. In January 1993, Mount Vernon sold its paper-making felt business to focus on its core markets.In February 1994, Mount Vernon acquired the Brenham and Cuero, Texas, facilities of Brentex Inc., expanding its product offerings to include pocketing for major apparel producers.Acquisitions continued as the textile manufacturing facility of Arkwright Mills Inc. was purchased in December 1998. This gave the Consumer Products Division more internal sourcing opportunities for its products.In August 1999, the Fresno, Calif., plant of Nissinbo California Inc. was purchased. Its production of ring-spun fabrics made it an ideal fit for Mount Vernon. September 1999 saw the latest addition to Mount Vernon. The company acquired the Columbus, Miss., facility of Western Textile Products Co. to improve its manufacturing and marketing capabilities for pocketing fabrics, cut-and-sew, waistbands and related accessories.Mount Vernon has been expanding at a phenomenal rate, a remarkable feat given the climate of the textile industry of the past 10 years. Since 1983, the company has seen its sales explode from $84 million to $770 million in 1999. While this is an amazing increase, even more important is that the companys total debt equity remains less that 10 percent.One of the main factors to Mount Vernons tremendous success comes from its commitment to technological advancements. Since 1987, Mount Vernon has averaged more than $58 million a year in capital investments, for a total of $760 million through December 1999. These expenditures have enabled Mount Vernon to improve the quality of its products, to meet ever-changing market conditions, to produce products at lower costs and to better serve its customers.According to Mount Vernon, several key projects in recent years exemplify its commitment to further growth, high-quality products and superior customer service. Some of these include:A $30-million high-tech distribution center for the Apparel Fabrics Division at Trion, Ga., which has automated storage and retrieval capabilities.More than $18 million in new air-jet weaving machines at the Trion denim manufacturing facility, on top of $35 million in other projects, including new denim dyeing equipment, since the early 1990s.A $35-million expansion of Brentex Divisions Cuero, Texas, facility has tripled its manufacturing capacity.$10 million in linked ring-spinning equipment installed in the Yarn Division plant at Alto, Ga.More than $24 million in new yarn manufacturing, slashing and weaving equipment at the two Greige Fabrics Division plants in Tallassee, Ala., and Williamston, S.C.More than $8 million in new handling, storage, staging and shipping facilities for the Consumer Products Division at Johnston, S.C.Growth and change have gone hand-in-hand at Mount Vernon over the years. As seen by its expansion throughout the 1990s, it has taken many unique and innovative ideas for Mount Vernon to be as successful as it has become. The Pamplins: New Ideas, New AttitudeR.B. Pamplin Corp., founded by R.B. Pamplin, acquired Mount Vernon Mills Inc. in 1982. This was the culmination of stock purchases that Pamplin began in the late 1960s. Pamplin was elected as a director of Mount Vernon in 1980, four years after his retirement as chairman and CEO of Georgia-Pacific Corp.Pamplin began his career with Georgia-Pacific in 1934. He became president of the company in 1957 and was named chairman and CEO in 1967. During his tenure as president and chairman, Georgia-Pacifics sales grew from $121 million to approximately $3 billion.Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr., president and chief operating officer, R.B. Pamplin Corp., started the company with his father in 1976. Pamplin Jr., who has eight degrees and two doctorates (the most of any living American), has taught business courses at LewisandClark College and the University of Portland. He has twice been honored by the Small Business Administration as one of the top ten small business management instructors in the nation.Pamplin Jr., who also serves as CEO of R.B. Pamplin Corp.s five subsidiaries Mount Vernon Mills, Pamplin Communications, United Tile, Columbia Empire Farms and Your Northwest believes that wealth is a gift to be shared. He and his companies have donated more than $100 million to charitable causes and has helped raise an additional $500 million.The Pamplins are credited with many changes that have positively influenced Mount Vernon. One of the first changes implemented was a lean management system that allowed for improved communication and a reduction in overhead. The Pamplins have also had a commitment to purchasing new machinery to provide the most efficient equipment available. This has attributed to Mount Vernons substantial growth over the past 15 years. R.B Pamplin (sitting) with son Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Lean ManagementOne of the ways that Mount Vernon creates a proactive environment is through its lean management structure. There is great pride throughout the company that any associate is no more than five management levels from President Roger Chastain.There are also many advantages to this structure throughout the organization, from expediting requests for capital expenditures to independence in management to the freedom to create and try new ideas. The lean structure also allows for improved communication within the corporate structure, while also improving the sharing of information between divisions. Another major benefit of the structure is that it allows the customers to be more active in improving the manufacturing process, allowing for increased customer satisfaction.We dont have a lot of layers of management, said Larry Porter, general manager, Alto and Cleveland Fabrics. We can make decisions quickly. Decisions are made in a day or two on major projects. It allows us to move quickly and meet the needs of our customers.Those within the company call this lean management system a decentralized management philosophy. We dont have a lot of management structure, said Rich Turner, president, Apparel Fabrics Division. That is an advantage. We were lean and mean before it became a buzzword in a lot of industries.Our SG&A cost is well under 1.5 percent. We have a very decentralized management philosophy. We believe in giving our plant managers and even the people on the floor decision-making responsibility, continued Turner.Mount Vernon is as decentralized as you can get, said Bernie Thompson, La France Finishing plant manager.Butch Henderson, director of Fiber Purchasing said: We are not top heavy; we have some of the best leaders in the industry and that includes our owners. Most of the plants are autonomous and act like their own profit center. You dont have that many people that you have to answer to. It makes a difference.Throughout the company there is a willingness to help coworkers, divisions as a whole or individuals at different facilities. This cooperation allows for improved problem-solving throughout the company.Weve got some good plant managers, and theyre autonomous, Butch Henderson continued. There is such a camaraderie between these plant managers. If there is a problem they can work it out among themselves. They go to one another with problems.Mount Vernon also benefits from a variety of background skills in its management system at the corporate office and manufacturing facilities.Our managers are manufacturers, engineers and salesmen, said Nick Caldwell president, La France Division. Everyone has the responsibility to make La France profitable. Personal IndependenceEach manager also has the ability to run their division or plant as if it were their own. Mount Vernon trusts its employees and gives them the independence to do what they think is best for the company. This supportive environment has allowed managers to make innovative changes, no matter the possible risk or expense involved.The environment in which we operate makes us unique, said Charles Little, president, Yarn Division. Its an atmosphere of total independence. Yet we have a close, cohesive group that is always looking to see how we might be of help to one another.Danny Riddle, president, SmithandWaters said: I run Transportation almost as if I own it. You have the freedom to do that, but youre held accountable for what your results are. Keeping in mind that I have to service the plants, thats our number one priority. I also need to give the same level of service to our outside customers. Its a balancing act.For such a managerial style to be successful, there has to be a commitment from everyone in the organization including the owners. Those within the company have nothing but praise about how the Pamplins run the company, and the philosophies that they brought when they purchased it. The Pamplins introduced the lean management style, a commitment to constant capital improvements and customer service.Mount Vernon is very good at giving you lots of rope, said James Spinner, president, Consumer Products Division. Its up to you whether you want to hang yourself with it or tie a nice bow. There is no lack of leeway for you to do what you think is best for your operation.Turner said: Being a private company has been an advantage in a tough textile environment. The Pamplin familys support has made us unique. Weve modernized our plants with the very best equipment. Whereas, a lot of the publicly traded textile companies we compete with have not been able to do that. It has put us ahead of the curve. We havent been turned down on one major project by the Pamplin family.They (the Pamplins) will make a decision in a second, once they see the numbers, Turner continued. You dont have to go through a lot of committees.Porter said: The Pamplin family has been so supportive over the years. Theyve put the money in there, and theyve allowed us to do with the money what we felt was the best at each plant. The Virtue Of CharityThe Pamplins also see the need to give back to the people and communities of Mount Vernon. When Trion, Ga., was attempting to build a new school, and it appeared as though a bond referendum to fund the schools would not be passed, the Pamplins donated $2 million so the school could be built. After a massive flood swept through Cuero, Texas, the Pamplins gave $2,500 to each employee of Mount Vernons plant whose home was destroyed or damaged.Along with these examples, they are credited with giving more than $100 million to charities over the years.Our owners are well known for giving 10 percent of our pre-tax earnings to charities every year, said Caldwell. So we know that they are committed not just to the industry but to the well-being of the communities around us. That is done whether it is a good year or a bad year. The Company BackboneGood people make the difference. The employees are praised for their commitment to the company and its philosophies.Weve got good people, Butch Henderson said. Thats the secret to the whole thing. Youve got to have good management, and youve got to have good people.Spinner said: The philosophy of Roger Chastain and the Pamplins from day one has been to go out and find the best people you can get, then give them their head and let them go. Way back in the early days, he (Mr. Pamplin) said the worst decision that you can make is the one that you dont make.Mount Vernon continues to improve its employee relations by creating attractive reasons for employees to stay on a long-term basis.Our most important asset is the people that work here, said Bill Jones, president, Greige Fabrics Division. Today, just wages are not enough. You have to come up with more. We have recently allowed the employees to direct their own 401K. We provide childcare on the off-shifts. Weve had GED classes. Weve done everything that we can to attract and keep our people.While there will always be some turnover, especially with entry-level positions, the number of employees that stay with Mount Vernon continues to be high.Youll find a lot of long-term employees here, which is different from what youd see at a lot of companies, said Turner. It speaks well for the company. As tough as textiles is today, you dont find a lot of us leaving. Last Man StandingAs anyone associated with the textile industry knows, the 1990s were an extremely difficult time for the industry as a whole. Consolidations, plant closings and international imports caused a drastic change in how business was done. Mount Vernon, while affected, came out of the 1990s not only expanding its operation, but also having posted vastly improved sales figures.We want to be the last man standing, Chastain said, referring to Mount Vernons desire to not only remain competitive, but to outlast its competition.We are respected as a well-established company with financial stability, Little said. We will be here today and tomorrow. As Roger Chastain would say we will be the last man standing. That is not a doomsday prediction. That is just how we think of ourselves.Porter said: Today, youve got to be more competitive than ever to survive in the textile industry. Cost control is very important. Mount Vernon has been able to effectively manage the cost in a manner which has made us profitable. We are feeling the same price pressure that everyone is feeling. Weve seen prices drop considerably over the last couple of years.Mount Vernons commitment to customer and product is evident in its domestic apparel business.Apparel fabrics are the biggest part of our company, Turner said. We see a lot of opportunities where other people see disaster or no growth. That sets us apart.Customers look to us as a survivor, Turner continued. The biggest problem in the industry today is oversupply in a lot of markets. The denim business is fairly healthy. It is not weak at retail. Denim sales were up last year. The problem at the mill level is the oversupply of fabric. Too many people think that business will turn around. They think that we are in a downturn, but that is not the case. Its an oversupply of fabric.This stability has ties to customer satisfaction. Customers come to Mount Vernon because they see that the company is in the textile business for the long haul. Mount Vernon strives to be as customer-friendly as it can possibly be.We work to the extreme on servicing our customers, Little said. We take great pride in and have a great sensitivity to meeting our customers needs. I dont mean 90 percent of the time. I mean 99.9 percent of the time. Thats why I believe customers choose to work with us when there are others that could give them the same product.Throughout Mount Vernons divisions, if a customer is not satisfied with a product, they can call the plant manager directly to discuss the problem.A customer knows when they call La France that if they arent satisfied with the answer they get from a customer service rep, they can call me, Caldwell said. Believe me, I do get those calls.Turner said: Pro-duct development is a daily activity in our division. We run thousands of samples during the course of a year. We are constantly bringing new ideas to customers. We work closely with key customers. We shop the market for trends.Weve always paid attention to the customer, said David Hastings, vice president and chief financial officer. You read a lot about companies trying to learn how to pay attention to the customer. We always have. Weve always had strong information systems. So weve always had information at our fingertips that weve been able to provide to our customers.Steve Todd, vice president, Information Services, said: We definitely want our systems to grow and expand and keep on the edge. The primary focus of having a computer system in a business is to be able to give the information to the people who run the company and also to our customers. We are doing an ERP project but, were writing it ourselves. Were going through a complete redesign, implementation and development process to build our own ERP system from the ground up.In order to maintain a high level of production, maintaining new, efficient machinery is a high priority in the company. This machinery, along with the systems, provides the information and product that keeps customer satisfaction high.We stay fairly level with our capital spending, Chastain said. We spent $660 million in capital expenditures in the last 10 years. Last year it was approximately $72 million. Its has been pretty close to $66 million year in and year out.I think without a question we have to build alliances that strengthen our companies within that supply chain, Chastain said. There is so much information out there to share, from retailers sharing their POS information with their customers to us sharing our inventory positions with our suppliers.We have no problem in sharing information with a customer that weve got a good alliance with. You tap into our system and find out what inventories youve got on hand and what colors youve got on hand, and if there is something you need to guide or direct us. Whatever the situation may be, the more of that information exchanged, the more efficient we become. Its unlimited as to the amount of information that can be shared.We do share inventory records, we share quality results with our customers, Chastain continued.Lets take it another way. They share quality results with us. They tell us how many hours that theyre running based on how many pairs they cut, they give us percentages, they give us shade charts. Information is out there and not to share it we wont get any better. We look at a trend line and say okay, this is getting better and better.Added Jones: We constantly strive to have a partnership arrangement with our customers. We are very up front about sharing financial information and inventory information. We are just trying to be something different that the customer can hang onto. We happen to have our own transportation common carrier. Not all of our competition has its own trucks. We can provide that service as well. Looking To The FutureAs Mount Vernon looks to the future, the company knows it will take more than new machinery to maintain its current status in the textile industry.Certainly e-commerce, business-to-business e-commerce primarily, will continue to revolutionize the industry in the way raw materials, supplies, etc. are purchased, Chastain said. You can see it today with companies moving more and more in that direction. Internet-based commerce will speed-up the whole purchasing process and eliminate a lot of unnecessary paperwork.We work hard today to become a paperless company as much as we can, and that will provide more choice. At least the potential is there to lower our total costs and it should.Primarily, I think were going to have to be very financially sound, Chastain said. I think thats the number one key. Secondly, were going to have to continue to be customer-focused rather than product-focused. I think the idea that you focus on a product and market is passe. Your whole drive has got to come from what your customers needs are and that translates down to the ultimate consumer because thats who that customer has got to satisfy.I think weve got to be innovative without a question, and use the new technology thats going to keep coming because I dont think its going to slow down. So, if you can afford to buy, youll have a good company. If you cant, then youre just going to get further behind the curve. Once you get behind the power curve, then youre sunk.It is obvious that Mount Vernon is ahead of the curve and has all intentions of staying there. It takes many parts intertwined seamlessly to remain afloat in the textile industry of the 21st century. Without a doubt, Mount Vernon has weathered the 1990s and is prepared to weather any storm that the upcoming years might bring. Unique Transportation SolutionsDanny Riddle, president, SmithandWaters, told ATI how his division came up with a unique solution for one of its customers. Solutia, a manufacturer of yarn and tire cord, needed a way to move yarn beams between its plant and a warehouse.SmithandWaters purchased two used trailers and installed an upper and a lower beam rack in each trailer. Once the trailers were completed, they were tested and necessary adjustments were made. The trailers were then put on a lease purchase plan for the customer. SmithandWaters also agreed to maintain the trailers for the duration of the lease.To me that is unique in a transportation company, Riddle said. Not many transportation companies would do that.Another innovation at SmithandWaters involved replacing plywood in the trailers with oriented strand board (OSB). The problem with plywood was that lift trucks would strike it during loading and unloading, leaving splinters that could damage cloth rolls or other freight. The OSB was found to hold up better and is also about half the price of plywood.Customers are always coming to you with problems, Riddle said. Being able to solve the problem is one thing. But solving the problem and getting benefits for your company, thats what you are looking for.

May 2000