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Polartec President Steve Layton on Lessons Learned from the Pandemic’s ‘Perfect Storm’

The past two years have seen a string of challenges for the apparel industry, as the pandemic upended supply chains and processes as usual. But a silver lining to come out of the disruption has been the inspiration for adaptation—both short and long term.

One company that has experienced this firsthand is Polartec, a Milliken & Company brand and the premium creator of innovative and sustainable textile solutions. As a now vertically integrated global manufacturer, Polartec is in a unique position to speak to the effects of Covid-19 on the global supply chain, and the brand’s creative solutions to better serve customers—including localizing manufacturing.

Sourcing Journal sat down with Polartec president Steve Layton for a Q&A on the global supply chain and the brand’s pandemic pivots.

Steve Layton president Polartec
Steve Layton, president, Polartec Courtesy

Steve, can you walk us through some of the challenges you’ve encountered through these past two years of Covid-19?

There really has been a perfect storm of issues. At the onset of Covid-19, there was, of course, a lot of uncertainty in the world. Many suppliers were forced to shut down for safety reasons, there was a global concern with cash flow, and many allowed inventory to bleed down. Once new regulations were introduced for Covid-19 safety measures, many suppliers had difficulty starting up again.

On top of that, much of the population thankfully rediscovered the outdoors, driving up the demand for product. We, of course, look at that as a silver lining, not a challenge.

All of this led to a strain on the freight industry. With increased freight as well as input costs and lead times, Covid-19 has presented a new set of challenges that we are still navigating.

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Considering this, what sort of solutions have you come up with?

Recognizing that it’s increasingly important to get products closer to home—and also now economically viable when you take duties and freight into the equation—we’ve expanded our manufacturing in each of the globe’s major trade regions.

We’ve gotten closer to our suppliers and internalized some things we used to outsource. For those inputs we haven’t internalized, we’ve partnered with vendors, locked in supply agreements and made investments to ensure sufficient inventory. And we’ve expanded our manufacturing capabilities and capacity in Asia, Central America, Europe and the United States. The expansion and increased capacity in Asia, in particular, enables us to better handle volatility.

We’ve also made a significant investment in talent to manage local relationships. We’ve added new tools and capabilities to give us better control at various stages of production, and leaned on the performance systems of Milliken, our parent company. All of these efforts allow us to continue to not only reduce our lead times and better serve our customers, but maintain Polartec’s premium quality, and most importantly continue to innovate with our IP on a truly global scale.

What are you looking forward to in the coming year?

What’s exciting is that we’ve made a hard pivot and are changing the way we do business. In a challenge to the old paradigms, we’re increasing transparency and cooperation with our customers. Additionally, as we continue to increase manufacturing capabilities and capacity in the United States, we’re able to serve almost anything competitively out of the United States. The economics make sense again now and it greatly reduces risk.

And as I touched on regarding maintaining Polartec premium quality and continued innovation, we are continuing to lead breakthrough product creation based in sustainable science. We feel like we’re entering a new era of Polartec innovation, with a number of products we’re preparing to launch in the near future.

Click here to learn more about Polartec.