A high-tech renaissance for textiles

Somehow the textile industry always seems like an illustration of concepts taught in Economics 101: competition, productivity, comparative advantage, protectionism vs. free trade.

That's certainly been the situation in Georgia's $9 billion textile industry.

Textiles, of course, were one of the first industries to be mechanized in 18 th-century England; textiles tend to be one of the first industries that developing countries get into.

And textiles are a classic case of a ''mature industry'' which some people feel developed countries should abandon to their newly industrializing brethren.

Textiles remain Georgia's largest manufacturing industry, despite structural decline. Most, but not all, are finally feeling the economic upturn; some are doing quite well in a business not known for huge profit margins.

Some 100,000 people work in textile production in Georgia. Some 70 corporations make up the state's industry, operating at last count 166 mills scattered about the many small and larger towns across the state, many in brick buildings going back almost to the Civil War, surrounded by neat rows of company-built houses. They crank out acres of bedsheets, toweling, denim, and apparel fabrics. These are generally privately held businesses, often family-owned. Call their offices and ask for Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones or whomever, and the operator is likely to ask, ''Do you mean Mr. Jones, junior, or the third?''

But for all their 19th-century tradition, the name of the game for these mills is computerized technology. ''Every time we get an extra dollar, we spend it on something new for the plant,'' says Morris Bryan Jr., president of Jefferson Mills in Jefferson, Ga.

Most of the state's textile mills underwent a major retooling after World War II, and there have been further spurts of machinery replacement ever since. Technology has changed so fast that some machines are replaced even before they are fully depreciated.

One Atlanta banker who is enthusiastic about textiles as an example of industrial renaissance through high technology says, ''They're doing pretty well. They've been through the pain of the '50s and '60s, when there was such a sharp migration of the industry overseas, and they have a new infrastructure in place,'' including numerically controlled machinery. Thus, he suggests, textiles have made the adjustment that some of America's smokestack industries have not.

Nonetheless, textiles have been hurt, particularly during the past recession. ''Several hundred plants have folded across the US,'' says George Hightower, president and chief executive officer of the Thomaston Mills in Thomaston, Ga. The Peach State has had its share of losses, including some ''fairly modern'' plants.

The mills all want new equipment - Mr. Hightower waxes momentarily lyrical over his ''lovely new finishing ranges'' - but tight cash flow, especially over the last couple of years, has made it hard to proceed with the modernization necessary for long-term viability.

''It's a tough business,'' he continues. The US market is saturated, the strength of the dollar makes US exports often prohibitively expensive, ''and we're committed as a nation to helping the developing countries,'' that is, by allowing imports from these nations. ''Last year $1 billion worth of textiles came in from China. Now that about equals the output of a WestPoint Pepperell,'' the No. 3 domestic textile producer.

The recent US agreement with China is a particular sore spot for Georgia textile executives, such as Mr. Bryan of Jefferson Mills. He complains that the United States has just ''given away the kitchen.'' John Newton, president of Dundee Mills in Griffin, Ga., argues that the accord gives China an increasing share of the static US market.

Georgia textiles' survival strategy turns not only on new equipment, but on a concentration on upscale market segments. Georgia State University economist Donald Ratajczak suggests that broadcloth cotton mills, which now employ some 30 ,000 across the state, may fold up altogether by 1990.

While conceding that the state's yardage will shrink over the years ahead, Mr. Hightower of Thomaston maintains that ''there will always be a textile market for those who can provide quality, service, and style.'' Domestic textile producers are closer to US fashion centers, and that gives them an edge over foreign competition.

''They aren't going to close Stevens, Burlington, or WestPoint. The rest of us have got to work.''

''There is no question technology will eliminate jobs - but only a modest number of them,'' says Howard Wells, chief financial officer of the Bibb Company in Macon. A Georgia Power Company state economic forecast, taking a less extreme view than Dr. Ratajczak, estimates textile employment to recede 1 percent or less annually in the years ahead. This is a smaller decrease than is expected for the nation as a whole.

Georgia's textile firms devote more attention nowadays to good labor relations - which they all claim to have and which they all define in terms of lack of unionization.

At its best, new technology can be a help to the workers, allowing them to monitor their own productivity as well as give management more up-to-the-minute information.

And textile executives are working to keep the communication channels open. ''We'll have a meal with a group of 15 people chosen at random out in the mills, '' reports Bob Koon, president of Swift Textiles in Columbus. ''We tell them what's going on, but what's more important, we let them talk.''

Asked which Georgia textile companies are progressive and well managed and which ones aren't, analysts are likely to reply that any of them still in business in 1983 are almost by definition well managed.

''It's a textbook case,'' says Goldman, Sachs analyst Jay Meltzer in New York. ''You have to do things right or you fall by the wayside.''

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