Roger Milliken, one of the most legendary figures in the U.S. textile industry, was remembered for both his financial success as well as his quixotic political battles against low-cost imports.
Milliken, who had long suffered from multiple illnesses, including chronic leukemia, died Thursday at a hospice in Spartanburg, S.C., at the age of 95.
An enigmatic billionaire and chairman of Milliken & Co., Milliken wielded political influence and power in the nation’s capital for more than 50 years, endorsing and funding conservative political candidates and shaping the debate over the domestic consequences of globalization and free trade. He had in recent years retired as chief executive officer of the company, but remained involved as chairman until his death.
While Milliken was tight-lipped about his company, considered to be the largest privately held textile and chemical manufacturer in the U.S., one subject he was always ready to discuss was the impact of globalization. For decades, his was one of the most strident voices in the domestic textile industry’s battle against low-cost foreign imports and its affect on American jobs and competitiveness. Yet his company also operated mills in the Far East and Europe, which it said served only those markets.
“He was a great industrialist,” said Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, a lobbying and trade association in Washington which Milliken chaired. “He took a relatively small company and made it into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate during his tenure. He was a visionary who predicted many things, such as the contraction of the manufacturing base and the loss of critical middle-class jobs that we have unfortunately seen come to fruition because of failed trade policy.”
In 2000, Milliken & Co. was believed to have annual revenues of about $4 billion, which would have made it far and away the largest textile company in the U.S. Many wondered whether the enormous Spartanburg-based mill was profitable at a time when most top American textile concerns appeared to be drowning in red 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 when the patriarch-executive died without leaving a good succession program, Milliken named longtime company official Thomas J. Malone as president and heir apparent.
While Milliken, grandson of company founder Seth Milliken, had initially forbidden his five children to join the family business, during the late Eighties and early Nineties disputes among company stockholders, and efforts by some family members to sell their shares to outside investors, convinced him of the wisdom of keeping the family more involved. He began holding regular family forums where his children were briefed on the business by Malone and encouraged some of his grandchildren to join the company.
Today, ownership of the company largely remains within the family, and nonfamily executives are not allowed to own Milliken stock.
Roger Milliken was born in New York on Oct. 24, 1915, to Gerrish and Agnes Milliken. He joined the company — then known as Deering, Milliken — after graduating from Yale University in 1937. He took over as ceo at age 31 in 1947 after the death of his father.
As Milliken saw the rise of imports in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in 1984 he helped to found the Crafted with Pride in the U.S.A. Council, a group that promoted domestically made goods. Milliken was also a primary financial supporter of the group.
Milliken found an unlikely ally in Washington in his fight to preserve American jobs and production in then-South Carolina Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a Democrat, who waged many trade battles by his side.
“Of course, he was Mr. Republican of South Carolina and I’m a Democrat,” Hollings told WWD in an interview Friday. “He and I became close friends in trying to pass trade bills and getting presidents to enforce trade laws. He knew how to get the Republican vote [in Congress].”
Hollings called Milliken “the best head of industry I ever met.
“He knew that the country depended on manufacturing as a job multiplier and engine of growth,” said Hollings.
In the early Nineties, Milliken was a staunch opponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and threw his backing behind H. Ross Perot’s unsuccessful 1992 bid for the presidency because of the candidate’s opposition to that trade agreement.
At that point, Milliken’s views started to differ from those of others in the U.S. textile industry. While executives like Guilford 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 a rare 1992 interview with WWD. “If our country continues to follow a path of exporting jobs to the lowest-wage countries in the world, this will get worse.”
Milliken also opposed the U.S.’ extension of Normal Trade Relations status to China, which cleared the way for its eventual entrance into the World Trade Organization. In 1999, he declared he was “outraged, totally outraged” by that news.
In 2000, Milliken split with the American Textile Manufacturers Institute. The organization expelled the man it had honored 14 years earlier with its Samuel Slater Award because Milliken & Co. had withheld its dues for several months. A lobbyist for the textile magnate at the time said Milliken’s dispute was not with the organization’s board, but that he believed the ATMI staff was not adequately supporting the board’s positions in Washington.
A few months later, the ATMI announced a substantial round of downsizing as a result of its lower dues base and smaller budget.
The textile titan’s exit from the ATMI by no means marked his departure from the political scene. In May 2002, he joined forces with Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees president Bruce Raynor and Cranston Print Works Co. chairman and ceo George Shuster to form a new textile lobbying group, the American Textile Trade Action Committee. Their intent to be more aggressive than the ATMI was made clear by the group’s acronym: ATTAC.
The alliance was also a case of tough times making for strange bedfellows. While Raynor started his career fighting arduous campaigns to unionize Southern textile mills, Milliken had strongly opposed trade unions for most of his career, particularly during the Sixties and Seventies.
“America is being hollowed out of its manufacturing jobs, and that’s a disaster for the future, for our children and for our grandchildren,” Milliken said the day in May 2002 that ATTAC members assembled on the steps of the Capitol Building to unveil the kickoff of their lobbying campaign. (ATTAC was later succeeded by AMTAC.)
In his later years, Milliken became increasingly insistent on going his own way politically. While ATTAC’s purported mission was to radically change the parameters of the trade debate in Washington, Milliken at times seemed to have lost hope that the industry would ever change its reliance on imports.
At the time of the group’s launch, Milliken declined repeated interview requests from WWD to explain his hopes for the group, saying, “I don’t think there is a possibility of influencing your readership of importers and retailers.”
Milliken spent almost a half century on the board of department store Mercantile Stores Inc. In 1998, he tendered his 40 percent stake in that concern to Dillard’s Inc. as part of its acquisition of the chain.
To those who knew him well, Milliken also stood out for his relentless work ethic.
“He stayed loyal to his beliefs and right up to the end he worked,” said Hollings.
Jock Nash, a textile industry advocate and retired Washington counsel and voice for Milliken for almost 25 years, said the textile mogul had three rules for the “keys to success: He always did his homework, he was always on time and he never bluffed.”
“I think he always believed that while a lot of issues are finally settled somewhere between the extremes, there has got to be someone that puts the hard line out there and is able to defend it,” Nash said Friday.
According to company officials, Milliken wanted his epitaph to read simply “Builder.”
Milliken was predeceased by his wife of 55 years, Justine “Nita” Van Rensselaer Hooper, He is survived by a brother, Gerrish, and a sister, Anne; two daughters, Nancy Milliken and Justine V.R. Milliken Russell; three sons, Roger, David and Weston, and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service is scheduled for today at 2 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg.