The pandemic underscored the importance of maintaining strong business relationships.
by Janet Preus
The plenary luncheon session at IFAI Expo’s Advanced Textiles Conference brought together a panel of speakers united in a single message about the importance of collaboration in advancing textile manufacturing. Rhode Island’s textile industry provided the success story example.
Michael Woody, CEO, Trans-Tex LLC, Cranston, R.I., moderated the panel and noted components necessary in this effort. Textile companies had been hesitant for fear of “tipping their hand” to a competitor. “But that wasn’t working,” he said. Breaking down the “silos” and getting people to cooperate was an important step, and close geographic proximity in Rhode Island helped in this regard. Government and political support are also critical, he says, as well as the involvement of colleges and universities.
Clare King, president of Propel LLC, Pawtucket, R.I., says, “The textile industry [in Rhode Island] was exhausted.” The Rhode Island Textile Innovation Network (RITEN) helped to rejuvenate the industry there and was so successful that it’s received attention across the country.
Mary Johnson, 401 Tech Bridge manager, says one initiative by this economic development organization based in Portsmouth, R.I., addressed the state textile industry’s aging workforce by identifying those close to retirement so a company could prepare in advance. It also helped companies hire replacement staff and connect with younger workers. “There’s a generation that doesn’t know about manufacturing,” she says. “So, there was an effort to show where the opportunities are.”
The theme of working together surfaced in multiple sessions. Dealing with the fallout from the pandemic forced many companies to pivot to a new product line virtually overnight. This prompted many companies to reach out to each other for everything from materials, to equipment and patterning, to good advice. The responses were heartening, at a time when businesses needed some good news.
Three industry professionals addressed the “lessons learned” in their presentation on “Pivoting and production change management in the face of COVID.” Trevor Stevenson, Eastman Machine Co. vice president, says his company helped by providing machinery to companies who needed to pivot and make something else, and often that was PPE.
Rian True, president of Carolina CoverTech, chose to focus on leadership issues that helped his company pivot. The immediate question everyone faced was “are we essential?” His company decided to take the approach that “we are essential, and we’re going to proceed until we can’t.” They soon found themselves making gowns for a local hospital. However, True says they also learned, “You gotta take care of your existing customers.”
He believes leadership requires surrendering the outcome. “Once you make a decision, you need to accept the result,” he says. He also advises businesses to “do uncomfortable work.”
Skip Gehring, president/CEO, Gehring – Tricot Corp., says his company created a task force to determine what products in their line were essential, and they put non-essential ones “on the back burner.” They also decided which employees were necessary for in-person work and those who could work remotely. They also examined what the communities needed, including first responders and schools, and then provided donations. The company operated at 70 percent, but still didn’t have to lay anybody off, Gehring says.
True’s company is leaning on its domestic suppliers more than ever, he says, and Gehring expects supply chain issues to continue for at least another two years. To prepare to be more independent in the future, Gehring says it’s important to diversify and upgrade equipment to eliminate supply chain issues, “because we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
He also advises, for companies that are currently financially strong, to “get a line of credit lined up at a bank now, so you’re ready.”