AAPN’s Carolina Mill Tour is Blowing Minds

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Last week, we took the tour detailed in the below report by Devine Steele. 23 executives, managers and staff from 8 brands and retailers spent a week with us ‘on the road’. We will spend the next few days summarizing what we learned.

Devin’s article is amazing. THIS is something I am not capable of writing.

We have never done anything like this week. It was set up by years of running supply chain annual meetings; learning from leaders at our late year forums; experiencing 5 regional conferences; running the Sourcing Executive Roundtables at Material World; and simply being around for this our 24th year together.

No-one sold, no powerpoints, no pleading – simply raw boot camp looks at the cold hard facts of how much each link in this chain works its butts off to get better every day AND where they came from to get here.

AAPN’s Carolina Mill Tour is blowing minds
Devine Steele: dsteele@etextilecommunications.com  April 12, 2018
(Editor’s note: Following is a flash report from the road from the Americas Apparel Producers Network’s inaugural Carolina Mill Tour this week. A more in-depth review will be forthcoming, after the tour is complete.)

If just one person per week changes his or her mind about the U.S. textile industry, that’s a good week. And this has been a good week, as the mind-changing business goes.

Since Tuesday, I’ve been accompanying representatives of retailers and brands who are participating in the Americas Apparel Producers’ Network’s (AAPN’s) inaugural Carolina Mill Tour – and, boy, are their minds being changed. And blown.

We’ve visited Unifi, Inc. in Greensboro, N.C., Contempora Fabrics in Lumberton, N.C., and Carolina Cotton Works and Parkdale Mills in Gaffney, S.C. We wrap up in the morning at American & Efird in Mount Holly, N.C. And it has been an eye-opening experience for me and for many of the more than two dozen participants.

What has surprised me is the lack of awareness many of these retailers and brands had about the industry. Certainly, I thought, those upstream in the supply chain knew the Norma Rae days are history, right? Um, not really.

And what has amazed many of them is, well, just about everything they’ve seen this week. At least that’s what I learned when I pulled a few of them aside during our excursion from company to company. Here is what just a few of them had to say Thursday about just their visit to the Parkdale’s W. Kimbrell Plant:

  • “I was blown away,” said , “It was nothing like I expected when I walked in the door. I wasn’t expecting all of the automation. It was just amazing. And the cleanliness – everything just seemed so perfect.”
  • I was amazed at the level of automation at Parkdale. That was incredible – very impressive,” said Aaron Ledet, vice president of Sourcing, Latin America S.A.R.L., VF Corp., Panama.
  • “I think Parkdale is the Tesla of yarn spinning,” said They are so automated – and clean. When I talked with my manager about this trip, he said, ‘Alex, you’re going to visit textile mills. Don’t wear your nice shoes. Wear some old shoes that you can throw away because it’s going to be dirty.’ And I was really, really surprised.

The tour, the brainchild of Contempora Fabrics’ President and AAPN member Ron Roach, came to fruition after months of planning by AAPN Executive Director Sue Strickland, Managing Director Mike Todaro and several of their members. But, actually, “tour” is a misnomer – or at least an incomplete description of the undertaking. Beyond plant tours, it is a deep-dive information transfer between various segments of the supply chain, not only between these retailers/brands and their suppliers but also between these retailer/brands.

Devina Lalla, product development manager at HBI Direct, a subsidiary of Superior Uniform Co., Atlanta, explained it thusly: “It’s been a great opportunity on a couple of different fronts. One of them is the amount of information we’re getting. When you’re working with these vendors from your desk, the mechanics of how these things get made is still an abstract concept. But being able to come here and seeing the machinery and the people behind it, that makes a big difference. The other part is the kind of face-to-face relationships we’re building, not just with these companies but also with these other retailers and brands from all around the country. You start talking to them and you realize that we all have the same challenges.

“So if you have an eye on the future, these are the people that you need to get in the same room and start talking together to solve these issues,” she added. “On all of these fronts, it’s been a great opportunity.”

Chris Smith, director of Sourcing, Soft Goods for Academy Sports and Outdoors, Houston, had a similar takeaway: “The ability to network with individuals from throughout the industry was been good. It’s a very non-competitive thing. We talk about the same challenges that we all have in our businesses that we can collectively work on and fix. So there were ideas that I have heard for different issues that are going on.”

Another participant, Sophia Clark, associate sourcing manager, Academy Sports and Outdoors, Houston, said the event is nothing like she expected. Asked to sum up her thoughts, she said, “I love it, I love it, I love it! I cannot say enough about this. This is an incredible experience. I wish they were doing things like this when I was in school. To be able to see everything you talk about is wonderful. It’s good to meet these folks and to hear their perspective. It’s completely eye opening.”

The most eye-opening aspect? “That we have mills in the States that are capable of producing serious amounts of fabric for us, which will allow us to eliminate some of these turn times. Customers want things now and fast turn times are required, so we have options here. And I love the fact that these companies we’re visiting are sustainably sourcing their raw materials and producing their goods. Plus, these plants are immaculately clean. And I was really surprised at how automated these plants are, too.”

We in the textile industry live and breathe it every day, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when others don’t others aren’t aware of all the things that make it amazing. Perhaps we don’t tell our good story enough, or at least not well enough. Maybe we believe everyone knows how efficient, high-tech, modern, clean, automated and sustainable the industry really is. But, for good measure, we should assume no one knows, then make it our mission to tell everyone who will listen just how “hip” we are.

VF’s Ledet is able to see the event from the perspective of an industry veteran. He’s aware of many of the good things happening in Textile Country, but still learned more during this visit, he said.

“It’s been a great visit at every stop,” he said. “It’s great to see the industry alive and well and vibrant and growing. It’s good to see these people get exposed to it. They don’t know how yarn or fabric is made. The U.S. is a great place to manufacture things. It’s reliable, and that means a lot, too. Reliability will generate speed. I think it’s a huge advantage, and more people need to know it’s here.”

All photgraphs © Devin Steele

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