by Jeri Rowe
Located just minutes off Interstate 40 in Burlington, where traffic is a distant roar, TS Designs makes a good T-shirt. But not just any kind of T-shirt, and it’s not just any kind of company. A tipoff starts in the parking lot with the sound of a rooster crowing. Fourteen chickens and one lone rooster strut and peck in a fenced pen behind the biodiesel shack. Rows of corn stand stalk-straight above a garden of tomatoes, okra and eggplant. Beside the plants is an arbor of scuppernong grapes shadowed by a solar panel, and above it is a toothpick of a wind turbine framed by clouds and an arena of trees. The sign outside reads, “Printing T-shirts For Good.”
Integrating social values as a key business principle, symbolized by the poultry, vegetables and solar-power device just outside the factory door, is defining more companies, including the 38-year-old T-shirt company that reinvented itself in an industry ravaged by overseas competition. TS Designs survived the manufacturing collapse in North Carolina to become an example of how sustainable business practices along with American labor, cotton and know-how can lead to success. It’s led by an unabashed advocate of respecting the environment and supporting community, a company president who comes to work in shorts, a T-shirt and two bracelets made out of climbing rope.
“To me, happiness is derived from helping the community where you live,’’ says Eric Henry, who has helped run the business for 36 years. “If only a few are doing well, you can’t build walls high enough. Life still would pretty much suck. And why would anyone want to work around unemployed, unhappy people? This (outlook) makes my community a better place to be.’’
Henry grew up in Burlington, the youngest son of a transportation manager for a textile company. He went to N.C. State University and UNC Chapel Hill before leaving 18 hours shy of graduation in 1979 to help Tom Sineath run TS Designs. Started two years earlier, the company was prospering with about 100 employees cranking out as many as 30,000 T-shirts per order. Eight big customers, including Nike and Tommy Hilfiger, comprised 95% of sales.
In 1993, Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known by its acronym, NAFTA, in hopes of boosting jobs while creating closer economic ties among the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Since taking effect in January 1994, NAFTA’s overall impact on economic growth remains a source of much debate. But there’s no doubt of its devastating impact on North Carolina’s textile and apparel industries. During a 20-year period ending in 2014, North Carolina lost 44% of its manufacturing employment base, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of jobs lost totaled 359,794, including 80 at TS Designs.
The company’s big customers switched to overseas producers, leaving Shannon Clark, Lydia Paylor, Betsy Penley and other employees to worry about their future when the humming machines stopped. Natives of Alamance County, home to most of TS Designs’ staff, they viewed their colleagues as family. Paylor arrived in 1989. When the layoffs began, she was a single mother with two young daughters.
One thought constantly ran through her mind: “How much longer will I have a job?’’ Henry couldn’t provide an answer. He lost sleep and relied on his wife, Lisa, a preschool teacher, to keep him anchored as he told co-workers, one by one, that their jobs had disappeared. “That,’’ he says, “tears your heart out.’’
For 18 months after NAFTA’s unveiling, Henry and Sineath didn’t take a paycheck, and over several years, each invested $250,000 to rebuild the company. They also sought advice from Henry’s friend, Sam Moore, a former vice president of research and development at Greensboro-based Burlington Chemical Co. Long before sustainability became cool, Moore emphasized biodegradable products and more energy-efficient manufacturing, and he introduced Henry to a business model focused equally on people, the planet and profits.
Later, Moore told them about Rehance, an environmentally friendly process that substitutes harmful chemicals used to dye fabric with a water-based ink. The ink becomes part of the shirt, and it doesn’t crack, peel or fade over time. It also gave the company a chance to use as many colors as found in any paint store, including nearly 50 different shades of blue.
The process was more expensive; TS Designs is no longer a low-cost producer. But it stabilized the company, diversified revenues, kept people in jobs and gave TS Designs a marketable niche of consumers willing to spend a couple more bucks on a shirt. Today, TS Designs has 350 customers who order 200 to 13,000 T-shirts at a time, and no single customer represents more than 7% of its business. They spring from what’s green and entrepreneurial in America, including farms and grocery-store co-ops, university clubs and eco-tourism companies, nonprofit advocacy groups and craft breweries, outdoor retailers and customers asking for T-shirt slogans such as, “Hippies Use Side Door.’’ The latter shirt hangs in an office near the company’s lobby.
Rehance has given the company a sense of mission, explaining why Clark, Paylor and others stuck it out. But it wasn’t just about the ink. “I believed in Eric and Tom,’’ says Penley, a 21-year employee who is the shipping manager. “They hadn’t done anything wrong. It’s not their fault NAFTA came, and I remember when I saw Eric on the floor, I told him, ‘I trust you, Eric.’’’
TS Designs now has 24 employees, after hiring four in the last 18 months. Since 2009, the number of T-shirts printed has increased nearly 40% annually. Sineath retired in September, while Henry is 58.
“I went to Elon, and that is a traditional business school where all of us learned that the purpose of business is to maximize profits,’’ says Eric Michel, vice president of operations. “But here at TS Designs, I learned business can do other things, and at the end of the day, what’s good for business is to keep people employed.”
Among the company’s eight T-shirt options, TS Designs has had three in-house brands since 2009. Cloud Organic uses organic cotton yarn from Pakistan. Cotton of the Carolinas relies on one North Carolina farmer, Ronnie Burleson in Stanly County, for its raw product, and American Soil Organic is made with cotton from Texas and New Mexico.
In 2009, TS Designs started with 7,500 pounds of cotton a year from Burleson’s farm. Now, TS uses 90,000 pounds a year. The labor that turns Burleson’s cotton into a T-shirt is within a day’s drive from the Burlington plant where Henry prints and sells them. The company’s production chain impacts 700 jobs in North Carolina and nationwide. TS Designs uses a catchy phrase — “from dirt to shirt” — for the network.
There’s plenty of high-tech savvy involved. Buyers of Cotton of the Carolinas or American Soil Organic T-shirts can track online the path from farmer to finisher, spinner to printer. The allure of this transparency has paid off. In the first three quarters of this year, 83% of the company’s T-shirt sales involved the three in-house brands, compared with 51% six years ago.
TS Designs’ made-in-America mindset has attracted attention from places far from its 4-acre site near I-40. Henry often speaks at national sustainable business conferences and has appeared on CNN and ABC’s Nightline, where his job title was described as “ethical T-shirt producer.” His parking lot provides speech fodder. The solar panel offsets 10% of the company’s energy needs, and dozens of people, including Henry and his wife, fill up their modified gas tanks from the pump, which is part of Pittsboro-based Piedmont Biofuels’ network. The chickens provide eggs for employees, and the garden gives them a place to plant, weed and cultivate on company time so they have something healthy to eat.
In the company’s lobby, in big black letters, is a motto Henry likes to use on every company tour: Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. “You know, it’s all about what people care about,’’ says Clark, the plant manager and TS employee for 20 years. “I’m a Mark Twain fan, and he once said, ‘Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied in prayer,’ and when it comes to helping one another, if we don’t, this will be a pretty (expletive) place.’’
Jeri Rowe works as the senior writer for High Point University.