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Shoulberg PUBLISHER/EDITORIAL DIRECTOR

Leadership

May 13, 2013

Say what you want about the bad old mill days in the home textiles business - and they sure had their bad parts - but there were also some good things about the way the industry functioned then.

With several very large, very powerful and very dominant companies controlling the sheet and towel business, you had what amounted to a benevolent dictatorship in home textiles. Those giant mills - West Point Stevens, Springs, Fieldcrest Cannon, Dan River - set the rules by which everyone played, but they also supplied one other ingredient now long since gone from the business: leadership.

Leadership is an intangible kind of thing, perhaps best understood when it is absent. And that's what we have today. The industry's trade association, try as it does, just doesn't have the financial might to take a leadership position and dictate to its membership.

The big mills - albeit sometimes by default and sometimes by accident - did exactly that. They served as the marketing and advertising umbrella for the industry, driving sales for everyone in the business. They set the standards for product development, fashion, branding, designers and virtually every aspect of the merchandising equation. And they were the only ones big enough to develop new technologies and raise the bar for product quality and innovation.

Again, the bar was pretty low, but at least there was one. There is not now. Those mill corporations had 10% or 20% market shares and so were in a position to lead everyone else. Today the biggest players in the industry have at best a few percentage points market share, and there are so many smaller players eking out even smaller shares of the market that no one is big enough to find the bar, much less move it.

That's one of the reasons the industry finds itself in the predicament it is in today. And it's why the bigger companies still in the business now have to up their leadership game. They now have the responsibility to take the upper hand when it comes to leading the home textiles business.

This is not an altruistic endeavor, mind you. Certainly when the big mills did it, they never looked at it that way. Frankly, the old mills never did anything for altruistic reasons; they were some of the most self-centered corporate entities that ever existed.

But they were smart enough to know that they would prosper if they took those leadership roles and that prosperity would fall disproportionately to their benefit.

That's the way today's biggest home textiles companies have to look at this situation as well. We know this is not an industry that subscribes to the old Mr. Spock philosophy that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. But how about the one about a rising tide raising all boats?

It's time for the industry's bigger suppliers to get off their assets and start leading.