Springs Industries, Inc. History

205 North White Street
Fort Mill, South Carolina 29716

Telephone: (803) 547-1500
Fax: (803) 547-3805

Public Company
Incorporated: 1887 as Fort Mill Manufacturing Company
Employees: 20,000
Sales: $2.24 billion
Stock Exchanges: New York
SICs: 2211 Broadwoven Fabric Mills--Cotton; 2221 Broadwoven Fabric Mills--Manmade

Company Perspectives:

"Springs people and the products and services they provide will represent the standard by which all others are measured. In partnership with our customers, suppliers and associates, we will continually investigate and define requirements to assure our products and services always provide total customer satisfaction. The road to continuous improvement is paved with seven values known as the 'The Springs of Achievement': Quality, Service, Creativity, Education, Personal and Family Well-Being, Respect for History, and Planning for the Future."

Company History:

Springs Industries, Inc. is one of the world's largest producers of home furnishings and specialty fabrics. It has 39 manufacturing facilities in ten states, and a minority interest in a joint venture in Japan. Of the U.S. plants, 24 are in South Carolina. Springs' major brand names include Springmaid, Wamsutta, Dundee, Wabasso, Bali, Graber, Ultrasuede, and Ultraleather.

Company Origins

The company started in April 1887, when a group of 14 men and two women organized Fort Mill Manufacturing Company to produce cotton cloth. At that time, the Northeast and Midwest were booming, and cotton manufacturing was seen as a way to industrialize and revive the depressed South. Samuel Elliott White, a local planter and Civil War veteran, was elected the company's first president. Among the investors was Leroy Springs, a merchant who would become White's son-in-law and a key force in the company's development. The company produced its first yard of cotton cloth in February 1888. Its first annual report, in May 1888, stated that the plant had 200 looms and was producing 8,000 yards of cloth daily.

In 1892 many of the same investors started a second plant in Fort Mill. In 1895 Leroy Springs and others established another company, Lancaster Cotton Mills, of Lancaster, South Carolina. Toward the end of the century, with the Lancaster mills flourishing, Springs acquired control of the Fort Mill plants, which were experiencing difficulties, and other troubled cotton mills in Chester, South Carolina. The Lancaster operation expanded in 1901 and again in 1913 and 1914, when it was said to be the largest cotton mill in the world under one roof. In 1914 Leroy Springs led the establishment of Kershaw Cotton Mills in Kershaw, South Carolina.

Leroy's son, Elliott White Springs, joined the company in 1919 after distinguished service as an aviator in World War I. According to the younger Springs's biographer, Burke Davis, Leroy Springs ordered Elliott to learn the business without pay. It took Elliott Springs a while to settle into the business; several times he quit and came back. In these early years, Elliott Springs was more interested in both writing--his best-known work is War Birds, Diary of an Unknown Aviator--and social life than in textile manufacturing.

Leroy Springs seemed to lose interest in the business himself during the 1920s. He ran up debt and let the equipment run down; he also speculated in the stock market. In 1928 a disgruntled cotton buyer shot Leroy Springs in the head on a street in Charlotte, North Carolina. Springs recovered physically, but became emotionally withdrawn. Shortly before Leroy Springs's death in 1931, Elliott Springs took over management of the company.

At this time, the family's textile operations consisted of six plants with 5,000 employees. Elliott Springs--until then considered a playboy and a dilettante--led a dramatic revitalization of the business, which was suffering from the Great Depression as well as from Leroy Springs's neglect. He negotiated with creditors to save the mills from foreclosure, went without salary for a period, and bought used but useful machinery at bargain prices to upgrade operations. In the fall of 1933, he bought a former J.P. Stevens plant in Chester, South Carolina. Also in 1933, Springs consolidated the various mill properties into a single company, Springs Cotton Mills.

In 1934 the United Textile Workers of America attempted to organize workers at the Springs mills. Elliott Springs allowed the union to address the workers at a company-owned baseball field in Chester. After the organizers had spoken, Springs mounted the platform and told the workers that if they went on strike, he would close the plants and take his family to Europe. The workers later voted unanimously against union representation.

During the 1930s the Springs facilities had been expanded and modernized, despite the Depression. With the arrival of World War II, Elliott Springs turned over the company's entire production capacity to the military. Early in 1942 the company began manufacturing fabrics for a variety of military uses, including uniforms, tents, gas masks, and gun covers. All the Springs plants won awards from the U.S. Army and Navy for superior production.

The mills ran overtime, sometimes seven days a week, to keep up with wartime production. Elliott Springs feared this schedule would wear out the mills' machinery, so he instructed one of his plant managers to buy and store every replacement part available--an effort that paid off when the mills resumed normal operations in 1945. At the close of the war, Springs began construction of a bleaching plant and moved the company into the production of finished fabrics and consumer products, such as sheets and pillowcases. Also in 1945, the company established Springs Mills, Inc. in New York as the sales organization for its products.

The company's launch of the Springmaid brand of sheets and apparel fabrics in the late 1940s included a popular advertising campaign designed by Elliott Springs himself. Early ads included drawings of sexy, half-dressed young women and double-entendre copy. The best-remembered ad featured an American Indian brave lying exhausted in a hammock made of a sheet, with an Indian woman apparently rising from the same hammock. The caption read "A buck well spent on a Springmaid sheet." Some called the ads tasteless, but the campaign did focus attention on the Springmaid brand.

Springs at Mid-Century

Elliott Springs remained president of the company until his death in 1959. During his tenure, the assets of Springs Cotton Mills had grown to $138.5 million from $13 million. Sales had increased more than 19-fold, to $163 million, and the work force had nearly tripled, to 13,000. The company was the seventh-largest in the U.S. textile industry, but was the most profitable. H. William Close, Elliott Springs's son-in-law, succeeded him as president. Close expanded and modernized many Springs facilities and built a new headquarters for the sales organization in New York in 1962. In 1965 the company inaugurated carpet production with a plant in York, South Carolina.

In 1966 the sales group merged with the manufacturing company, with the resulting entity named Springs Mills, Inc. The same year, the merged company went public, selling 675,000 shares at $17 each. Late that year, Springs Mills shares were listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

In 1967 Springs considered a merger with another textile firm, Collins & Aikman Corporation, but abandoned the plan because of what the companies termed "operational difficulties." In 1968 Springs formed a new division to make and market knit fabrics; indeed, the 1960s and 1970s were a time of much diversification in Springs product lines. The company made a major conversion to production of cotton-synthetic blended fabrics, which had begun to outstrip cotton in popularity--in 1969, two major facilities were converted to blend production.

Springs hired its first nonfamily president, Peter G. Scotese, in 1969, with Close moving into the newly created post of chairman, which he held until he died in 1983. Scotese had been a vice-president of Federated Department Stores and, before that, a vice-president of another textile company, Indian Head, Inc. During Scotese's tenure, Springs expanded via numerous acquisitions, including, early in 1970, the finished-goods division of Indian Head.

Late in 1970 the Justice Department sued Springs and four other textile makers, charging that the manufacturers conspired with wholesalers and retailers to stabilize the prices of their prime lines of sheets and pillowcases, in violation of antitrust laws. Springs agreed to a consent decree in which the company agreed not to engage in such practices, without admitting that it ever had. Fifteen years later, the Justice Department agreed to terminate the decree, citing a 1977 Supreme Court ruling that price-fixing is illegal only when intended to curb competition and legal in other circumstances.

In 1972 Springs became a partner in a joint venture to start a textile plant in Indonesia, P.T. Daralon Manufacturing Co. Early in 1973 it entered the frozen foods business, acquiring Seabrook Foods Inc. of Great Neck, New York, for about $34.5 million. In 1974 Springs sold its three terry-cloth production plants to J.P. Stevens Inc. and discontinued operation of its carpet division at York, which had been unprofitable since its inception in 1965. Springs sold the facility to Cannon Mills Company in 1975. The Indonesian plant went into operation in 1975, but failed to generate enough revenue to maintain working capital; the unit's creditors had to defer interest and other payments. The following year, Springs sold its interest in the venture. Springs continued updating and modernizing its plants closer to home in the late 1970s, but also got out of another unprofitable business by closing the knit division in 1978. In 1979 Springs acquired Lawtex Industries, a maker of textile home furnishing products, for $15.4 million plus the assumption of $13.5 million in liabilities, and Graber Industries, Inc., a manufacturer of blinds, shades, and other window decorating products, for $38.5 million.

The 1980s: Diversification

Walter Y. Elisha succeeded Peter Scotese as president of Springs in 1981; like Scotese, Elisha came from the retail sector. After Close's death in 1983, Elisha became chairman of the company. In 1981 and 1982, Springs closed several Seabrook units and sold others. Also in 1982, the company adopted its present name, Springs Industries, Inc.

Springs made a major acquisition in 1985--M. Lowenstein Corporation, a New York textile maker that, like Springs, had been in business since the 19th century. The acquisition brought Springs the Wamsutta brand of household goods and an entry into the premium-priced bedding market and the industrial fabrics business through Lowenstein's Clark-Schwebel unit. The cost of the acquisition was about $265 million.

During the late 1980s Springs intensified its diversification away from the apparel-fabrics business, where foreign competition was strong, and instead refocused on industrial fabrics and home furnishings, purchasing the fiberglass-weaving and finishing operations of United Merchants & Manufacturers Inc. for about $60 million in 1988, and Carey-McFall Corporation, a maker of window shades and blinds, for about $35 million in 1989. Springs's finished nonindustrial fabrics business declined to 26 percent from 52 percent of total sales from 1980 to 1990; of these sales about half were to U.S. apparel manufacturers.

The 1990s: Acquisitions, Market Growth, Plant Closures

By 1990, company officials said they would continue to serve domestic apparel markets that provided adequate returns, but predicted that growth would come from the industrial fabrics and home furnishings businesses. In 1990 provisions for restructuring of operations--such as converting or closing finished fabrics plants--resulted in Springs reporting its first loss, 39¢ per share, in its 25 years as a public company. Springs officials noted, however, that earnings before restructuring charges were $2.07 per share, reflecting strength in certain areas of the business.

In 1991 Springs acquired the C.S. Brooks' Nashville plant, followed in 1992 by the acquisition of Finlayson Enterprises Ltd. along with two Canadian firms: C.S. Brooks Canada, Inc. and Griffiths-Kerr, which resulted in a new subsidiary called Springs Canada. As company officials had projected, by 1993 Springs derived 65 percent of its revenues from home furnishings sales, due in part to its acquisitions the previous year and to the growing North American market. A strong supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Springs forecasted substantial long-term growth opportunities from the markets in Mexico and Canada. To promote the passage of NAFTA, the company ran a grass-roots campaign throughout 1993 in which 50,000 personal letters were written and innumerable phone calls were made to Congress. The formation of Springs Canada proved beneficial, expanding the company's North American market and making Springs one of the leading suppliers of sheets and pillowcases in Canada.

Through the mid-1990s Springs continued with its long-term marketing strategy of acquisitions and consolidations. In 1993 Clark-Schwebel contributed its European operations plus $8 million for an equity position in C.S.-Interglass A.G.; in 1994 the Clark-Schwebel Distribution was sold. In 1995 Springs acquired Dundee Mills (towels), Dawson Home Fashions (shower curtains), and Nanik (window coverings), combining Dundee & Dawson into a Bath Fashions Group division, while adding Nanik to its Window Fashions business. Moreover, Springs introduced a new line of Wamsutta towels to coordinate with products, such as rugs, ceramics and shower curtains, provided by the Bath Fashions Group. The Intek office panel business was sold by Springs in 1995, which was a record year for the company's net sales: over $2.26 billion.

1996 was marked both by the expansion of plants and the layoff of employees. As the high quality of technology for spinning and weaving steadily improved, the number of employees, the amount of space, and even the quantity of equipment needed for these tasks decreased. In order to reduce Springs' long-term debt and also to provide capital for acquisitions, the fiberglass division--Clark-Schwebel, Inc.--was sold for $193 million. Several older manufacturing plants were closed as well in 1996, their productivity taken over by the high-tech plants and by outsourcing.

Despite the closings and layoffs necessary in consolidating operations, Springs remained committed to its employees and to the communities in which they lived. Espousing seven values (quality, service, creativity, education, personal and family well-being, respect for history, and planning for the future), the company supported several plant and community improvement projects. Springs employees, known as associates at the company, were also encouraged to organize company and community activities that would further the seven core values. The company was named by Fortune magazine one of the "100 Best Companies to Work for in America" and one of the "Most Admired Companies in the United States."

In January 1997, Crandall Close Bowles was elected president and chief operating officer of Springs by the board of directors. Walter Y. Elisha continued as chairman and CEO. The great-great granddaughter of the company's founder, Captain Samuel Elliott White, Crandall Bowles had worked in Springs' finance department from 1973 to 1978, then joined her family's investment firm for 14 years, serving as president the last nine years there. In 1992 Bowles returned to Springs, first as vice-president of textile manufacturing, then as president of the Bath Group.

Although net sales did not manage to significantly top those of the previous year, the close of 1996 and early 1997 showed Springs to be well positioned in its industry, well-focused and intent on its market, with a strong capacity for continued growth.

Principal Subsidiaries: Graber Industries, Inc.; Carey-McFall Corp.; Dundee Acquisition Corp.; Fort Mill A, Inc.; Lancaster International Sales; Springmaid International, Inc.; Springs Canada, Inc. (Ontario); Springs de Mexico, S.A. de C.(Mexico); Springs Industries (Asia) Inc.

Principal Divisions:Bath Fashions Group.

Further Reading:

  • Andrews, Mildred Gwin, The Men and the Mills, Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987.
  • Davis, Burke, War Bird: The Life and Times of Elliott White Spring, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
  • Pettus, Louise, The Springs Story, Our First Hundred Years, Fort Mill, S.C.: Springs Industries, 1987.
  • Elisha, Walter Y., Standing on the Shoulders of Visionaries: The Story of Springs Industries, Inc., Newcomen Publication Number 1403, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • "Springs to Shut Down 3 South Carolina Sites," The Wall Street Journal, July 1, 1996 p. B7F.
  • "Springs Agrees to Acquire Dundee," New York Times, January 14, 1995 p. A41.
  • "Springs to Sell Intek Assets," Business Journal Serving Charlotte & the Metropolitan Area, October 30, 1995 p. 21.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 19. St. James Press, 1998.