• Warren Shoulberg

Foreign Affairs

Warren ShoulbergWarren Shoulberg PUBLISHER/ EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
AS THE HOME TEXTILES industry grapples with the complexities of international sourcing and supply chain management issues stretching half way around the globe, just imagine for a minute if things had worked out differently.
     Just imagine, if you will, what would have happened if the giant textiles mills that dominated the industry during the 1990s - West Point, J.P. Stevens, Springs, Fieldcrest Cannon and the rest - had turned outward, rather than inward, in their manufacturing and sourcing strategies.
     Think if they had opened production - maybe wholly owned, maybe joint ventures - in Asia and elsewhere to produce sheets and towels in lower cost countries. Contemplate if they had taken the cash they were generating from all of those lucrative solid color programs and instead of buying up each other had purchased foreign producers of home textiles products and invested in their physical facilities rather than the ones in the south.
     And just think if they had then established beachheads in the emerging marketplaces of Asia and what we used to call the Third World, setting up distribution and perhaps even their own retail outlets rather than slugging it out for 24-count washcloth packs in Bentonville.
     How different would things be today and would we be looking at these textiles giants as multi-national corporations, the same way we perceive Proctor & Gamble, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Buick?
     Well, wipe the dust from your memories because in fact virtually all of those things - the overseas factories, the joint ventures, the attempts to set up distribution in Asia - actually happened, mostly during the 1990s.
     Oh, they all had one more thing in common: every single one of those things failed and it was almost always because when the American companies didn't see immediate results, they pulled the plug on those ventures faster than you can mark down a dust ruffle.
     WestPoint Stevens had a thriving European business in the 1980s and 1990s, which at one time included Designers Guild. Fieldcrest, even earlier, built and operated a towel plant in Ireland. West- Point, in the early 1990s, set up an international division based in Hong Kong that was charged with opening up distribution in China and elsewhere and starting to set up joint ventures with emerging Asian textiles producers. Springs went into a joint venture with a big Chinese quilt company which grew into a sizeable manufacturing partnership in the 1990s. Fieldcrest Cannon held serious negotiations to buy outright or at least partner up with big home textiles suppliers in both India and Mexico.
     Those are just the deals and ventures we know about. Who knows what else was being discussed behind closed doors and over endless Chinese banquets.
     And in the end, it all amounted to a big fat zero. WestPoint eventually moved its production offshore, buying a factory in the Middle East and setting up a joint venture with one in Pakistan, but the company is just a fraction the size it used to be. Springs ended up selling out to its Brazilian partner, but it too is vastly smaller than the company was at its peak. Fieldcrest Cannon, Dan River, Thomaston: They're all gone, only forgotten company names on resumes.
      It all could have been so much different. But that's just not the way the textiles world turned.

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See the May 2017 issue of Home & Textiles Today. In this issue, we discuss our annual Market Basket survey, which finds higher prices and more polyester at leading retailers. See details!