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Time to get busy

Jennifer Negley -- Home Textiles Today, January 15, 2001

"Buzzing" is a good word for this time of year. There are 27 trade shows in eight countries preceding the New York spring market, which itself is a mere 10 weeks away. The thought of it is enough to leave one panting with exhaustion.

But busyness has a way of begetting vitality. And the first half of 2001 promises to be very vital, if not critical, for a number of companies. There are a lot of Big Questions hanging fire, and we should begin to see some indication over the next six months of the directions major industry players intend to take. A few examples:

WestPoint Stevens: New president and coo Chip Fontenot said upon assuming his office in late December that the company needs to concentrate on building its core strengths. By mid-year he presumably will have indicated what he believes those strengths to be and outlined the tasks WestPoint must take up to fatten the business. It goes without saying that in the attempt to identify strengths one usually happens upon a weakness or two.

Pillowtex: New president Tony Williams promises to bring a pitiless eye to the job of restructuring a company that houses some truly venerable brands. As a veteran of the auto industry-- which itself has weathered a good deal of upheaval and restructuring in recent years-he is blessed with an unsentimental attachment to the industry's cherished traditions. We should probably expect some swift and decisive moves within the next four months.

Springs: Financially, it stands on more solid ground than several of its domestic counterparts, although its stock often suffers with the rest of the industry. Now that Wall Street's torrid affair with tech stocks is cooling down, the question is whether this steady workhorse can woo back some of the Street's affection. There is also the matter of the Springmaid program at Wal-Mart, which, judging by the price roll-back campaigns, seems still to be in the process of jelling.

Burlington Industries: Talk about buzz. Some of the stories going around about upcoming strategy shifts are so outlandish that one or two of them might actually be true. Kissing off the tufted business was a gutsy move. It suggests that there's at least one other shoe about to drop.

The new kids on the block: International companies such as flannel sheet producer Zorlu and terry towel manufacturer Welspun now operate out of Fifth Avenue to service private-label retail programs. As retail direct continues to grow in size and scope, more international companies are likely to take up residence in the textiles corridor. It portends a seismic shift that challenges not only the way in which the dollar volume of the U.S. business has traditionally been measured (by tallying up the sales of branded product) but also our notion of what type of company is considered a significant member of the domestic industry.

The new retail leaders: JCPenney's Allen Questrom, Sears' Allen Lacy and Kmart's Chuck Conaway have got their work cut out for them in their mutual challenge to re-invigorate long-established retail giants whose customers are drifting elsewhere. The size of the task is so enormous that noone can be expected to produce overnight miracles. But within a reasonably short time all three should begin to let the trade know where they're heading and what vendors need to do to help them get there.

And off we go!

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