BIZ - Concerns With Tariffs

PHOTO: Local industry faces challenge. The Richloom Fabrics Group Bailey Plant in Clinton is a mainstay of the local economic scene. The plant has seen recent modifications and additional services offered to customers through the Clinton facility, but Richloom faces a company-wide economic challenge as the United States and China debate tariffs. - File photo

Richloom: “bringing the world in” to learn what fabric means to Clinton’s economy.



At the Richloom Fabrics Group Bailey Plant in Clinton, technicians can apply labels to fabrics. There is one label, though, of which they are most proud:

“Made in the USA.”

Richloom is an American company. It does some business with China. In Clinton, it has brought in some corporate functions once performed in New York City. That move has solidified the Bailey Plant as a strong player in the Richloom family. It is a position that local plant officials want to keep, and enhance.

One way to do that is to advise the United States Trade Representative and the current administration that American jobs will be in peril if some Section 301 Tariffs are imposed on various fabric products.

Michael Saivetz, Chief Operating Officer, Richloom Fabrics Group, Inc., summed up the situation this way in testimony before Congress:

“Lastly, the tariffs on fabric products will not serve the broader purpose of protecting U.S. technology or innovation. Fabric production is not an industrial priority for China, nor is it an industry where U.S. intellectual property is at risk. Richloom’s intellectual property is in its fabric design, which is done in the U.S. by skilled, American employees.

“In closing, Section 301 duties should not be imposed on Richloom’s fabric imports at any level. The proposed duties will directly impact both U.S. manufacturers and the Americans that buy their products.”

The current COO’s grandfather founded the Richloom company 61 years ago.

In Clinton, its operation is starting to look less and less like “a mill” and more and more like an international business center. At the core of this transition are Sean Prouty, vice president - operations, and Jamie Cutter, director of operations.

They have begun to forge alliances with the leaders of Clinton and representatives of Congressman Jeff Duncan’s office. “We are proud of what we are doing,” Prouty said. 

Saivetz told the USTR basically the same thing. “Our staff in New York, Indiana and North and South Carolina work closely with customers to create attractive products that reliably meet their manufacturing needs. Those U.S. jobs depend on our extensive international and domestic supply chain. Our domestic production accounts for in excess of 25% of our total business which would be at risk. ...

“Our fabrics are produced around the world.”

Richloom partners with furniture manufacturers in North Carolina and Mississippi. It partners with recreational vehicle producers in Elkhart, Indiana. Its clients are producers of outdoor furniture and accessories, companies that produce finished good for the hotel and hospitality industries, and producers of made-in-the-USA products for American consumers. Saivetz said, “We also supply large fabric retailers who service the American home sewer such as Jo Ann Stores and Hobby Lobby.”

Resurgence in recreational vehicles - fueled by American industries - is very important to Richloom.

As Saivetz explains, “For example, for the booming RV industry, we produce millions of yards of polyurethane fabric. Polyurethanes offer unique properties such as strength, durability, stain resistance and breathability which are perfect for RV furniture. With the resurgence of the American RV industry, this product now makes up 10% of Richloom’s sales. China is the primary source for this product and we could not easily or quickly shift to alternative sources. Similarly, wide width blackout fabric that is used to produce roller shades and draperies for the hotel and hospitality industry is largely sources from China - mills in other locations cannot produce the wide widths required. In contrast, other products, like outdoor fabric, which makes up 20% of our business, we never source from China.”

“Some recent developments could compromise our facility,” Prouty said during a June 28 tour at the Clinton plant, echoing COO Saivetz’s advice to the USTR.

“We want to bring the world in. Our employee-base is right here, and we proudly contribute to the community.”

Parts of the Bailey plant that were dingy store rooms are now fully-functioning spaces for sewing, custom work, sales and even high-fashion photography. Prouty said he is obsessed with “sight lines” within the massive plant to enhance safety. “It’s more fluid,” he explained.

Yet, he gives the credit to Cutter for a transformational outlook on what a former textile mill can become in the 21st Century. “Customer service matters,” Prouty says. “We are building a team here.”

They listened to employees - and transformed the break room. Listening again, they realized there needs to be another break room on the other side of the plant. With that transformation comes healthier snacking options. Listening to truck drivers, they know the traffic signage needs to change. 

Cutter said they needed an area for client meetings but also for Lunch-and-Learn programs. That space is in development. Neutral paint on the walls, built-in workspaces, small-group meeting tables, and hook-ups for large-screen TVs - all part of a transformational process.

Supplies were scattered all over the plant - now they are consolidated. “So we know what we have,” Prouty said.

There is an area dedicated to the “.com business” - “10 years ago, it was nothing,” Prouty said.

“We can ship to customers’ home. To the store, the work room or to the home, we can complete the transaction,” he said. “You find the fabric you like. You find the chair style you like. Two weeks later, it’s in your house.”

Customer orders of this type, he said, are up 7 1/2% in a very short time.

While the Bailey Plant is on its way to becoming “a fulfillment center,” Prouty and Cutter agree it’s always going to be a people business. In the sampling room, actual people (not robots) can handle more than 10,000 assortments of fabric. And what’s important here actually is “the hand of the product”. 

Prouty says, in the trade, that’s what it’s known as -- applied to a human hand, the rough and soft, coarse and silky, “itchy” and luxurious feel of fabric. It comes to Clinton from all over the world.



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