Steering Cone to an International Future

Cone Denim, which invested heavily in international expansion over the last three years, is looking for new president Thomas McKenna to position the company...

Cone Denim, which invested heavily in international expansion over the last three years, is looking for new president Thomas McKenna to position the company as a primary supplier to emerging markets such as China and India.

This story first appeared in the January 17, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“China is an example of a rapidly growing mid- and upper-level consumer class and they are very brand-conscious,” said McKenna, who was named president of Cone, a division of International Textile Group, on Jan. 7. “There’s going to be global brands that will continue to grow in those markets.”

The company “right now is transforming itself into the first truly global denim producer,” he said. “We will be increasing globally as we move forward.”

In tapping McKenna to take over from John Bakane, who retired in December, Cone has chosen a company veteran experienced in international sales and marketing. McKenna joined Cone in 1981 and opened the company’s first international sales office in Brussels. He moved to Singapore in 1995 to serve as director of marketing for the Asia-Pacific market. And in 2004, when Wilbur L. Ross purchased Cone and Burlington Industries and formed ITG, McKenna was named Cone’s president of sales and marketing.

Since the Ross acquisition, McKenna said the company has invested more than $200 million to expand globally. In addition to its White Oak facility in Greensboro, N.C., Cone has two facilities in Mexico, a joint venture in Turkey, and will be ramping up production this year at recently opened operations in China and Nicaragua. More expansion is on the horizon.

“We are encouraged about the prospects on the Indian subcontinent,” McKenna said. “We would expect to identify a business partner there sooner than later.”

The immediate goal is to meet the sourcing needs of some of the world’s largest brands, giving them a consistent high-quality Cone product that can be sourced from any region.

“We can make the same product in each of those platforms,” McKenna said, referring to Cone’s international facilities. “We’ve consciously built sameness into our various platforms.”

McKenna is aware that one of his greatest assets is the strength of the Cone name.

“Clearly, there is equity in our name and when we knock on doors, we’re generally accepted,” he said.

However, achieving growth will depend on taking full advantage of the investments the company has made. While new facilities give added flexibility and create more opportunities, McKenna is just as adamant about investing in product development.

“One of the best investments we have made is in the people who are able to develop denim fabrics and provide the industry with the kinds of things they need,” he said. “We’re going to remain committed to people and facilities.”

The U.S. denim market is likely to feel the negative effects of a slowing economy this year, McKenna said. He already has seen a slowdown in the premium segment of the market, particularly in the women’s business, and noted a lack of a defining silhouette or wash to drive sales. But after more than 25 years in the denim business, he is confident of a rebound.

“One of the things that hasn’t changed is the resiliency of jeanswear as a category,” McKenna said. “It’s always been transformative and has reinvented itself as needed, and the category has never been more popular.”