By John McCurry
Glen Raven has been a stalwart of U.S. textile manufacturing since it was founded in the 1880s. It has evolved through the decades to stay ahead of the ever-changing industry. The privately-held North Carolina-headquartered company is owned by the Gant family. One of the biggest recent changes is at the top, where, for the first time, someone outside the family is CEO.
Leib Oehmig, who joined the company in 1989, succeeded Allen Gant last October, following a four-year transition period. Oehmig is a native of Anderson, where the company operates its largest manufacturing facility. His first big project with Glen Raven was working with the team that conceptualized and oversaw construction of the Anderson plant, which began in 1994. He was associated with the operation until 2004.
Oehmig has a strong textile industry heritage. His dad spent 30 years in the industry before moving into real estate sales and development. When another large textile manufacturer recruited Oehmig, his dad offered advice that he says has served him well during his career.
“He simply said, ‘Before you commit to this opportunity, please make an inquiry to Glen Raven,’” Oehmig recalls. “He said Glen Raven is a company with incredible integrity, a high level of commitment to its employees, and they have something really special in their Sunbrella brand of fabrics.”
His recent promotion notwithstanding, Oehmig says the 15 years he spent working in Anderson remains the highlight of his career. He says Anderson employees were incredibly generous and patient in providing him with industry knowledge.
“Having spent more than half my life with Glen Raven, these associates remain very much like family to me,” Oehmig notes. “Regardless of the title given to my position within Glen Raven, it only defines what I do and not who I am. Therefore, many of our associates still see me as the young man walking in the door in 1989 and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I hope to make them proud.”
The new Glen Raven CEO grew up in a family of Clemson fans. So, it’s not surprising his parents were a little taken aback when he announced he would be attending the University of South Carolina. But after two years, they convinced him to switch schools.
“I had a wonderful experience at USC, but after two years, my parents came to me with a “return to Clemson” package that included moving from a dorm at USC to a condo in Clemson. Along with other benefits they offered, it was compelling. Therefore, I transferred to Clemson to finish my undergraduate degree in business, and then completed Clemson’s MBA program.”
Oehmig says the company’s overall business is good, and it continues to grow. Glen Raven now considers itself a marketing company with textile manufacturing assets. The largest of those assets is the Anderson facility, which has been Glen Raven’s flagship plant since it opened in the mid 1990s. With nearly 1 million square feet of manufacturing space, it is the company’s primary producer of Sunbrella fabrics, its best-known consumer brand. Approximately 750 people work there.
Globally, Glen Raven has 40 locations in 17 countries on six continents. Operating three divisions—Custom Fabrics, Technical Fabrics, and a distribution operation called Trivantage—the company sells products into more than 100 countries. Anderson is the major manufacturing engine for Custom Fabrics.
The current Anderson plant was built to replace an antiquated, multi-level building acquired from now-defunct WestPoint Pepperell. With business requiring more capacity, management opted to build a modern plant from scratch.
“The plant was built to manufacture performance fabrics, and especially what we do,” Oehmig says. “It is also the model we use whether we are up-fitting existing facilities or building plants around the world.”
Anderson is a vertical plant, with processes starting with opening and moving on through twisting, warping, slashing, weaving, and finishing. A logistics center sends products to a network of distribution sites.
Sunbrella, introduced in 1961, is now the company’s best-known consumer brand. In the early years, markets were primarily shade and marine applications. Convertible tops for automobiles were added later, and now Glen Raven is the largest producer.
“In the 1990s, we had the idea to expand to outdoor furniture, and that has been a tremendous growth engine for us,” Oehmig says. “We’ve had to adapt, too, going from making plain weave fabrics to some of the most highly decorative fabrics you will see.”
As a private company, Glen Raven says very little about its processes or machinery. Anderson’s huge weaving room is filled with Dornier weaving machines, many of which are equipped with jacquard heads to produce decorative fabrics. Glen Raven has made significant investments in the plant, and introduced new technologies and processes and improved workflow.
Glen Raven management became environmentally conscious long before it was trendy to do so. Everything is recycled, with nothing sent to landfills. That’s true throughout the company. In Anderson, this includes all fiber, yarn, and fabric waste. The company even composts the food scraps from its canteens.
“To be cash-flow positive with our landfill-free efforts, you must reduce, re-use, and repurpose,” says Randy Blackston, vice president of operations at the Anderson plant. “After that is complete, you need to look for value in your waste stream. A great example: we were putting all plastics in a generic plastic bin. Through research, we learned our fiber bale wrap is high-density polyethylene. We increased the selling price of that product by 25 cents per pound by separating that product from generic plastics.”
Blackston says that, overall, Anderson has reduced its water consumption by 50 percent and its energy usage by 20 percent. Finding alternative sources of energy is also a company pursuit. A solar farm, the largest in Upstate South Carolina owned by a privately held company, was turned on in 2017. It produces enough power to run the Anderson plant’s lights, which is no small feat.
The textile industry, like other manufacturing sectors, is dealing with a tough labor climate. Although this isn’t your grandfather’s, or even your father’s, textile industry, companies find it tough to find and keep qualified workers.
“If you are in industry in this country today, you had better make a compelling case for this current generation,” Oehmig asserts. “Getting capable and invested employees is always a challenge. Many baby boomers are retiring and manufacturers are finding it challenging to recruit young people who want to build a career in manufacturing. Glen Raven is working to create apprenticeship programs that go all the way back to middle school, and we try to bring students along and show them how the industry has changed.”
To illustrate how the industry has advanced, Oehmig notes that Glen Raven has working relationships with several Silicon Valley tech firms for R&D projects. This effort to explain today’s high-tech industry to young people is part of the National Council of Textile Organization’s “We Make Amazing” campaign.
There is a good chance that Glen Raven’s Anderson campus will get a lot bigger in the future. There is space to grow, and Oehmig says the company is planning how the next stage will develop.
“We are committed to this community, and will continue to make investments here,” he says. “If we bring the Gant family a compelling business case, they will fund projects without question.”