Hayes: a powerful legacy

Don Hogsett, July 29, 2002

Charles "Chuck" Hayes, the passionate, exuberant and wildly unpredictable chairman of Guilford Mills Inc. and one of the textile industry's most vigorous defenders, died unexpectedly on July 21 in Myrtle Beach, SC, at a home he had just purchased and was preparing for his retirement.

With the company he had built into an industry powerhouse now in bankruptcy, and scheduled soon to emerge, Hayes, 68, had been nearing the retirement he had been preparing for since early in 2000, when he stepped aside as president and ceo, naming John Emrich, his handpicked and carefully groomed protégé, as his successor.

Hayes, always strong-willed and fiercely independent — many who tangled with him in later years would call him pigheaded and obstinate — was a high school dropout who not only quit school but left a job at his family's dairy farm to go to work at a small, local knitting mill at the age of 16. With a taste for textiles and some experience behind him, he joined Guilford Mills in 1961, and only a year later became president of a small company that was then doing just $3 million in annual sales.

Through a combination of hard-nosed business savvy and a string of acquisitions, he built Guilford up into an industry powerhouse that at its peak generated more than $800 million in sales, most of it in the rough-and-tumble world of Detroit, where he sold Guilford-made fabric as auto upholstery. In an equally raucous environment, Hayes and Guilford sold more of their fabrics into the Seventh Ave. apparel business and later moved into home fashions. Following the acquisition of Scranton Lace, Hayes focused on building the higher-margin home business, leveraging Guilford's strength in knits into a line of hot-selling jersey-knit sheets. Bolstering the company's position in home, Guilford took on the Jockey license for bedding, and turned it into a highly visible franchise with a series of flamboyant ads and promotions.

What could you do with an underwear brand in sheets? What else? Attack the marketing problem with a gusto and panache typical of the boss. Guilford promoted the brand with a series of fire fighters, dressed only in their Jockey skivvies, at a Home Textiles Today industry party celebrating the upcoming home textiles market.

During his long career at Guilford, Hayes was a tireless, often overbearing, invariably blustery advocate of the U.S. industry, free trade and the development of economic ties with Mexico. An early and indefatigable advocate of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, Hayes put his money where his mouth was, and was one of the first U.S. textiles producers to shift product manufacturing to Mexico, relocating Guilford plants there.

An untiring industry advocate on Capitol Hill, Hayes was a strong supporter of the ATMI, the American Textile Industry Association, the industry's Washington-based trade group and lobbying arm. He was famous for button-holing congressmen, literally going toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose, leaning into them with every inch of his height and every pound of his considerable girth.

Throughout his career, Hayes developed, even cultivated, the image of what the French call un monstre sacrée — a sacred monster: a figure of larger-than-life proportions, a man of enormous charisma and enormous appetites, often of childish, cartoonish behavior.

Once during a presentation to a roomful of Wall Street analysts and big institutional investors, Hayes was making a point about how aggressive, driven and unstoppable Guilford could be. Back then the buzz-word was "fire in the belly," and Hayes illustrated the point vividly, by dramatically reaching both hands to his chest and ripping his dress shirt wide open, buttons popping into the stunned, then amused, then ultimately captivated audience.

Hayes understood the value of shock effect and clearly relished the impact it could have, especially on a mixed audience. He often told the story of how years ago, he would set off the metal detectors at the Greensboro, NC, airport — a story that can't be completed here.

Hayes was a man of enormous energy and often unbridled passion, most of directed into an industry he loved unabashedly and without apologies. Hayes leaves two sons, David and Matthew; two daughters, Deborah Holbrook and Susan Hayes; 11 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. A third daughter, Becky, died several years ago.

Funeral services were held last Friday at United Methodist Church in Greensboro.

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