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It’s wrong to say not much has changed at the century-old Valdese Weavers, but walk the same narrow aisles between roaring machines manned by craftsmen who nimbly pluck state-of-the-art controls or the single broken thread among thousands, and it would be easy to be fooled.

A drive into the eponymous town off Interstate 40, about an hour northwest of Charlotte, is to roll back in time. The Old Colony Players re-enact the story of the Waldensians who settled here for tourists who fill an amphitheater on weekends each summer. Waldensian Presbyterian Church members sing hymns in French every February and August, a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Valdese Weavers itself has withstood textile’s steady march overseas, standing as the only mill of its kind in North America.

Even as the company celebrated its centennial last year, CEO Michael Shelton was negotiating perhaps the biggest change in its history: the handoff from the Shuford family, which owned the plant for 80 of those 100 years, to its 950 employees. In May, Valdese Weavers became one of the largest employee-owned companies in the state, and in June, Shelton and other company leaders held meetings with workers to explain what a 100% employee stock-ownership plan means. In a nutshell: The next century is up to them.

A.A. Shuford, a Civil War veteran who walked from the battlefield back to his hometown in nearby Hickory, founded Shuford Mills in 1880, along with other businesses including Hickory’s First National Bank and its first telephone company. Shuford Mills’ main product was string before Americans used tape to hold their packages tight. When 3M Corp.’s Scotch tape took off after World War II, the Shufords opened a small pilot plant to make masking tape that has grown into Shurtape Technologies, still based in Hickory. They acquired the Duck tape brand in 2009. Still making furniture there, too, is Century Furniture, a company Harley Shuford, a grandson of A.A. Shuford, started in 1947. It was Harley Shuford who bought the Swiss Embroidery Co. out of bankruptcy in 1935 and renamed it Valdese.

Today, Shelton says Valdese is the largest provider of decorative fabric for the home,  specializing in what’s known as jacquard, the textured coverings seen on sofas in the most recent Pottery Barn catalog or covering your office lobby chair. What you won’t see is the Valdese name — the company is a wholesaler to furniture makers who then sell their chairs and sofas to stores and designers. Shelton declined to provide revenue or production figures, but Fabric & Furnishings International reports that the company has annual sales of about $150 million.

Valdese is Burke County’s sixth-largest employer and growing. It is investing $31 million to upgrade its facilities, which take up four buildings totaling just shy of 1 million square feet where workers produce almost every part of the fabric from its design to the 15,000 different colors of yarn they dye. Spools of virgin yarn stretch far and wide, but it’s the often unseen work of design that sets Valdese apart. The company once known for its “country” motif now gathers artwork from around the world to incorporate into its 200,000 active patterns. Designers typically produce 2,000 new patterns every year, often developing an exclusive pattern for a single customer who may visit the town of Valdese, population 4,500, to spend time in the company’s sleek design offices.

“We made this decision 25 years ago to move to a mass-customization platform,” Shelton says.

A full-time archivist tracks Valdese’s massive library of patterns. Chief Creative Officer Laura Levinson recruits the East Coast’s top design students, sometimes a tough sell to young workers who grew up far from the North Carolina foothills but want a unique opportunity to see their creations being made on a large scale. “It’s like a candy store for designers,” she says.

For the 100th anniversary, Valdese re-created 100 of its most popular fabrics, unveiling half last summer, two months before a picnic for 2,000 in Valdese, and the remainder in December, the same month it held a finale party in High Point. Valdese also held a golf tournament and a party in New York to celebrate its centennial. Only Shelton knew that Valdese would soon mark another milestone: the decision to sell the remainder of the company to its employees. In 1996, the Shuford family sold a minority interest in parent company CV Industries to fewer than 500 of its employees. Now, all full-time employees will own shares. For the first time in 80 years, a Shuford family member will not be among them. Snyder Garrison, a grandson of Harley Shuford and great-great-grandson of A.A. Shuford, is retiring as chief financial officer.

Valdese has returned to its workers, many of them descendants of settlers who arrived in Burke County in the late 1800s to establish what would become North America’s largest Waldensian settlement. They left Europe because their small strip of land in the Alps was overcrowded — their forefathers had been pushed there by kings and popes who felt their beliefs were heretical. Last year, Pope Francis apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s religious persecution of the Waldensians. He called them the “first evangelicals,” Christians who adopted the tenets of the Reformation hundreds of years before Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door.

Not long after the Waldensians settled in North Carolina, they formed the Waldensian Hosiery Mill in 1901, Valdese Manufacturing Co. in 1913 and Swiss Embroidery Co. in 1915.

“It’s still an art in many ways,” says Blake Millinor, Valdese’s chief sales and marketing officer. “We’ve got the latest technology and machines and equipment, but it doesn’t in any way minimize the skill of our employees. It’s not something you can walk in and learn. It takes years and years to do what they do.”


Sharing the wealth

An estimated 130 companies across North Carolina are employee-owned, from glass and stone provider Salem Distributing Co. in Winston-Salem to Greensboro-based Kindermusik International, which teaches music to children. An employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP, works like this: A company holds assets in a trust, in accounts earmarked for employees. On average, the trusts are granted 30% to 50% ownership, but in the case of a 100% ESOP like Valdese, the plan owns all shares. At Valdese, big decisions will still be overseen by a board of directors. Generally, all full-time employees participate in the plan with allocations made on the basis of relative pay or some other formula. Employees cash in their shares as they retire. There are about 6,300 ESOPs in the U.S., employing about 14 million workers.

Image courtesy of Provided by Valdese Weavers
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