By Jim Phillips, Yarn Market Editor
For the past several issues, Yarn Market has reported that business has been strong, most companies have a long pipeline of orders — although most orders are relatively small — and that ring-spun yarns are in very high demand and difficult to come by. As of late October, this is still the case.
It also has been reported that the U.S. yarn industry is in the midst of its longest sustained run of profitable business for many years. There have been numerous columns focused on how this has come about, and no need to rehash it here. However, Yarn Market was fortunate enough to recently interview a retired employee who witnessed first-hand the transformation of the industry over almost
50 years. This is his story.
Some 40 years ago, a young man working for one of the world’s premier textile companies was cautioned by a professional recruiter to exit the industry as quickly as possible.
“He told me there was no future for textiles in the United States,” said the gentleman. “He said the industry has moved on and would never return and that the billion-dollar company I worked for would be gone in 10 years. He wanted me, instead, to join a large tobacco company. I declined.”
He continued: “It’s funny how it worked out.
I retired after a lifetime in the textile industry, working continuously to refine processes, increase efficiency and enhance quality. I worked in spinning rooms, in textured yarns, in package dyeing and in just about every other aspect of the business. Meanwhile, the company he wanted me to work for got into trouble for allegedly chemically enhancing the addictiveness of cigarettes. That tobacco company still exists, I think, but not as a stand-alone company.”
So, what happened? How did this industry that was supposedly on death’s door nearly a
half century ago last long enough for a very young man to be able to work, prosper and retire?
From his point of view, this now-retired spinner says the textile industry was able to accomplish what so many traditional U.S manufacturers could not: “We reinvented ourselves. For example, in the early 80s, we knew South Korea and Taiwan could make yarn and fabric at a fraction of what it cost us. But could they make it as well and deliver it as quickly?”
However, it took some time and some business model innovation for the U.S. industry to regain its competitiveness. “We still had the notion for a long time that, if we make it, somebody will buy it. It was that philosophy, more than foreign competition, that almost killed the industry. We forgot a primary business fundamental — to be successful, supply must at least somewhat approximate demand. We just kept spinning more and more yarns and weaving yards and yards of fabric — and had no buyers for hardly any of it. We
figured what worked once, would always work. If we put it on the market,
somebody would buy it. We were wrong.”
And as a result, many, many companies went out of business or were split
up and sold.
But for many of those remaining, the light came on. “Finally, somebody figured out that if you find out what customers really want, make it to their specifications, deliver it to them faster than anybody else and then — and this is very important — follow up with superior customer service, well, then, you can compete with anybody. And I am proud to say that yarn spinners in the United States have done exactly that. They reinvented themselves.”
However, he notes that reinvention is not just a part of the industry’s past, it must be a part of its future as well. “The market today is forever changing — sometimes on a daily basis. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. The key is not to just keep up with the customer, but stay ahead. Learn what he wants before he even knows he wants it.”