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Milliken Does It Right

Nearly a century and a half after the company's founding, MillikenandCompany is still looked upon with awe and respect and can say, "See, we do it right!"

  MillikenandCompany receives the Textile Industries 2001 Innovation Award, with special recognition to Jerry Cogan. MillikenandCompany, recipient of the Textile Industries 2001 Innovation Award, is one of the great paradoxes in American manufacturing history. The company is shielded from the prying eyes of the public and competitors by what at times has seemed to be an impenetrable veil of secrecy. That veil lifts occasionally when the greater good of the company and the industry are served by openness i.e., the Crafted with Pride/Made in U.S.A. campaign a few years back and then descends again like a curtain with a lead bottom weight when the desire for exposure passes.It is in this light that TI is pleased that MillikenandCompany has agreed to open its doors somewhat wider than usual in order to celebrate the achievements of the company and its associates in both inventiveness and innovation. The year 2001 marks a transition of sorts for MillikenandCompany. Jerry A. Cogan, president of Milliken Research Corporation, developer of such breakthrough products as VISA® and Millitron®, has relinquished the helm of the companys research and development arm. Cogan was the man Roger Milliken turned to almost 40 years ago when he decided that then Deering Milliken would bet its future on product development and innovation. It is for his leadership in these efforts that TI gives Cogan special recognition in conjunction with its 2001 Innovation Award to MillikenandCompany.  
(left to right) Jerry Cogan, retired president, Milliken Research Corp.; Roger Milliken, CEO and chairman, MillikenandCompany; Dr. Thomas J. Malone, president and COO, MillikenandCompany, during Cogan's farewell remarks. Milliken Research enters the new millennium fueled with unbridled enthusiasm to continue the product development and enhancement that has made the company arguably the worlds most inventive manufacturer.It is the antithesis of Millikens public persona that has made the company so successful in this arena. For all the mystique that surrounds the company from the exterior, it is perhaps among the most open of all companies from the inside perspective. At Millikens headquarters in Spartanburg, S.C., dont expect to see spacious offices with lavish and expensive appointments, not even for the likes of CEO Roger Milliken or President and COO Dr. Thomas J. Malone. Instead, the area is an open bay of cubicles and desks, designed and arranged to foster ease of communication and idea exchange. Independent To The CoreMilliken, as well, has remained the most steadfastly independent company in the industry, often breaking with the rank and file to pursue its own agenda in such controversial areas as textile trade regulations. Last year, the company ended a long-standing relationship with the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI). Although the core issues affecting the decision have never been made public, insiders say there was a great deal of dissatisfaction among Milliken executives about the willingness of ATMI staff to follow the lead of ATMIs Board. ATMI, for its part, says the organizations stance on trade issues specifically the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) were at odds with the Milliken position.And despite the companys reluctance to conduct business under the close scrutiny of the public eye, Roger Milliken and others have taken highly visible roles within the public relations of the textile industry when issues were significant enough to warrant a high profile. The Crafted with Pride in U.S.A. program, which was the industrys most visible marketing campaign of the 1980s and 90s, marked the coming out of MillikenandCompany and ushered in an era for the company that, while not exactly open, was far removed from the sound-proof baffling that seemed to surround the company in earlier years. To illustrate just how all-encompassing that barrier of silence was, consider the experience of a reporter from The Greenville (S.C.) News in the latter months of 1980. Reporting about the closing of a South Carolina plant, the reporter called the Milliken headquarters to ask a single question: with the closing of the plant, what was the accurate number of remaining manufacturing facilities operated by Milliken A tongue-in-cheek call back from a MillikenandCompany spokesperson provided the answer: Mr. Milliken says you must use your own resources to find the answer to that question. Privacy Facilitates SuccessWhile many might argue the pros and cons of such a tight-lipped policy, there is no doubt that the companys culture of secrecy has played a role in its success. MillikenandCompany today stands alone at the summit of the American textile industry. It is a position it has shared with others in the past companies such as Burlington, J.P. Stevens and WestPoint-Pepperell. Each of those concerns, however, underwent a fundamental change in the 1980s, primarily as the result of leveraged buyouts that resulted in downsizing and/or combination of product lines and resources. Milliken, with sales estimated at about $4 billion, was private from the beginning and was immune to the wave of Wall Street brokering that resulted in a wholesale shake-up of the industrys other large players.  
Aside from Milliken, how many other major players of the 80s remain viable, separate entities Fieldcrest and Cannon, once fierce competitors, are now divisions of struggling Pillowtex. M. Lowenstein is part of Springs. J.P. Stevens was split into three separate operations and sold, respectively, to WestPoint, Odyssey Partners (industrial fabrics and aviation) and The Bibb Co. Burlington, once thought to be the worlds largest textile company, downsized and refocused its core businesses, the result of its privatization efforts. Of what was essentially the Big Five of 1985 Burlington, Stevens, Milliken, WestPoint and Springs only Milliken and Springs survived relatively intact. And the rumors flying from Fort Mill indicate changes are now underway at Springs.Yet Milliken perseveres. After 136 years, the company today is still looked upon with awe by competitors, customers, vendors and the public. It is the shining example the American textile industry can hold up to the rest of the world and proclaim, See, we still do it right!The reasons Milliken thrives are numerous. But in encapsulated form, they are as follows: invention; innovation; action; and focus. No-Nonsense StrategiesTom Peters, the author of In Search of Excellence, which prominently featured Millikens quality program, had this to say about the company to the American Association of Quality Control: Milliken has developed many a new wrinkle since it began its quality/customer/quick response thrust. But all of its efforts were underpinned by its long-standing penchant to cut the malarkey and get on with it.Perhaps those words sum up the corporate culture of Milliken better than any others. It is a company that despite the direction taken by others, public perception and U.S. trade philosophy just cuts straight to the chase.Milliken was big on research and development long before the phrase became trendy among American manufacturers. The companys roots go back to 1865, when Seth Milliken and William Deering founded the Deering Milliken Company, a small woolen fabrics company in Portland, Maine. In 1884, the company made its first big investment in the American South in Pacolet, S.C. In 1945, Roger Milliken founded The Deering Milliken Research Trust in Clemson, S.C. After its headquarters were moved to Spartanburg in 1958, it was renamed Milliken Research Corporation. The center is now, purportedly, the largest and most productive research organization in the world, with more than 1,500 patents to its credit.In 1980, near the beginning of the escalating textile trade imbalance with developing nations, Milliken looked throughout the world to study productivity and quality. Companies in Japan, at that time, were achieving greater productivity, higher quality, less waste and fewer customer complaints, while using technology less advanced than that available in the United States. In 1981, Milliken set in motion its Pursuit of Excellence program, which ultimately resulted in the company being featured in Peters book, as well as receiving a 1989 Malcolm Baldrige Award for Quality from the U.S. Department of Commerce.Commitment to quality and customer satisfaction begins at the companys highest levels, according to Commerce Department documents released at the time. Roger Milliken and Tom Malone devoted more than half of their work at the time toward achieving quality and productivity goals. Autonomy Of ManagementMilliken employs a flat management structure that enables employees called associates within the company to work in self-managed teams that have considerable authority and autonomy. For example, production work teams can undertake training, schedule work and establish individual performance objectives. Moreover, any Milliken associate can halt a production process for a quality or safety problem.The approach has worked so well, according to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, that Milliken has been able to eliminate a number of management jobs over the years, freeing up a large portion of the workforce for assignment in process improvement.Another key element is customer responsiveness. More than any other company within the U.S. textile/fiber/apparel complex, Milliken has been the pacesetter in reducing cycle times for product development, manufacturing and delivery. Roger Milliken, personally, has played a key role in pioneering quick response as a core strategy of American industry. The company has received numerous quality and service awards from its customers during the past 10 years. Focus On DevelopmentNot content to rest on its laurels, the company still focuses on the development of new ideas for enhancing quality, customer satisfaction and improving business performance. Each advance brings the company closer to its ultimate goal of complete responsiveness to customers throughout every segment of the supply chain.Our goal, says Roger Milliken, is to provide products that customers want, in the quantity they want, when they want them.Milliken is also famous for the adaptations it makes to the textile machinery it buys from vendors throughout the world. For example, a company might sell Milliken a number of latest-technology automated fabric-inspection systems. When representatives from the vendor or any others, for that matter visit a Milliken plant, the internal improvements are carefully hidden. When time comes to replace the equipment, all of the older equipment is destroyed to keep the technology out of the hands of foreign competition.In an era when it is politically incorrect to do business in less than open condition, Milliken, while more transparent than at any other time in its history, is still at times an enigma wrapped within a mystery. So the unanswered question is: Does Milliken represent the mainstream of American business or its eccentricitiesA truthful answer would be, it represents both. And this carefully orchestrated corporate culture is why, today, nearly a century and a half after the companys founding, it is still looked upon from afar with both respect and awe. 
Cogan (center) with Malone (left) and Milliken at the first presentation of the Cogan Award for Innovation in February 2001.

June 2001