James Finley dead at 86

James D. Finley, who presided over textiles titan J.P. Stevens as it battled the unions during the tumultuous "Norma Rae" days of the 1960s and '70s, died here on April 5 at the age of 86.

Finley, the first non-family member to head the former J.P. Stevens, ran the company as chairman from 1965 until his retirement in 1979, during a challenging period characterized first by the protracted and often bitter drive to unionize the company's plants, and later by the first trickle of low-cost imports.

During his tenure, Stevens was the nation's second largest textiles producer, with more than $1 billion in sales, later growing to $1.6 billion in sales by the time the company was acquired by rival WestPoint Pepperell in 1988.

Finley came to the textiles industry through a roundabout route, studying engineering at Georgia Tech and working briefly at Goodyear Tire and Rubber. Later, while a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, he served under Robert T. Stevens, scion of the Stevens textiles empire, and then an Army colonel. After the war, at Stevens' invitation, Finley joined the family enterprise in 1945 and remained there for 34 years, until his retirement in 1979. Stepping down as chairman and ceo, Finley handed over the reins to Whitney Stevens, the last of his family to head the textiles company before its sale to WestPoint Pepperell in one of the very first steps in the industry's long dance of conquest and consolidation.

"He's so closely identified with the whole union thing that everyone forgets what a great, diversified company he built," said industry dean David Tracy, then at Fieldcrest. "They were into everything — apparel, home, automotive. They had an aircraft business — heck, they were even into printing. At one time they were, I believe, the eighth largest printer in the country; they were doing all the phone books for Bell South."

Finley was remembered as "a very adept manager" by one of those who worked with him at J.P. Stevens, Paul Nelson, former national sales manager for the Utica brand, and later head of institutional sales. "He had a very real knack for culling out talented people, and he was a powerful godfather for a whole generation of managers there."

In addition to his wife Nancy, Finley leaves three sons, James Finley of of Rumson, NJ; William G. Finley of Charlotte, NC; and Fred B. Finley of Palm City, FL.

Home & Textiles Today Staff | News & Commentary

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