On a recent morning outside Valdese Weavers’ facilities in the foothills of Western North Carolina, throngs of employees braved the cold, huddling around tables stacked with American Giant hoodies. American Giant—which recently tapped Valdese Weavers to produce flannel fabric for its shirts—brought the hoodies to Valdese as a thank-you to the company’s employees for their partnership.
The event is emblematic of the culture of Valdese Weavers, a century-plus-years-old textile mill that became an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) company five years ago. But that company culture transcends far beyond how it treats its employees—the partnership with American Giant illustrates how Valdese is willing to evolve and take risks to grow the business rather than resting on its reputation as one of the nation’s oldest jacquard upholstery producers.
And those two values—employee appreciation and openness to change—have guided Valdese Weavers as the company has grown and innovated, even in the midst of a pandemic.
In March 2020, the company’s future seemed less certain, though. As the Covid-19 pandemic ramped up, Valdese Weavers halted production, unsure when it would return.
“We certainly experienced the same thing that everyone else has experienced,” said Blake Millinor, Valdese Weavers CEO. “I think the team did a really good job early on, getting the procedures put into place to keep everybody safe. When it first happened, we were just as scared as everyone else. We shut the mill down for two or three weeks, and that was a scary time for everyone.”
Once the mill re-opened, the company wasn’t sure how it would rebound from not only its own closure, but the closure of furniture factories around the world that use its fabrics.
“Like everybody else, we slammed on the brakes when everything got bad,” Millinor said. “When it was time to crank everything back up, there were maybe a few weeks that were fits and starts getting things going.”
Then the home goods rush of late spring 2020 hit. Suddenly, Valdese Weavers was inundated with an overwhelming number of orders.
“There was about a month or two, where the lead times went out,” Millinor said. “We reconfigured some weaving machines, and once we got those changes made, we were very close to normal.”
And while the residential business soared during that time, hospitality tanked as hotels and restaurants remained closed or significantly impacted because of the pandemic. Millinor said that actually helped the mill better manage its orders.
“A part of our business is contract fabrics, and that business did not come back as quickly,” he said. “So we were able to flex over and focus on residential upholstery for the most part.”
The company was also fortunate enough to have the funds to build its inventory in a time when many were tightening the purse strings and taking a more conservative approach.
“I think as a country, we now know how fragile the supply chain can be,” Millinor said. “But we had the relationships in place and we had capital to invest in inventory. We invested in a lot of yarn inventory we wouldn’t normally have.”
As a vertical facility with the ability to produce and dye its own yarns in addition to weaving them into fabric, Valdese Weavers was better positioned to respond to the unprecedented demand created by the pandemic. But Valdese does source some fabrics and yarns from overseas, and the manufacturer has felt the impact of supply chain disruptions.
“As far as our imported fabrics—which we import from several different countries—we had the headaches,” Millinor said. “The freight costs went through the roof, and they’re still extremely high.”
Supply chain issues and material shortages have impacted the company indirectly, as well.
“What the furniture manufacturers have had to deal with with the foam shortage was pretty tough, and that really capped their ability to consume fabric,” Millinor said. “So it really wasn’t a matter of how fast we could make the fabric—it was how fast can they make the furniture?”
The supply chain hasn’t been the only challenge in the wake of the pandemic. Like so many other companies, Valdese Weavers has experienced labor shortages.
“As proud as I am about how we went through the pandemic and our supply chain better than most, the labor situation has been tough,” Millinor said. “But I think it’s made us be a better employer.”
As an ESOP company, Valdese Weavers has for years now had a company culture designed around its employees. In addition to employee events to boost morale, the company has focused on other aspects like the facility itself—which is in the process of remodeling—and benefits like an on-site medical clinic to make getting care easier for employees.
“Certainly, it’s about how much we’re paying, what the wages are, but what we’re paying a lot more attention to is just the entire quality of life,” Millinor said. “So what are the working conditions like? What do the break rooms look like? What do the bathrooms look like? And just making sure that from benefits to compensation, that it’s a great place to work.”
Millinor said another challenge is fighting the misperception of what working in a textile mill actually means today.
“We’re going to have the latest state-of-the-art technology in our manufacturing areas and we’re keeping the facilities up,” he said. “We try to really work against that stigma that textile factories have from the ‘70s. Because it’s hard to have a young person coming out of high school, to convince them that this can be a great place to work, and it can be a place to have a career.”
Part of that, too, is showing the company’s dedication to innovation and sustainability. Earlier this year, Valdese Weavers partnered with Seaqual Initiative, a group that collects marine plastic waste and upcycles it into other products.
For Valdese, Seaqual melts the plastic and forms chips, which are then converted to yarn. Valdese Weavers purchases that yarn and incorporates it into its fabrics, including the InsideOut performance line.
“You get the same characteristics and benefits of InsideOut, but now with a story that really helps make the world a better place and clean[s] up one of the main issues we’re all facing—trash and plastic that has nowhere to go,” said Patrick Shelton, vice president of sales, Valdese Weavers. “We understand the recycled bottle aspect of it, but we think this is going to be the next level.”
In the past year, Valdese Weavers has experienced significant change, both in operations and leadership with Millinor promoted to CEO after his predecessor retired. Several other new employees have joined the executive leadership team, as well. Those changes along with launching new product lines and coming through the pandemic have created an energy at the company that has many optimistic for what’s next.
“We have a whole new generation of leadership, so it’s really exciting,” said Jill Harrill, engagement manager for Valdese Weavers. “It feels like a little bit of a breath of fresh air and we’re all a little bit rejuvenated. I think that’s a mix, too, of coming off a tough year, and everybody’s personally and professionally like, ‘Okay, we’re all back in the game.’ We’ve got good, exciting things going on.”