Roger Milliken, one of the most legendary figures in the U.S. textileindustry, was remembered for both his financial success as well as hisquixotic political battles against low-cost imports.
Milliken,who had long suffered from multiple illnesses, including chronicleukemia, died Thursday at a hospice in Spartanburg, S.C., at the age of95.
An enigmatic billionaire and chairman of Milliken &Co., Milliken wielded political influence and power in the nation’scapital for more than 50 years, endorsing and funding conservativepolitical candidates and shaping the debate over the domesticconsequences of globalization and free trade. He had in recent yearsretired as chief executive officer of the company, but remained involvedas chairman until his death.
While Milliken was tight-lippedabout his company, considered to be the largest privately held textileand chemical manufacturer in the U.S., one subject he was always readyto discuss was the impact of globalization. For decades, his was one ofthe most strident voices in the domestic textile industry’s battleagainst low-cost foreign imports and its affect on American jobs andcompetitiveness. Yet his company also operated mills in the Far East andEurope, which it said served only those markets.
“He was agreat industrialist,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of theAmerican Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, a lobbying and tradeassociation in Washington which Milliken chaired. “He took a relativelysmall company and made it into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate duringhis tenure. He was a visionary who predicted many things, such as thecontraction of the manufacturing base and the loss of criticalmiddle-class jobs that we have unfortunately seen come to fruitionbecause of failed trade policy.”
In 2000, Milliken & Co. wasbelieved to have annual revenues of about $4 billion, which would havemade it far and away the largest textile company in the U.S. Manywondered whether the enormous Spartanburg-based mill was profitable at atime when most top American textile concerns appeared to be drowning inred ink, cutting jobs and struggling to find a way to turn a profit.But Milliken, then chairman and ceo, wasn’t talking.
In 1983,having seen the problems that could befall family-run businesses whenthe patriarch-executive died without leaving a good succession program,Milliken named longtime company official Thomas J. Malone as presidentand heir apparent.
While Milliken, grandson of company founderSeth Milliken, had initially forbidden his five children to join thefamily business, during the late Eighties and early Nineties disputesamong company stockholders, and efforts by some family members to selltheir shares to outside investors, convinced him of the wisdom ofkeeping the family more involved. He began holding regular family forumswhere his children were briefed on the business by Malone andencouraged some of his grandchildren to join the company.
Today,ownership of the company largely remains within the family, andnonfamily executives are not allowed to own Milliken stock.
Roger Milliken was born in New York on Oct. 24, 1915, to Gerrish andAgnes Milliken. He joined the company —then known as Deering, Milliken— after graduating from Yale University in 1937. He took over as ceo atage 31 in 1947 after the death of his father.
As Milliken sawthe rise of imports in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in 1984 hehelped to found the Crafted with Pride in the U.S.A. Council, a groupthat promoted domestically made goods. Milliken was also a primaryfinancial supporter of the group.
Milliken found an unlikelyally in Washington in his fight to preserve American jobs and productionin then-South Carolina Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a Democrat, whowaged many trade battles by his side.
“Of course, he was Mr.Republican of South Carolina and I’m a Democrat,” Hollings told WWD inan interview Friday. “He and I became close friends in trying to passtrade bills and getting presidents to enforce trade laws. He knew how toget the Republican vote [in Congress].”
Hollings calledMilliken “the best head of industry I ever met.
“He knew thatthe country depended on manufacturing as a job multiplier and engine ofgrowth,” said Hollings.
In the early Nineties, Milliken was astaunch opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and threwhis backing behind H. Ross Perot’s unsuccessful 1992 bid for thepresidency because of the candidate’s opposition to that tradeagreement.
At that point, Milliken’s views started to differfrom those of others in the U.S. textile industry. While executives likeGuilford Mills Inc. chairman Charles Hayes decided to back NAFTA,Milliken began to see the government as having abandoned the U.S.textile industry and said it was time to fight.
“We are taking a beating,” Milliken said of the textile industry in arare 1992 interview with WWD. “If our country continues to follow apath of exporting jobs to the lowest-wage countries in the world, thiswill get worse.”
Milliken also opposed the U.S.’ extension ofNormal Trade Relations status to China, which cleared the way for itseventual entrance into the World Trade Organization. In 1999, hedeclared he was “outraged, totally outraged” by that news.
In2000, Milliken split with the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.The organization expelled the man it had honored 14 years earlier withits Samuel Slater Award because Milliken & Co. had withheld its duesfor several months. A lobbyist for the textile magnate at the time saidMilliken’s dispute was not with the organization’s board, but that hebelieved the ATMI staff was not adequately supporting the board’spositions in Washington.
A few months later, the ATMI announced asubstantial round of downsizing as a result of its lower dues base andsmaller budget.
The textile titan’s exit from the ATMI by nomeans marked his departure from the political scene. In May 2002, hejoined forces with Union of Needletrades, Industrial & TextileEmployees president Bruce Raynor and Cranston Print Works Co. chairmanand ceo George Shuster to form a new textile lobbying group, theAmerican Textile Trade Action Committee. Their intent to be moreaggressive than the ATMI was made clear by the group’s acronym: ATTAC.
The alliance was also a case of tough times making for strangebedfellows. While Raynor started his career fighting arduous campaignsto unionize Southern textile mills, Milliken had strongly opposed tradeunions for most of his career, particularly during the Sixties andSeventies.
“America is being hollowed out of its manufacturingjobs, and that’s a disaster for the future, for our children and for ourgrandchildren,” Milliken said the day in May 2002 that ATTAC membersassembled on the steps of the Capitol Building to unveil the kickoff oftheir lobbying campaign. (ATTAC was later succeeded by AMTAC.)
In his later years, Milliken became increasingly insistent on going hisown way politically. While ATTAC’s purported mission was to radicallychange the parameters of the trade debate in Washington, Milliken attimes seemed to have lost hope that the industry would ever change itsreliance on imports.
At the time of the group’s launch, Millikendeclined repeated interview requests from WWD to explain his hopes forthe group, saying, “I don’t think there is a possibility of influencingyour readership of importers and retailers.”
Milliken spentalmost a half century on the board of department store Mercantile StoresInc. In 1998, he tendered his 40 percent stake in that concern toDillard’s Inc. as part of its acquisition of the chain.
To thosewho knew him well, Milliken also stood out for his relentless workethic.
“He stayed loyal to his beliefs and right up to the endhe worked,” said Hollings.
Jock Nash, a textile industryadvocate and retired Washington counsel and voice for Milliken foralmost 25 years, said the textile mogul had three rules for the “keys tosuccess: He always did his homework, he was always on time and he neverbluffed.”
“I think he always believed that while a lot ofissues are finally settled somewhere between the extremes, there has gotto be someone that puts the hard line out there and is able to defendit,” Nash said Friday.
According to company officials, Millikenwanted his epitaph to read simply “Builder.”
Milliken waspredeceased by his wife of 55 years, Justine “Nita” Van RensselaerHooper, He is survived by a brother, Gerrish, and a sister, Anne; twodaughters, Nancy Milliken and Justine V.R. Milliken Russell; three sons,Roger, David and Weston, and nine grandchildren.
A memorialservice is scheduled for today at 2 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of theAdvent in Spartanburg.
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