Sunbrella’s growth sparks Glen Raven’s expansion in Warren County

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Last month, Glen Raven, one of North Carolina’s oldest textile companies, announced an $82 million expansion of its yarn plant in Warren County.

The announcement says a lot about Glen Raven, based near Burlington, which has done a remarkable job of adapting, innovating and thriving within a U.S. textile industry that has been hollowed out by foreign imports for decades.

The expansion will take place at the Norlina plant around 10 minutes from the Virginia border. It is a major employer in Warren County, which is one of the state’s poorest. The jobs will pay an average salary of $31,710. That doesn’t sound like much in Wake County, where jobs pay twice that, on average. But in Warren County, the average private sector annual salary is $30,494, the third-lowest in the state, according to the NC Commerce Department. Pamlico, on the coast, has an average of $30,448 and Swain, in the mountains, is at $29,024.

The project qualified for a $1 million One North Carolina grant from the state, payable as certain investment and hiring milestones are met. But it was the local incentive that really caught my eye. Warren County’s commissioners approved a 10-year deal that would be the equivalent of 60% of its annual property tax liability on the expansion, as it met the same kind of milestones required by the state. That could total $3.2 million. That is serious money for a county with around 20,000 residents.

Charla Duncan

“We’re excited over here,” says Charla Duncan, Warren’s community and economic development director and a county native. “It’s pretty big news for any community, but for Warren County, it’s particularly big news for us.” The county was facing competition from locations in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, she says.

“What my board of commissioners said [was]: ‘We value what we have to offer here. We see an opportunity for a company that’s realizing that we have something to offer here. And we want to make sure this expansion happens here.’”

The existing 190,000-square-foot Norlina plant has around 160 employees now. The expansion will add another 205 workers, and 315,000 square feet. Glen Raven has started ordering the specialized equipment that will go in the building, according to David Swers, president of the Custom Fabrics division, which is one of three company divisions.

Swers, who has been with Glen Raven for 32 years, says hiring for the expansion should start towards the end of 2022, with production starting in 2023.

Courtesy of Glen Raven

David Swers

The Norlina plant creates yarn for one of Glen Raven’s major products — Sunbrella fabric. It is a high-performance fabric used in awnings, indoor and outdoor furniture, and sun protection for boaters, among other products.

Bales of acrylic fiber come to Norlina, already saturated with long-lasting pigments. Once the fiber is turned into yarn, it is shipped to one of Glen Raven’s weaving facilities in the Carolinas that turns the yarn into fabric. The fabrics are engineered for specific markets and manufacturers. Upholstery fabric is going to be softer than awning fabric, for example.

Company history

The company was founded in 1880 by John Q. Gant in Alamance County, and for most of its existence, it has been run by Gants, and produced yarn and fabric for the apparel market. As recently as two decades ago, its output was heavily weighted towards that market.

But Chairman Allen Gant Jr., who retired as CEO in 2017, and other leaders could see that market going away as imports flooded into the U.S. American companies that couldn’t find the right niche would disappear, or relocate all their production overseas.

For Glen Raven, one of those niches was the Sunbrella line. The company introduced it in 1961, primarily for awnings.

A veteran textile industry executive named Allen Swers (David’s father), saw the Sunbrella awning fabric while living in Florida. Allen Swers had left his corporate job to run his own independent sales organization. He was 61 when he had a big idea in the early 1980s. “If you changed the construction, if you changed the finish, changed some things, that Glen Raven could develop a whole new business,” recalls David Swers.

His father called up Chet Gant, who was running the division, who agreed to hear his idea about Sunbrella as an outdoor furniture fabric. “An hour meeting turned into three days, and they started on a handshake the upholstery side of the business,” says David Swers. What started as outdoor casual furniture in the 1980s entered into the indoor furniture market in the early 2000s.

“Design plays a large part in a lot of our businesses,” says Swers. “People want unique looks. Probably 50% of what we produce are exclusive designs for customers. We have a large design team here in Burlington.”

Swers, who earned an MBA from Duke University in 1984, runs a division with 1,800 global employees, 1,400 in the U.S. and 680 in North Carolina. Custom Fabrics has facilities in Burlington and Burnsville, and a 1 million square foot plant in Anderson, S.C, that current Glen Raven CEO Leib Oehmig helped build in the 1990s.

Glen Raven is privately owned, so we don’t know exactly how good business is. But the company talks about record demand for Sunbrella products.

“We’ve been selling Sunbrella for indoors for 20 years, and gaining market share because there’s nice niches for Sunbrella performance fabrics where you can clean anything,” Swers says. “It’s great for your family, the kids, the dogs. “

The pandemic increased demand, as folks staying at home more started looking to upgrade their indoor and outdoor furniture. “It just got energized even more because they wanted to refresh their surroundings,” he says.

“Business has been strong,” says Swers, “and again, we built our Anderson facility and these other facilities, you know, in the ‘90s and 2000s …. a good plan for the future. But at the same time, we’ve now put in every loom, every nook and cranny has been filled.”

The Norlina expansion is part of a $250 million three-phase program to increase the company’s production capabilities by more than 30%, creating more than 400 jobs across the country.

Being privately owned, Glen Raven has had the ability to both take the longer view and also to move quickly.

“I worked for two large Fortune 500 companies before I joined Glen Raven,” Swers says, “and the decision processes were always not only extended, but everything was based on how Wall Street was going to react to it.” Glen Raven is able to look beyond the next quarter, and see what works and what doesn’t. “Private companies can do things that are difficult for public companies to do.”

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