By  on June 28, 2005

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Wilbur L. Ross represents the textile industry's new breed.

Ross, 67, a financier who formed International Textile Group, based here, through the acquisition of Burlington Industries and Cone Mills and serves as chairman, is ready to open a denim plant in Guatemala if Congress approves the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Ross broke from the ranks of the textile industry to support CAFTA and won a key provision that allows a limited amount of woven apparel and denim fabric made in the CAFTA countries — Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic — from Mexican and Canadian fabric to qualify for duty-free treatment in the U.S. This, in effect, links CAFTA to the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 11-year-old pact among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

However, he has been forced to put his plans for the denim plant on hold because of the CAFTA debate. If it is approved soon, Ross said he could have his plant producing 30 million yards of denim a year by the end of 2006.

"The big issue is how much will happen in terms of apparel manufacturers and retailers getting tired of waiting for CAFTA and making their sourcing decisions somewhere else," he said in an interview.

Joe Gorga, president and chief executive officer of ITG, said the company's largest U.S. denim factory — the White Oak plant here, employing 1,100 workers and producing 42 million yards a year— will remain "very strategic for us in our future map."

ITG employs about 5,400 people, but Burlington and Cone Mills had cut their workforces substantially in the year before the acquisitions.

Ross acknowledged the trade treaty has flaws. He had raised concerns about the exceptions for foreign fabric and yarns given to Nicaragua.

"No treaty is perfect," Ross said. "The Constitution of the U.S. is not perfect, and our tax system is not perfect, but that doesn't mean you throw it all away because you don't like a semicolon. The real question is, on balance, 'Is the industry better off with or without CAFTA?' and it is much better off with it."

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