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Jennifer Marks

American Century Home Shifts into High Gear

HaiNing City, China and Salisbury, N.C. — American Century Home is moving aggressively to expand not only the size, but the scope of its business. That entails a major push in direct-to-retail finished home textiles products for the U.S. market — but that's only one of the fronts on which the decorative fabric maker is moving.

Within the coming months, American Century will leap into the furniture industry, debut high-end fabrics and finished products for the interior design trade, launch retail distribution in the domestic Chinese market and, finally, enter China's fevered real-estate industry.

“I think we are ready for a major break-through,” said Jason Jiang, board chairman.

Over the past 13 months, Jiang scooped up a passel of industry vets to build out the U.S. arm of the business. The executive roster includes David Lappert Sr., evp/general manager, and the heads of American Century's three sales and marketing divisions: Tom Finneran, rolled fabric; Myron Bass, finished home textiles; and Peter Gallagher, supervising the new Chelsea Frank business addressing the interior design trade, which will debut this October at High Point.

In advance of the sales push, American Century fattened its design team. Susan Morris, formerly of Albion Studios in High Point, is heading up the Chelsea Frank project. Mary Cranford is design director for American Century Home. Last month, Tammy Bruckner joined the group as vp, design and styling.

Their mission: pursue aggressive design and uncover innovative yarns, embroideries, and fabrications.

“In China, it's very easy to find me-too products. We probably have 800 weavers around our factories,” Jiang said. However, he said, “The manufacturers here are becoming more and more sophisticated every day. The idea that China is just a knock-off artist is a myth.”

Added Buckner: “What they have the capacity to do here is boundless.”

American Century also recently forged a partnership with the design firm that develops home textiles for the U.K.'s Marks & Spencer. Going forward, they will co-create fashion-right “world class looks” for the European and U.S. markets, Jiang said. The company has formed a similar arrangement with Retrix, an Australian design and styling company.

Jiang is also looking to partner in the United States with an established name in the high-end decorator fabric business. And the company is wrapping up negotiations with a well-known Chinese furniture manufacturer to develop product in tandem for the carriage trade.

Within its existing fabric business, the company has turned up the volume on its palette and patterns over the past six months. It is also broadening the pricing range, which now runs from $3.95 per yard to $10. Said Cranford, “We stepped down a bit and we stepped up a bit — and put in better value across the board.”

American Century's pursuit of a juicer share of the finished products business in the United States consists of greatly broadening its sales into the mass and mid-tier channels, where it is already doing some business, and entering the upper end of the market.

“The Wal-Mart level is not what we want,” said Jiang. “If you don't make money, you will die. That's a serious issue facing this industry.”

The company also plans to develop three to five brands over the next few years, all in-house. Jiang dismisses licensing arrangements, saying, “The fees are outrageous, and they impact the value of the product.”

Charging into another realm, American Century is constructing a 26-story building in Jiaxinag City that will open by late 2009 — right about the time a new bullet train will whittle the commute into Shanghai down to 30 minutes. The company's Shanghai office will relocate there. The rest of the space will be leased.

It's not a particularly unusual strategy in China. Several established home textiles companies there are also real estate concerns, including Hightex, Veken, Fuanna and Luaolai, Jiang noted.

In the immediate term, however, textiles rule the day. American Century is soon to open a new cut and sew facility that will double its size. In the United States, the company is investing heavily in systems and software as well, said Lappert.

“What makes this company unique is that Jason has set up the infrastructure not just for this year, but for the next 10 years,” Lappert said. “We believe we've crossed every bridge that it's going to take to grow infinitely.”

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