Making Textiles Roll Again
With relentless process control and a Made-in-America agreement with Walmart, Renfro Corp. is rolling back the NAFTA/CAFTA textile recession that rocked Alabama.
ABOVE Renfro’s Fort Payne mill is a huge resource — 300,000 pounds of yarn a week, 24/7 — that fits the Made in the USA platform of giant Walmart.
It takes about 60 seconds to knit a sock at the Renfro Corp. hosiery mill in Fort Payne, where 642 knitting machines spin out a sock a minute, which amounts to 220,000 dozen pairs a week.
And if that doesn’t knock your socks off, how about this? If you buy your socks at Walmart, the chances are pretty good that you’re wearing Fort Payne socks.
The hard-hit Fort Payne textile industry is slowly getting back in the game. Between 1995 and 2009, the industry suffered through a historic and heartbreaking contraction that impacted countless workers and communities, including those in Alabama. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and other trade pacts allowed the U.S. to be flooded with cheap textile goods, including socks, from around the world.
In Fort Payne, once dubbed the “Sock Capital of the World,” dozens of sock manufacturers, many family-operated, went out of business. Some have been reborn by diversifying from athletic socks to boutique designs and specialty and medical socks.
But a big boost came a year ago, when Walmart announced plans to begin buying socks from Renfro Corp., based in Mount Airy, North Carolina. Renfro is a major player in the sock business, with operations in Fort Payne and Los Angeles, plus sites in Tennessee and South Carolina.
The company provides a full line of branded and private label legwear products and is the licensee for brands such as Fruit of the Loom, Dr. Scholl’s, Polo/Ralph Lauren, Chaps, Carhartt, Russell, New Balance, Keds, Sperry, Vera Bradley and Merrell. It also designs, manufactures, markets and distributes its own brands, including K. Bell, Copper Sole and Hot Sox. It also has agreements or partnerships with a number of retailers and suppliers in addition to Walmart, including Kmart, Macy’s, Costco, J.C. Penney, Sears, Target and others.
The Walmart agreement with Renfro came about four years after Walmart announced it intends to help boost job creation and U.S. manufacturing by buying an additional $250 billion in products that support American jobs over 10 years.
Renfro officials point out that the Walmart connection is an “agreement,” not a “contract.”
“It is just the way Walmart works,” says Stan Jewell, who became Renfro president nine months ago. “They don’t get into a lot of contractual supply agreements. It’s just sort of their MO, the way they work. Their market is just too dynamic for them to enter into a long contract. Things move very rapidly. You can write a contract, but to allow yourself the maneuverability to deal with the styles and prices, a better thing to do is to make sure both of our interests are aligned, both seek out an arrangement that is mutually beneficial. Then there is more certain assurance than there is in trying to lock people into things where it might turn out that it doesn’t work so well for one side or the other. So we are comfortable with the arrangement.”
Jewell says Renfro representatives meet frequently with Walmart counterparts. “We have a very broad relationship, a deep relationship, and this is just part of the relationship and making sure our interests are aligned.”
The Walmart meetings are not just about socks, Jewell says. “We have meetings with them across categories, about Made in the USA, where we meet with other people who are helping to facilitate them and helping them meet that number. So it is a well-regimented and rigorous program.
“Made in the USA is really important to Walmart, and they are very grateful to us that we provide a solution, because certainly in socks, no one else can provide this scale of program. There are certainly folks who make socks but not to this scale by any stretch.”
The “scale” to which Jewell refers is impressive.
Brian Poole, the plant manager at the Fort Payne facility, has been with the company 25 years, working his way up to head man. He estimates the plant produces around 60 to 65 styles of socks.
“We use 300,000 pounds of yarn a week,” Poole says. “The plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The socks are washed and bleached, formed into huge blocks, dried, inspected by hand and packaged, then sent to the nearby distribution center.”
That volume works well for a mega-firm like Walmart, Jewell says.
“It is a very big part of their solution,” he says. “The Made in the USA platform really works for us because we have a resource there that is really unique to us and we have found a good outlet for it. It’s a fantastic relationship.”
Jewell says it is a pretty strong commitment on the Walmart side. “There is not a whole lot of specificity on how they will do that, but it is a really strong commitment, and they have been so public about it, and I think they are tied to it.”
The Fort Payne facility is set up to do high volume, Jewell says, “and we’re making a lot of socks. There is a ton of technology and investment that we have put into that. It is not about high technology stuff. This is about supply chain efficiencies and material handling efficiency for us to be competitive. That is where we have put our resources and investment to make ourselves as efficient as possible there.”
Jewell says, “Quality is supremely important but I don’t want to give the impression that we are doing a lot of proprietary things. It is more of a highly technical handling efficiency and process control to help keep costs down and being highly competitive.”
Renfro Corp. is constantly investing in modernization and improvement and ways to improve packaging. “We are making a lot of investment in how we package the product because that is typically a high touch area.”
Jewell says the company invested $700,000 in the Fort Payne facility last year, most of it in the material handling unit after the sock is made.
Fort Payne, a city of about 14,200, has an almost equal gender split, with an unemployment rate of 4.2 percent and a Hispanic population of about 25 percent. The median age is 38.1 years, and a median household income of $36,000. With a low unemployment rate, the labor supply is tight.
“We haven’t hit any kind of crisis or anything like that yet at all,” Jewell says. “It is a pretty tight labor market, but it is a manageable labor market, and we are really proud of the people we have been able to attract, and so to this point that has not been a problem.
“We certainly have added jobs, somewhere between 50 and 100 jobs, and we have become more efficient than we had projected, too, so we had to add less per unit output than we might have thought.
“The program from its inception has steadily grown,” Jewell says, “and now employs about 450 people,” including the 50 to 100 new jobs added over the past 12 months.
Jewell also says that Walmart resets products from April to April, “so, as of now, the program is growing again and continuing to increase. So, our hope is that we will do another good job this year and it will continue to grow.”
Like most U.S. textile firms, Renfro used to have factories in several areas. And like other firms, Jewell says, “We had to diversify our supply chain so that we had products sourced from around the world, and part of that is the cost picture and part of that is the capabilities picture.
“We have a much more diverse supply chain, but we want to continue to support U.S. manufacturing for as long as we possibly can. Right now we are doing it really well.”
Bill Gerdes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.