Once upon a time, Kansas City and many of its surrounding communities were home to a thriving textile industry where companies made coats, jeans and a variety of other clothes and textile-related products. Now, just as the rest of the United States has seen, the textile industry in our area has become nonexistent as products from countries with cheap labor have allowed consumers to purchase these same items at a less expensive price than what they paid 30 years ago—sometimes without even adjusting for inflation.
While it seems that when you look at a tag in a recently purchase article of clothing you only see the name of countries such as China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, you may be surprised that to know that some products are actually still made in the United States. More surprising is that one company, my family’s textile company, Fabri-Quilt, has actually managed to navigate through the United States textile’s industry most challenging period in its history. Along with a little luck, diversification and openness to change in the way we conducted our business played the biggest roles in our survival.
Fabri-Quilt began operating in 1962, selling quilted fabric to cut-and-sew factories manufacturing outerwear in the Midwest. Like many textile mills in the United States, we loved to have the long consistent production runs, or the easy business that did not require a lot of maneuvering. However, unlike most U.S. textile mills, when the business environment changed, instead of telling our customers that we could not adapt to the smaller production runs, we found a way to make it work. Apparel textiles in the United States went from being a commodity industry to a niche industry, and we were able to find our niche, a niche built on a customer-first philosophy. Maybe that did not always benefit our business in the short term, but it paid long-term dividends by allowing many of our customers some breathing room to survive. Better that our customer, albeit on a smaller scale, was still around as opposed to going out of business.
Likewise, while the apparel textile industry was changing, we were spending time developing other textile-related manufacturing businesses. Diversifying seemed to be the best way for expanding our business in a contracting industry. While our core quilting business declined by over 50 percent from the highs we saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fabri-Quilt was able to offset the subsequent revenue loss by investing in new products like bedspreads and draperies for the hospitality industry.
We started taking orders from hotels for bedspreads around 2001 without really knowing exactly what we were doing. We only knew that we would be learning gradually and on the fly. By taking bits of information from others in the hospitality industry and capitalizing on our internal knowledge on manufacturing and customer service, we were able to create a brand new business that now accounts for 25 percent of our overall revenues as a company. And, unlike other parts of our business, where future growth is not a possibility, and our competition would be with low-priced imports, we are now in an almost import-proof business where timing and custom-built products are a necessity, and the opportunity of growth a reality. We are back in control of our own destiny. The most important lesson we have learned over the last 50 years is that a square peg will never fit in a round hole. Even if you are the best square-peg manufacturer in the world, if the world is no longer square, you better find a way to make your product round.
In making many of these decisions, it is always helpful to have a support group to use as sound board. I was fortunate enough to use some of the local business resources at hand here in Kansas City, most notably the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, of which I have been a member since 2003. When you are at your place of business and focused on the day-to-day issues, it is difficult to see your own business from a higher level to see the big picture. Being around other business owners who are willing to listen and ask questions about your own business can force you to look at things you could never see.