A 65-year-old family sock business has battled to survive. Now, the Parkers could be positioned to win in the end.
by Jess McCuan
There’s little glamour in making socks. For the most part, the socks made in Amy Parker’s plant, Parker Hosiery in Old Fort, North Carolina, look similar to the ones her grandfather E.W. made when he started the plant in 1946. He manufactured only men’s crew socks. They came in white, navy, brown or black. Yes, the machinery is different now. And yes, there are many more styles and colors to choose from, as evidenced by the bright green, pink and striped plush footwear that hangs in the factory’s showrooms. But to stroll through a huge room humming with knitting machines and grab a still-warm, slightly rumpled cotton sock from the pile must feel much the same to Amy and Jeff Parker today as it did to their grandfather more than 60 years ago.
The socks may look similar, but the world outside the mill has been turned on its head. In the 1970s, before automation swept through so many American manufacturing businesses, the Parker Hosiery plant had 300 employees. Now, it has 30. Ironically, though the company lost employees last year, 2010 was one of its most profitable in recent memory, says Amy Parker. Now, she and her brother Jeff, who co-own the business, are faced with the same questions that dog anyone who runs a manufacturing operation in America: How much of the business to outsource? How to drum up new business? Which moves are temporary cost-cutting, and which will help the company survive in the long run?
In 2000, manufacturing jobs were the number one employer in the Asheville metro area, says Ben Teague, a senior vice president of economic development at the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. Healthcare, that year, came in fifth. By 2010, according to Teague’s figures, the two sectors had switched spots on the list. Healthcare was the largest employer, and manufacturing was fifth. That shift basically mirrored what was happening in the rest of the country, as more and more American manufacturers in the past decade have cut labor costs by moving jobs overseas. In countries like China, wages are simply so much lower that it doesn’t make financial sense to keep the jobs—especially low-skill jobs—here in the U.S. “It’s not just a letting of jobs,” says Teague of the local trend. “It’s a distillation. The low-skill positions are best-suited for overseas [companies], and the pieces that are left are high-quality and high skill.” That means jobs making mass-produced textiles and furniture move elsewhere. What remains in WNC are companies that make, for example, aerospace and electronic equipment, or solar panels.
Unfortunately, making socks isn’t terribly complex. E.W. Parker was a knitting machine mechanic who worked in a textile mill in High Point, North Carolina, about three hours north and east of Asheville. At some point in the 1940s, he decided to branch out on his own and bought several pantyhose machines that he later converted to sock makers. He landed an account with Kmart when it was still called the S.S. Kresge Company, and away he went. In old photos that hang in Amy Parker’s office, older ladies who worked for E.W. are seated at a row of sewing machines stitching up the toes of socks.
When E.W.’s son, also named E.W., (people call him Eddie), took over the business, he saw large-scale automation as the way of the future. In the 1980s, E.W. III bought rooms full of what was then sophisticated sock-making equipment, and by the end of that decade, the number of Parker Hosiery employees had been cut in half. Amy Parker, who’s 42, spent her high school summers at the plant. She still remembers women working at sewing machines, though by the time she joined the company in 1990, they were gone.
There’s not a crook or cranny of the 100,000-square-foot Parker Hosiery plant that Amy Parker doesn’t know well. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a business degree and spent months working in every single department. (Though she only lasted about a week in the dye house, she says, after she got tired of washing dye out of her hair.) She knows how to bag socks from the knitting room, board them after they’re dyed, and package them up for shipping.
At some point, she found herself working alongside Lois Barlowe, the plant’s oldest employee, who has been boarding socks—shaping and drying them—for more than 50 years. Barlowe uses a tall machine equipped with foot forms that rotate into a heating chamber. In the mid-90s, when Jeff Parker, an aerospace engineer, joined the company, he designed a prototype for a machine that would handle the entire boarding process robotically. He intended for the machine to be called “The Lois.” But after the Parkers stopped producing huge quantities of socks, they no longer needed to automate that area of the plant. And besides, Amy says, Barlowe is the plant’s fastest production worker. In a move that flies in the face of automation, the Parkers sold the patent for the boarding machine to an Italian company, who renamed it Robo-Sox. They kept Barlowe. Amy puffs up with pride when she says, “Those machines aren’t out there anymore, but Lois still is.”
The mill kept cranking out socks. But in the bigger picture, the Parkers knew they needed to go after higher-end brands to be distinctive. They dropped the Kmart account 12 years ago and became the private label, the in-house sock brand, for companies like Eddie Bauer, Brooks Brothers and The Gap. “The Gap takes up 50 percent of my day,” says Parker, noting that that company accounts for about 40 percent of her revenue.
In the past decade or so, as textile manufacturing has heated up in countries like China, the Parkers have gotten beat on price. At first, around 2000, they dabbled in Chinese imports as a way to supplement the business. Once they got into that game, they realized just how much cheaper the imports were. Sadly, it was simply vastly cheaper to outsource sock-making to an Asian factory, then repackage them at Parker Hosiery and send them to The Gap.
About five years ago, she says, they shut down much of their production equipment and started importing the majority of the socks they sell to big clients. Today, though they do still manufacture socks, one factory floor is so empty that Jeff built an indoor batting cage for his son to practice in.
The employees who stayed on knew just what a dire situation the Parkers were in. And many were ready to change. “They came to me and said, ‘Rather than be inflexible, I want to retrain and keep my job,’” Amy says. Production people became graphic designers. Line workers learned how to do payroll. “Every single person has learned a new task or skill.”
In the recession, Amy Parker’s overarching strategy was: “Keep the accounts you have.” But in the past six months or so, things seem to be looking up. In 2008, Jeff and Amy formed a new company, Parker Legwear, that basically deals in imports and generates the majority of the Parkers’ current revenue. Because they’ve kept production costs so low, last year they were able to acquire a small New York City company, Platinum Hosiery, which employed salesperson Don Dieringer. He’s helped them land new accounts with chains like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls.
The Parkers are also going green. Last year they agreed to be the exclusive licensed seller of rugged, outdoorsy Sierra Club socks, often made of recycled fibers. Granted, some of those socks are made in China and some at the Old Fort plant. But the Parkers see that step—toward greener, higher-quality products—as one that will help them land even more new business.
The Parker factory may never return to its 1970s heyday, with floors full of whirring machines and three shifts of employees working around the clock. But the Parker family, unlike so many manufacturers—textile companies in particular—have stayed in business. They’ve kept their building and many longtime employees, and they seem to have what any entrepreneur would want: a loyal, adaptable workforce that thinks creatively when the market changes.
In the meantime, the Parkers haven’t given up on the idea of making more socks at their own mill. The global manufacturing scene is changing rapidly, especially in China. Right now, the Parkers can be competitive with Korean manufacturing prices, and Amy believes that could soon be true of China. “We’re keeping the machinery so we can react quickly to these volatile times,” she says. “In China, workers are rioting. I do believe it’s going to be just as easy for us to manufacture here soon. We’re not going to throw in the towel.”