NEW YORK — Charles A. "Chuck" Hayes, the passionate and volatile chairman of Guilford Mills Inc. — who had been one of the textile industry’s most strident voices in Washington in recent years — died Sunday morning at the Myrtle Beach, S.C., condominium he bought last week in preparation for his coming retirement. He was 68.

The cause of death could not be learned by press time.

"We spoke on Thursday and he was in the car heading to Myrtle Beach," said John Emrich, president and chief executive officer of Greensboro, N.C.-based Guilford. "After working all these years, he was looking forward to another stage."

Hayes first publicly floated his plans to retire in March. The morning before his company filed for Chapter 11, he told WWD that he expected to retire soon — largely because he suspected that he wouldn’t retain the chairmanship of the company after it emerged from its then-impending bankruptcy.

"I’m a tough old son of a bitch and I’m not going to play second fiddle to any bank," he said.

Guilford filed its reorganization plan this month and said it expects to emerge from court protection by the end of September.

Emrich said it is not clear if the company will name an interim chairman. That’s because he expects the composition of the board to change significantly after the company’s senior lenders receive a 90 percent ownership stake in the company, according to the plan.

"The new board, which is not in place yet, would obviously elect a new chairman," Emrich said. "There probably will not be a long interim between now and then, and I am checking with our legal counsel as to whether we will even need an interim chairman."

Hayes’ climb to the top of Guilford started early, and his career there spanned more than half a century. At the age of 16, Hayes decided to leave high school and his job at his family’s Gloversville, N.Y. dairy farm to start work at a local knitting mill.

That was in 1950. Just 12 years later, at the age of 28, Hayes was named president of Guilford Mills Inc. after just a year with the company. In another five years, he was named chairman, a post he was to hold for 35 years.Hayes was one of the first top executives in the U.S. textile industry to realize that Mexico was destined to play an important role in the apparel trade. In 1986, his Greensboro, N.C.-based company made its first investments south of the border.

"Without a doubt, from the textile side he was really leading the pack" in pushing into Mexico, said Alfred Greenblatt, president of the New York-based converter AGX, who worked for Hayes from 1981 to 1996.

During the NAFTA negotiations, Hayes formed a friendship with the president of Mexico, Greenblatt added.

But Hayes expected other employees to help out with the push south, he added.

"At one time, he ordered everyone at the company to speak Spanish. But he never did," Greenblatt recalled, admitting that he learned no Spanish as a result of that order, either.

By the mid-Nineties, the notoriously boisterous executive — who saw no need to temper his opinions or sometimes strong language to customers or the press — stepped forward to encourage other textile mills to get involved in Mexico.

At a time when many in the domestic industry were resisting efforts to open U.S. markets to foreign goods, Hayes voiced the opinion that "protectionism will never ever mean anything." During the fight to pass the NAFTA bill, which lifted all blocks to trade between the U.S, Mexico and Canada he proclaimed, "NAFTA is going to open up all kinds of opportunities."

In a 1995 meeting in Greensboro, he announced his plans to develop a cooperative industrial park in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which he wanted to open to other mills as well. At the time, he said it was important for U.S. companies to work together to provide an "example of how to do things in Mexico to do away with all the corruption...that goes on."

Later that year, he said, "If you’re not going to be in the global textile business, then you’d better get out. I’m looking to protect [Guilford’s] interest by being all over the world, from Asia to North Carolina."

A year later, when Congress was considering a trade bill that would increase penalties for transshipment of foreign goods, Hayes was vociferous in praising the proposal."This bill says we’re American!" he enthused. "If you don’t support this bill, you’re crazy."

His strongly held and voiced opinions rubbed some in the industry the wrong way. He was at loggerheads with textile magnate Roger Milliken throughout the NAFTA debate, and the rancor between them simmered for years afterward.

On Monday, Milliken — who serves as chairman and ceo of Milliken & Co. — said: "Chuck Hayes was a very hard-working man who started at the bottom and built a leadership business. It is a tragedy that he lived to see that business and the jobs it created bankrupted by unwise national trade policies."

By 2001, the man who had often been seen as a maverick was at the head of the industry, after being elected president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, a position he held for the customary one-year term.

Van May, who in March succeeded Hayes in the role of top industry executive at ATMI — though the title has changed from president to chairman — said his predecessor made it hard for lawmakers to ignore the problems of the ailing textile industry.

"Chuck was committed to what he believed in and was loud about it," said May, who is also president and ceo of Plains Cotton Cooperative Association, based in Lubbock, Tex. "When you went around with him, one thing you knew for sure was he was going to turn the volume up when he got there."

At a time when the industry had fragmented politically, with yarn spinners, fabric mills and dyeing-and-finishing houses all pursuing slightly different agendas, May said, "He set a theme called ‘unity, unity, unity,’ and he really wanted to reach out to all segments of the industry and try to find common ground wherever we could find it."

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers remembered Hayes both for his tenacity and his willingness to give in a debate.

"He was bombastic, blustery and loud, and you could hardly help but like him," said Rep. Howard Coble (R., N.C.).

Rep. Cass Ballenger (R., N.C.) got to know Hayes during the debate over granting trade-promotion authority to the President."In all of the heat we got for voting for TPA, Chuck was the most reasonable," he said. "He was always a fair fighter."

"In the modern era there was no stronger, more vocal, more enthusiastic supporter of the textile industry and of textile workers than Chuck Hayes," said Rep. Robin Hayes (R., N.C.), who is not related to the textile executive.

Hayes started to groom Emrich as his successor a decade ago, when he asked the executive to move from the company’s New York offices to Greensboro. In 1995, he named Emrich president and in 2000 handed over the ceo reins.

Emrich, who radically restructured Guilford in the year before its bankruptcy filing, cutting over 2,000 jobs and largely exiting the apparel business, admitted it was hard to make such radical changes at the company his predecessor and boss had built. But, he said, Hayes never tried to undercut his decisions.

"It wasn’t easy for both of us, especially over the course of the past two years," Emrich said. "But he said you can’t have two bosses. In order to save the company I had to take it apart, and it was his child. As hard as it was, he supported me and trusted me completely. It doesn’t mean we didn’t have our moments, but I always would talk anything through with him, and he recognized I was doing the right thing, and that’s what he cared about. He cared about doing the right thing for Guilford Mills."

When Hayes revealed that he was thinking about retiring, he said he had no regrets about giving more than two-thirds of his life to the textile industry.

"The most joyous part of my life has been my work life," he said. "That’s what’s cost me three wives already."

In the March interview, Hayes said he was considering a fourth marriage in retirement — and associates said his fiancée, Deloris Gallagher, was with him when he died.

But he made it clear that the industry was his first love: "I have given this industry every bit of my emotions, my feelings, my drive and my creations."Funeral services are set for 11 a.m., Friday, at Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro.

Hayes is survived by four children, sons David and Matthew, daughters Deborah Holbrook and Susan Hayes, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His third daughter, Becky, died several years ago.

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