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The Textile Titan: Roger Milliken
Milliken & Company
By any measure, Roger Milliken clearly has had more influence on the textile industry—both in the U.S. and worldwide—than any other individual. This is true in almost any area you examine: technology, management techniques, quality, safety, commitment to the environment, research, education and many others.
—McAllister Isaacs III, Textile World: “Leader of the Century”
If the airline industry is considered the worst industry in the world, then the textile industry is a close second. From 1997 to 2008, Plunkett Research estimated that more than 360 U.S. textile plants closed. Those statistics, along with the number of bankruptcies, are only a tip of the iceberg if we look back to 1948, when U.S. textile manufacturing jobs reached their peak.
Competition in the textile industry has been fierce in every part of the world. Over time, trade agreements, devalued currencies, and lower labor rates led to the demise of many textile companies. Former industry giants such as Burlington Industries, Guilford, Pillowtex (formerly Fieldcrest Cannon), Thomaston Mills, along with many more, have filed for bankruptcy. But even before these bankruptcies, the textile industry has been a ruthless business in which to compete and operate.
Berkshire Hathaway, the New England textile manufacturer Warren Buffett purchased, laid out the grim facts in their 1954 board minutes: “The textile industry in New England started going out of business forty years ago.” Warren Buffett smartly ditched the textile business. He transformed Berkshire Hathaway from a textile mill with grim prospects into one of the world’s largest companies, full of quality businesses.
However, much like Southwest Airlines or Nucor in their respective poor industries, one company bucked the industry trend. In the early 2000s, there were nine textile businesses in the United States with revenues over $1 billion, and only one remains. Milliken & Company, previously known as Deering Milliken Company, has been able to maintain its domination of the United States textile industry for decades, despite all of the challenges. Roger Milliken was the intelligent fanatic behind the organization. Even a decade after Milliken stepped down as chief executive officer of the company, the company’s high-performance culture continues to set the standard in the textile industry.
Roger Milliken did the opposite of what Warren Buffett executed at Berkshire Hathaway. Roger did not skim cash flow from mills into “better,” different businesses but instead reinvested cash into higher-value textile niches that reinforced Milliken’s business. Both intelligent fanatics rightfully stuck to their circle of competence and thrived.
Roger Milliken would turn his family’s textile mill into one of the best and largest. When Roger stepped down from day-to-day operations at the age of ninety, in 2005, Milliken had sixty textile manufacturing facilities scattered across the world, employed more than twelve thousand workers, produced $3.3 billion in revenues, and ranked thirty-eighth on Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. In addition, Milliken & Company is highly innovative, comparable to the fiber and material science trailblazer W. L. Gore & Associates.
Even today, years after Roger Milliken left the company, Milliken & Company continues to innovate and succeed financially. John Fly reported that the company has continued growth in revenues and profits, with zero debt, and has maintained a double-digit return on capital. Such high return on capital is a feat that any company, let alone a textile manufacturer, would enjoy having.
How did Roger Milliken create such a lasting organization? If you asked Milliken’s head of research, Chris DeSoiza, the answer is simple, “Culture is everything.”
Roger Milliken’s leadership, legacy, and story have gone unnoticed in the global business world. Entrepreneurs and investors would be wise to emulate Milliken’s ability to adapt and to cultivate win-win relationships with all stakeholders, and to mimic his “omnicuriosity.”
You can read Roger Milliken’s story in our book, Intelligent Fanatics: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants .
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