WASHINGTON — Industry executives praised the appointment Wednesday of billionaire investor Wilbur Ross as Commerce Secretary, saying his textile background and pragmatic approach to trade could serve as a counterweight to President-elect Donald Trump’s more protectionist proposals.
Trump also named financier Steven Mnuchin, a former executive at Goldman Sachs, as Treasury Secretary, and Todd Ricketts, another wealthy donor who is co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, as Deputy Secretary of Commerce.
All three must be confirmed by the Senate.
Ross’ direct ties to the textile industry as former majority owner of International Textile Group, which owns Cone Denim and Burlington Worldwide, will arm him with a perspective on the challenges the sector faces and the impact of global trade on domestic industries, according to executives.
In the perch at commerce, Ross will be tasked with walking the delicate line of pushing trade while at the same time developing policies to protect American interests as Trump aims to fulfill his campaign promise to boost American manufacturing.
Trump has already vowed to pull the U.S. out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership deal on the first day of his administration and he has also pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, label China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs as high as 45 percent on Chinese imports.
Ross did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday, but he seemed to temper the president-elect’s comments on imposing punitive tariffs on imports during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”
“Everybody talks about tariffs as the first thing. Tariffs are the last thing,” he said. “Tariffs are part of the negotiation. The real trick is going to be to increase American exports — get rid of some of the tariff and non-tariff barriers to American exports.”
There is still concern among pro-trade retailers and brands that Ross will support trade policies aimed at curbing imports or global competition. But the financier has in the past demonstrated a deep understanding of the benefits of trade deals, evidenced by moves he has taken that have benefited his companies.
Speaking with WWD in 2005 about the Central America Free Trade Agreement involving the U.S., Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, Ross acknowledged the trade treaty had flaws and raised concerns about the exceptions for foreign fabric and yarns given to Nicaragua.
But he expressed support for CAFTA at the time and opened a plant in the country to take advantage of the trade deal’s rules, although the factory eventually shuttered.
“No treaty is perfect,” Ross said at the time. “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?’”
Ross has long railed against “bad” trade deals and opposed TPP.
Ross, who at 79 would be the oldest person to be named to that post, has made a fortune, said to be in the neighborhood of $2.9 billion as a private equity investor. He has been seen as a turnaround king, bankruptcy baron or a vulture, depending on the analysis, buying financially distressed companies in industrial sectors such as coal, steel and textiles, often merging failing companies as part of his turnaround strategy.
As part of the high-stakes gamble, Ross has resuscitated bankrupt companies through his private equity firm, WL Ross & Co. LLC, and saved jobs that might have been lost otherwise.
His expertise in coal and steel could be of vital value to Trump as the president-elect sets out to fulfill his campaign vow of bringing coal mining and steel production back to American shores. Numerous analysts, however, have questioned the reality of that, pointing out that the coal industry’s decline stems more from environmental rules and the decline in natural gas prices than from foreign competition. As for steelmaking, analysts have said cheap steel from overseas has hurt the U.S. industry, but bringing it back in any significant way is unfeasible in today’s global economy without a significant increase in finished goods prices.
Ross sold his investment firm in 2006 to Invesco, an Atlanta-based investment company, but has remained chairman and chief strategist.
There has been some speculation that Ross, who was the majority shareholder in ITG, divested himself of the textile company in anticipation or with the knowledge of getting the nod from Trump to take over the commerce post.
ITG was acquired by Platinum Equity in late October through a merger with an affiliate of Platinum Equity.
In the merger transaction, a newly formed Platinum Equity affiliate merged with and into ITG, with ITG continuing as the surviving corporation and as a privately held Platinum Equity portfolio company. In order to complete the merger transaction, Platinum Equity acquired all of the debt and equity securities of the company previously owned by entities managed by WL Ross & Co. LLC and its affiliates.
ITG was founded in 2004 by Ross when he merged Burlington Industries and Cone Mills. Ross stepped down as chairman in November 2014, but his company remained a majority shareholder until the purchase by Platinum.
Kenneth T. Kunberger, president and chief executive officer of ITG, will continue in his role under the new ownership.
Cone Denim’s historic White Oak Mill facility in Greensboro, N.C., is the oldest operating denim mill in the U.S. Cone also has operations in Parras and Yecapixtla, Mexico, and Jiaxing, China.
The initial consensus from industry officials on all sides is that Ross is a pragmatist who looks at trade from all angles before taking action.
Augustine Tantillo, president and ceo at the National Council of Textile Organizations, who is an industry veteran and former commerce official, said Ross has “an intimate understanding of the textile industry as the [former] owner of two iconic brands — Burlington and Cone Mills.”
“He defied prediction when he first purchased those companies,” Tantillo said. “Most people said he will be in and out in 18 months and that probably wouldn’t be good news for either company. But in reality, the opposite was true. Both companies emerged stronger and much more stable.
“So, those are all good signs from my perspective as someone who represents the domestic textile industry,” he added. “We will have a secretary of commerce who understands our industry and the challenges associated with manufacturing textiles in the U.S. and is a supporter of that concept.”
As the head of commerce, Ross will oversee a sprawling agency employing some 47,000 people, overseeing activities ranging from the collection of economic data and the census to imports and exports. It is dubbed as the “voice of business” as part of the president’s cabinet. The agency also houses the Office of Textiles and Apparel and chairs the Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements.
Ross will also be tasked with carrying out Made in America initiatives rolled out by Trump and look at ways to boost U.S. exports.
Paul Charron, the former Liz Claiborne Inc. chairman and ceo who is now an independent consultant and sits on the board of several companies, including yarn spinner Unifi Inc., called Ross “a very experienced and savvy business person.”
“He has done well over a very long period of time in businesses where others have had considerable difficulty,” Charron said. “He strikes me as a reasonably brusque, fact-based and bottom line-oriented operating executive. He will ask tough, smart, pragmatic questions and I expect he will be quite decisive.”
David Spooner, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP and a former chief textile and apparel negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office and former commerce official, noted that Ross purchased Cone and Burlington in the midst of the CAFTA negotiations.
“He was very savvy and pragmatic in trying to take advantage of the yarn-forward rule of origin,” Spooner said. “After all, Cone and Burlington had mills in the U.S. and after CAFTA was over built a mill in Nicaragua. He very clearly was trying to take what he thought were undervalued textile assets and evolve them to make them more globally competitive and more service-oriented toward the retailers.”
One of Ross’ first big challenges out of the gate, Spooner said, could be to issue a decision on China’s market economy status, a designation under the sole discretion of the Commerce Department, which could prove to be contentious.
Julia Hughes, president at the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, recalled one meeting with Ross during the CAFTA negotiations.
“At the time he was open and interested at looking at what the real impact of trade and particularly CAFTA was on the industry,” she said. “He was more positive about the opportunities for CAFTA at the time than many others in the textile industry and to be honest he was proven right.”
“He is going to have some challenges ahead of him, wrangling the U.S. trade agenda in a way that aligns with President-elect Trump’s vision of a more aggressive pro-U.S. export policy,” said David French, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation. “The challenge is the supply chain is not necessarily purely bilateral. So there needs to be some consideration for the global nature of the supply chain.”
Of Mnuchin, French said he will face the difficult task of finding a way to increase gross domestic product growth from 2 to 4 percent — a goal Trump has set. On Tuesday, the Commerce Department reported that GDP expanded at an inflation- and seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.2 percent in the third quarter, the strongest growth in two years.
“For retailers, I think the headline news is that’s pretty good. If we can grow the economy and substantially grow investment in the U.S., those are good things,” French said. “Trump’s tax plan was among the lowest of any of the proposals we saw, so that is a good indication that we are going to have a pro-growth policy at treasury.”
Trump has pledged to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 from 35 percent.
Mnuchin, founder and co-ceo and chairman of Dune Capital Management, an investment firm specializing in public equity markets, real estate and the entertainment industry, said on “Squawk Box” that the administration’s top priority is “sustained economic growth.”
“I think we can absolutely get to sustained 3 to 4 percent GDP [growth] and that is absolutely critical for the country,” Mnuchin said. “To get there is our number-one priority is tax reform. This will be the largest tax change since [President Ronald] Reagan.”
It is also in treasury’s domain to monitor exchange rate and currency policies and label a country currency manipulator.