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Faribault buys Beacon plant; to grow offerings

In a bid to build a platform as a full-service, multi-fiber bed blanket producer, Faribault Woolen Mills, a venerable 138-year-old supplier, has acquired the Westminster, SC, cotton and acrylic blanket producing plant once operated by the now defunct Beacon Blanket Co.

Michael Harris, ceo, president and majority owner, told HTT Faribault is acquiring the assets of the Westminster operation — a 600,000-square-foot plant, including weaving, finishing and s dye-house — and will show off a full range of new Faribault product, in wool, cotton and acrylic, at the March home textiles market in New York. "We are currently in the process of shopping for a permanent New York showroom," said Harris.

Harris declined to specify a purchase price. However, he did say, "It's a very advantageous situation for us. It's what I'd call a good deal for everyone concerned."

With a local and skilled work force available to return to a plant that was shuttered when the Beacon operation collapsed last year, Harris said, the Westminster plant can be up and running rapidly. "We can have that moving very quickly, producing cottons, acrylics and blends. We can't wait to get it going. Already, in anticipation, we've been working up programs for some of our customers. We're ready."

Included in the purchase, said Harris, "is a very high-quality weaving operation. There's a fleet of new Dornier looms, in addition to the older Sulzers. There's a state-of-the-art, completely automated dye-house. And there is a computer-controlled cut-and-sew operation. It's a mill that's capable of putting out products of extremely high quality."

Eager to expand the Faribault operation, Harris said, "We combed much of the Southeast; we looked at all sorts of plants, including former Fruit of the Loom plants. Let me tell you, there is no shortage of former textile plants out there that are going real cheap."

The ultimate lure of the Westminster plant, said Harris, was "the people and the equipment, with the emphasis on the people. They still exude that passion."

So why buy a plant when others are shedding theirs as fast as they can move the equipment out the door? "We are the only fully integrated woolen mill left in America," said Harris. "We have a wonderful product, but it's a niche product. So now we have the opportunity to capitalize on all the accidental or strategic decisions that brought the industry to its current state. We have the opportunity to buy the operation advantageously, to expand our operations and build a presence for our brand."

Harris emphasized that, even with the acquisition, "the woolen business will remain in Faribault. We will operate out of both locations."

What may change, he added, is the name. "We will keep the Faribault in there. But, reflecting the widened scope of the operation, we may drop the 'woolen mill' part. It hasn't been decided."

What about competition, both domestically and soon from China? "Everybody is fighting on price. Value doesn't enter into the equation. Price is killing this industry. Our goal is to bring value back into the picture. That's going to be our niche — high quality and genuine value. Our goal is to be known as the highest-quality blanket producer, top of the bed, in all fibers or combinations. We're going to rebuild the company and bring it back to its glory days when it was one of the best-respected brands in the entire industry."

Which will take some doing. Harris and his team are the third set of owners that Faribault has had in the past five years. And in recent years, from a high of roughly $20 million, Faribault sales have been slashed by more than half, perhaps as much as two-thirds. Harris declines to specify annual sales.

In recent years, Faribault's business with conventional retailers has sharply contracted, leaving the company focused on private-label, catalog and institutional business. "Now, with the Westminster plant and all that it allows us to do, we can start to rebuild that business and bring it back."

Harris is hoping that one engine of growth will be Faribault's new partnership with Cargill Dow, using its new Ingeo manmade fiber.

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