Throwaway success

 In 2015-12
WINNER: SMALL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR

For generations, textile mills dotted the Carolinas, including Charles D. Owen’s, once the world’s largest blanket factory and by far the biggest employer in North Carolina’s picturesque Swannanoa Valley. When blankets joined manufacturing’s slow march overseas, left behind was another empty, dilapidated plant in the heart of a small Southern town. Where most saw an eyesore, Jeff Slosman spied opportunity. While it’s a stretch to say he has brought manufacturing back to Swannanoa, National Wiper Alliance hired back half of the blanket factory’s remaining 54 workers and poured $5 million into renovating the nine-building campus. The company has a current workforce of 85 employees. Last year, revenue totaled $10.5 million.

This story of rebirth prompted the judges of Business North Carolina’s annual competition to recognize National Wiper as the state’s Small Business of the Year. “This is not rocket ships, there’s no glitz or glamour, but they’ve built one heck of a successful growth business,” says Scott Daugherty, director of the N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center and one of the judges in the contest sponsored by Southern Pines-based First Bank. The other judges were Oscar Wong, founder of Asheville-based Highland Brewing Co., last year’s winner, and BNC Publisher Ben Kinney.

On a rainy day at the peak of leaf season, when tourists pack the mountain towns surrounding nearby Asheville, workers in masks bundle pristine stacks of dry wipes bound for restaurants, nursing homes, even aircraft carriers, submarines and automobile plants. They may be used for wiping down a table after a fast-food lunch or the sleek body of a new airplane rolling off the assembly line. “You can be in a bagel factory in the morning,” Slosman says about places he has seen his wipes in action, “and then in the afternoon you’re watching smart bombs being made.”

Meet the new textile. Where a reusable cotton cloth used to reign, convenience has replaced it with a dry, nonwoven wipe that can be thrown away after a single use. There are so many varieties even Slosman loses count. Labs in three states test them. Wipes used in restaurants, for example, are held to such high standards, the Swannanoa plant undergoes the same inspections as a factory where cookies or cereal are produced. Military contractors who depend on wipes produced here rely that they won’t break down bonds on a C-130 airplane made in Marietta, Ga. or Meridian, Miss. Longtime customer Dallas Wiping Materials Inc. in Texas supplies wipes to some of the biggest players in defense contracting. “There are two companies that I trust, literally, with my company’s life,” says Lee Eilbott, president of Dallas Wiping, “and [National Wiper] is one of them.”

Many of the wipes being cut, perforated and packed into containers in National Wiper’s blindingly-clean, 500,000-square-foot facility are branded with familiar logos (non-disclosure agreements prevent Slosman from revealing names), but National Wiper does not make them from scratch. Rather, the company “converts” them from huge rolls of material trucked in and stacked one on top of the other like giant tubes of paper towels. The company also takes seconds that would otherwise be thrown on the scrap pile and turns them into new products.

But it’s the converting for other companies that sets National Wiper apart — it is the country’s largest dry nonwoven wipe converter offering custom, private labels. The launch of National Wiper’s own label next year could change the model. Slosman is in talks with a big-box home improvement retailer to carry the Rhino Wipe in more than 500 stores. The name is a nod to a passion of Slosman’s, who traveled in the 1990s to Africa where years of poaching have pushed the black rhinoceros to the edge of extinction. He keeps a photo from that trip in his office, tapping a finger on the rhino’s huge horn, which could now fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. Slosman can only shake his head in frustration; at the current rate, one of Africa’s signature species will be wiped out in a decade. A portion of sales from the Rhino Wipe will go to efforts to protect the animal.

Once again, Slosman saw an opportunity, a niche no one else had filled: He would make a commercial-grade wipe, 25 times stronger than a paper towel, available to the average homeowner or do-it-yourself handyman. The wipe can be used from the kitchen to the garage to wiping up spills in the car and comes in a portable tote. For the past three or four years, he developed Rhino in his spare time.

Slosman, 50, is the company’s chief cheerleader, a one-man sales force and purchasing agent. He’s the idea generator to general manager Tony Palazzo’s hands-on knowledge. Palazzo, 70, has come out of retirement twice to return to textiles. A six-month contract at National Wiper has turned into eight years. “Jeff is a very creative and knowledgeable man in his industry,” Palazzo says, citing the owner’s skill at offering to customers both new ideas and solutions to their problems. “The challenge falls on us to make that happen in a mass way.”

Slosman grew up in textiles and has watched the business change dramatically during his career. Lines that once required dozens of workers now only require a handful. Labor-intensive techniques have been replaced by technology that uses water jets to hold wipes together, the future as customers push for a product that can disintegrate in water. Groomed to take over his father’s Asheville plant, the third generation to run it, he remembers his grandmother waking him early one morning as a child for a talk. “I was the grandchild who was going to take over the family business. I figured she did that with all of the grandchildren.”

She didn’t. It’s another reason it was so difficult for him to leave the family business in 1996, at odds with the company’s culture. Slosman Corp. turned textile waste into new products and sold material to mom-and-pop fabric shops, before the rise of big-box stores. After Slosman’s 30th birthday, he told his dad that he would rather love him as a father than dislike him as a boss. “We had a different way of approaching business,” Slosman says, “and the father-son relationship was more meaningful than staying in the family business.”

He borrowed 2,000 square feet of space — an old tobacco warehouse with a hole in the roof — from a customer and got to work building National Wiper. His wife, Debra, and 85-year-old grandfather were his only employees. His grandfather worked up to his death in 2011 at 100. In the early years, Hyman Dave made lunch for the staff, worked in the warehouse, packed boxes and supervised production. But even into his late 90s, he ran errands and made trips to the post office and bank. Slosman’s mom, Ellen Knoefel, continues the family tradition — she comes in on Mondays to run payroll. Debra Slosman has her own successful business, a high-end linens shop, Porter & Prince Ltd., in Biltmore Village. She and Jeff are parents to two teenagers, son Bennett and daughter Carson, namesake for National Wiper’s popular Carson wipe.

“I was going to do what they taught you in business school,” Slosman says, “take three months off, write a business plan.” Instead, “I left on a Friday and shipped my first order on a Monday. I never took a day off.”

Eilbott of Dallas Wiping has watched National Wiper grow. “It was a big decision for him to leave his father’s company and start his own company, in some sense, competing with his father,” he says. “I’ve seen their company go from almost a garage to a beautiful facility the last time I visited and now a monstrous facility they’re managing.”

For 16 years, before it moved to Swannanoa, National Wiper worked at a building in north Asheville with a warehouse on the other side of town. In 2012, rumors were spreading that Springs Industries Inc. (now Springs Global) would close the blanket factory in Swannanoa, about 10 miles east of Asheville, which had slowly whittled its workforce and moved most blanket lines overseas. The next year was a blur as National Wiper bought the building, renovated it and retained perhaps the blanket factory’s most famous customer: the American Red Cross. Nonwovens of America, a sister company to National Wiper, was established to make the emergency blankets the Red Cross hands out to victims of hurricanes, fires and other natural disasters.

It’s a reminder of the once-grand Beacon factory, which started making blankets in the 1800s in New Bedford, Mass. Charles D. Owen, patriarch of one of textile’s oldest families (an ancestor, Dexter Owen, was the ship cook on the Mayflower), set his sights on the South, lured by low-cost water and labor. In the 1920s, Owen disassembled the New Bedford plant and shipped it, brick by brick, to North Carolina. At the time, it was the single largest rail shipment in the nation’s history.

Beacon Blanket catalogs featured a young Charles D. Owen Jr., as an apple-cheeked boy in images by a then-unknown artist named Norman Rockwell. That youngster eventually would open his own blanket factory, Charles D. Owen Manufacturing, two miles away from his father’s plant, which burned in 2003. The Owen family would produce in excess of 700 million blankets, employing 2,000 workers at its peak.

The boy in the Rockwell paintings grew into the famously feisty Charles D. Owen Jr., who opened his door once a week during lunch time to any worker in need, providing no-interest, hand-shake loans. But by the early 2000s, Charles D. Owen Manufacturing and many other U.S.-based manufacturers proved uncompetitive with lower-cost foreign rivals. Owen sold his company to Fort Mill, S.C.-based Springs Industries in 2003. In 2005, Springs was acquired by Brazil’s Coteminas, and most blanket production moved to South America. It’s unlikely that Swannanoa will ever see textile manufacturing on that scale again, but then, with several million cases of wipes leaving National Wiper every year in tractor-trailers bound for customers across the U.S. and overseas, who knows?

“These firms are the kind of firms pretty well-known to their customers,” says Daugherty of the SBTDC. “But the average folks in their community have no real idea of the kind of impact they have, regionally and internationally.”

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