Standard Textile Expands, Modernizing South Carolina’s Textile Manufacturing

Often, in telling the story of manufacturing in South Carolina, it’s a story of the demise of textile manufacturing and the struggle to replace it as an economic driver. But in 2004, Cincinnati-based Standard Textile reversed that story a bit when they opened a textile finishing plant in Union, and this year that plant is undergoing its second expansion, nearly doubling its workforce.

Standard Textile started out in 1940 as a small linen distributor, operating out of the apartment of founder Charles Heiman’s family. Heiman’s son Paul took the company in a new direction, moving from distribution to the manufacture of textiles, and under third-generation CEO Gary Heiman’s leadership, the company has acquired more than 70 patents on innovative textile manufacturing technologies.

Today the company, with its numerous domestic and international plants, makes textiles that are used in healthcare and hospitality settings—everything from sheets and towels to drapes and upholstery to medical apparel—“anything you might find in a hospital or hotel room that’s made of fabric other than the carpet and wall coverings,” according to the company’s director of marketing and communications, Judy Sroufe.

Although the company does have several plants in international settings, they have always maintained a strong U.S. manufacturing presence, including the Union plant. To remain competitive in a global market, there is a strong focus on “smart manufacturing.”

“We’re not a traditional textile mill like people remember from the old days,” says Union plant manager Russ Ogle. “We use a lot of the same automated technology that other industries in our area use. We focus on automations, investing in the latest innovations and technology. That allows us to keep U.S.-made textiles competitive.”

The first expansion was announced in 2013 and the current one followed closely on its heels—it was announced last year and will be fully operational by the fourth quarter of this year, Ogle says. Both the current expansion and the previous one are to accommodate the processing of terrycloth fabric for towels, which had previously been done in a facility in China.

When the Union facility opened, its primary function was the processing of sheets, and that function continues. The plant receives bolts of gray sheeting from the Thomaston, Georgia plant, which is bleached and processed in Union before being sent to a different plant to be sewn into sheets and pillowcases for hospitals and hotels.

Unlike the sheets that are sent elsewhere to be finished, the terrycloth is cut and sewn into towels in Union, and one of the innovations developed by the Union facility is what Ogle calls “room-ready” products. There is a high degree of sanitation and hygiene on the plant floor when handling the towels, and this allows them to be packaged and sent to hospitals and hotels ready for use, which eliminates the need for the customers to use a lot of water and chemicals before the first use.

The patented innovations in processing have to do with durability and longevity—not only are those sheets and towels laundered more often than household linens, but the laundering is harsher than your home washing machine, so durable fabric is vitally important to institutional customers.

Innovation at the plant level is part of the larger corporate strategy to meet and even anticipate customers’ needs, and Ogle says giving individual associates a certain degree of autonomy helps to drive that. “We don’t have a lot of managers,” he says. “We try to train associates to be enabled to lead our efforts. The more engaged they are, and we are together, the better off we all are. We have a sharp, intelligent group of associates. They’re our backbone.”

The challenge, says Ogle, is to find and recruit the right people for the open positions. While they have worked some with Advanced Technology Center to meet training and recruiting needs, Ogle says he would like to grow that relationship. Before the second expansion, he brought in representatives from Spartanburg Community College and Ready SC and gave them a tour, talking about the plant’s needs and seeking input from them on training. Those kinds of partnerships will be crucial going forward as Standard Textile continues to grow, but also for other technologically advanced manufacturing in the area.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.