WestPoint bundles new bedding division

Don Hogsett, April 30, 2001

NEW YORK — Betting that it can parlay sales of blankets, pillows and mattress pads into a $250 million a year business, textiles giant WestPoint Stevens has created a basic bedding division that bundles together for the first time its Vellux, Liebhard and newly acquired Chatham blanket units.

"They're bought by the same buyer, so it just makes sense to put them all together," said Chip Fontenot, newly named president and coo, who harnessed the three businesses into a new team as part of a broad-based plan to transform WestPoint Stevens from a cost-driven vertical textile mill to a product-based and marketing-driven home fashions supplier.

"From our perspective, the business is significantly underdeveloped," said Fontenot. "Vellux, of course, is a successful product, but the blankets and the pillows and the pads have a long way to go."

Just how far does that business have to go? "You probably have a 20 percent opportunity out there," said Fontenot. With last year's combined annual sales of Vellux, Chatham and Liebhard at roughly $200 million, "I would think that $250 million is clearly reasonable for these businesses," he said.

Heading up the new team, and reporting for work May 7, is industry veteran Art Birkins, who joins the major mill as senior vp, basic bedding, after a stint at Waverly Home Fashions, where he oversaw sales, marketing, product development and manufacturing.

On a front burner, said Fontenot, are plans to widen price points and distribution for all basic bedding using the good/better/best approach that WestPoint applies throughout the company. Under that approach, Liebhard, which has produced opening-price-point pillows and pads, will augment its line with feather and down and move to higher price points and into department and specialty stores, said Fontenot. "There's a huge opportunity for Liebhard just by introducing product at certain price points."

Similarly, the Chatham blanket business, which has focused in the past on better goods simply because of its cost structure, "can now start producing blankets at opening price points for mass merchants," said Fontenot.

"Through the expansion of the Ralph Lauren license into basic bedding, and now the Chatham acquisition, we have Ralph Lauren as our 'best' in basic bedding," he said. "That's firmly in place. But we have significant work to do in the good and better categories."

WestPoint makes its feather and down debut in basic bedding and comforters when it officially takes over the license from Pillowtex Corp. in July. "Martex will follow later on. We will definitely have feather and down throughout the company," said Fontenot. And with product development kicking into high gear, "we will have significant new products in blankets and pillows and pads coming out in the fall. We see significant opportunities in this business."

Putting his money where his mouth is, Fontenot said a big piece of this year's capital spending budget will go to update the Chatham blanket plant in Elkin, NC. "There's automated sewing equipment going into the Chatham plant now. We can automate a lot of it and help our cost side."

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