Byline: S. Gray Maycumber

PALM BEACH, Fla. — The 46th annual meeting of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute took a noticeably different turn from recent meetings.
In a very upbeat opening general session on Friday, international trade — primarily exporting — was the key topic, preempting for at least the time being discussions on seeking ways to halt textile and apparel imports, a main topic at ATMI gatherings of the recent past.
The conference at the Breakers here started with a board meeting Thursday and ended Saturday.
The U.S. textile industry isn’t complaining; in fact, it’s looking ahead with optimism, according to textiles executives here. The lack of “doom and gloom” presentations on the program was so noteworthy, that outgoing president, William J. Armfield 4th, vice chairman of Unifi, found it necessary to address it in the opening business session Friday.
“In the Eighties, we fought the good fight with three trade bills [to curb textile and apparel import growth] that were vetoed by presidents most of us helped elect,” Armfield said. “We did what we believed was best at the time, but won battles and lost the war. Unfortunately, in waging this campaign, we projected a gloom-and-doom scenario. It hurt our textile college admissions, our access to investment capital and our price-earnings ratios. Many people saw us as a sunset industry.”
Armfield said that the annual meeting 10 years ago featured panels on such subjects as “Can U.S. Manufacturing Survive?”
Actually, Armfield conceded, textile manufacturing has survived very well.
To back this, he pointed out that while textile and apparel imports have increased by 130 percent in the past 10 years to $42 billion, exports, while still small, have grown during the same period by 300 percent to about $12 billion.
He added that textile shipments have grown in the last 10 years by 32 percent to $74 billion, mill consumption of fiber by 50 percent to 16 billion pounds, and loom productivity is up by 200 percent.
“Not bad for a sunset industry,” Armfield said.
In a press conference following his talk, Armfield said he feels that the “gloom-and-doom image is no longer a problem to the textile industry, because it is a more modern, innovative industry.”
ATMI president-elect Walter Elisha, chairman of Springs Industries, agreed, saying, “The textile industry advanced the gloom-and-doom attitude more than most industries in dealing with their problems. But this does not need to be overcome, anymore.”
However, the ATMI was not without controversy, proving that it hasn’t completely changed.
The ATMI has come out in support of the House and Senate proposals to extend North American Free Trade Agreement provisions to 24 Caribbean Basin Initiative countries, giving them parity with Mexico and Canada. This move is opposed by some textile leaders, led by Roger Milliken, chairman of Milliken & Co.
At an ATMI board meeting Thursday, the opposition group headed by Milliken attempted to get the ATMI to reverse its stand and oppose the support of the legislation.