Beacon Blankets pulls plug on NC facility
Don Hogsett -- Home Textiles Today, February 18, 2002
Consolidation affects roughly half its work force
Swannanoa, NC — Dashing its hopes, at least for the moment, of returning to its former glory as a century-old blanket manufacturer, Beacon Blankets said it will shutter its million-square-foot plant here, laying off roughly half of its manufacturing work force and half of its sales force as well.
Less than five months after a team of managers and an outside investor joined forces to buy the Beacon business from Pillowtex Corp., a slowdown in consumer spending, an unseasonably warm winter, an uphill battle to add big, new placements and a persistent weakness in the market for acrylic blankets have forced the company to consolidate all manufacturing into its nearby Westminster, SC, plant, which produces cotton blankets.
Smith, who spent much of his career working at the company, told Home Textiles Today, "This is just about the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. There are so many livelihoods involved. When we bought the company in September, we encouraged a lot of people to come into it with us, and now we had to let them go. There are 300 people working here at the plant who aren't going to have jobs, and these are people I grew up with, went to school with."
Smith said the Swannanoa plant, which now produces acrylic blankets and printed and solid-color non-woven blankets, will be largely shut down as soon as April, and put up for sale. But some parts of the plant could remain in operation until the end of the year, he said, as Beacon gradually shifts its non-woven production to the Westminster plant. "If we don't sell the building quickly, we'll take our time with the move so that we don't create any disruptions with our customers. We want to make sure we don't create any problems for them."
While non-woven production will move to Westminster, acrylic production will be shut down entirely, said Smith. "We'll continue to market acrylics, but we'll be bringing the goods into the country."
The Swannanoa plant that is closing occupies a central position in the life to the Swannanoa Valley and, indeed, the greater U.S. textiles industry. Originally built in the late 19th century in New Bedford, MA, at that time the heart of the U.S. industry, it was acquired in 1904 by textiles industry pioneer Charles D. Owen, a Mayflower descendant through marriage to John Alden and three other Mayflower pioneers. When much of the textiles industry moved south, Beacon went with it in the mid-1920s, lured by low-cost water and low-cost labor. Owen had the entire Beacon building disassembled, brick by brick, and carried on freight cars to North Carolina in what was, at the time, the single largest rail shipment in the nation's history. There the building was reconstructed and later added to, eventually reaching a size of one million square feet on four floors.
Ironically, the Owen family that founded Beacon later sold the company, and a new generation of Owens subsequently returned to its roots, creating yet another blanket supplier, Charles D. Owen Mfg., located only a few miles away on the other side of the Swannanoa Valley from the original Beacon plant.
While painful, the plant consolidation should secure the future of the company and save the jobs of the 300 or so workers at the Westminster plant. "Westminster has been profitable on a stand-alone basis and has a very efficient, state-of-the art dyeing and finishing operation."
A key factor in the decision was the prohibitive cost of upgrading the Swannanoa plant, said Smith. "We were looking at having to spend about $11 million for a new air filtration system, and that just wasn't feasible."
In a related move, sales and administrative jobs are also being eliminated, said Smith. "We'll end up with about half of what we started with. And I and some of the other managers will now have direct sales and account responsibilities. Harvey Wooding and Bill Purdue will continue to handle key accounts. Kenny Hynes, executive vp of sales and marketing will be focusing on department and specialty stores, and I'll be doing some of the discounters and the dollar stores."
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