NEW YORK — Bruce F. Roberts, who spent half-a-century in the U.S. textile industry as an executive at some of its best-known companies and then as executive director of the influential Textile Distributors Association, died Thursday at age 92.
Roberts, who during his career witnessed the industry’s high points — the dominance of fiber producers during the Sixties and Seventies — and its low points — the withering of the converting industry in the Nineties – worked at firms such as Eastman Chemical Co. and Springs Industries. He was a contemporary of industry legends such as Roger Milliken and Ely R. Callaway, and helped lead the Crafted With Pride in the USA campaign to boost U.S. manufacturing.
From 1955 to 1986, he worked at Eastman Chemical, a manufacturer of synthetic fibers and a major rival of DuPont. He joined the firm as advertising manager, and rose to the post of vice president, serving as chairman of the firm’s general management committee.
His years at Eastman were some of the best days the American fiber industry has seen. The profitable and powerful companies in some ways drove the fashion business, developing new materials and aggressively marketing them to the consumers. In 1958, Eastman introduced its Kodel polyester fiber, building it into a $500 million business and becoming the second-largest producer behind DuPont. Roberts recalled buying a four-day sponsorship of the U.S. Open golf tournament for only $90,000. Eastman also sponsored portions of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which became another crucial platform for brand marketing.
“We had a polyester fiber that was whiter than the competition’s,” he said in a 2002 interview. “They had problems originally with polyester. There was some yellowing when it was laundered. We came in with an optical brightener in our fiber. We thought, what would be something that would say white. Everybody was wearing white in tennis then, not like now.”
Roberts joined the TDA in 1955. After 31 years with Kodak, he went to work at home goods manufacturer Springs as a senior vice president, staying from 1986 to 1990. That year, he moved on from Springs, but not from their building on West 40th Street. He was named executive director of the TDA, which had its offices on the 13th floor of the building.
During the more than 12 years he spent at the organization, Roberts worked aggressively to support the interests — and the flagging spirits — of New York’s failing converters.
In the 2002 interview, he remembered mill executive Ely R. Callaway confronting TDA members with the reality of the situation during the organization’s annual meeting in 1992. Callaway’s family had run its own mill company and eventually became president of Burlington Industries. After leaving the industry in 1973, he moved to Southern California and opened a winery. Eight years later, he sold the winery and founded Callaway Golf Co., introducing the now iconic Big Bertha Driver.
“[Ely] said there’s no way this industry is going to survive as it is now,” Roberts said at the time. “You’ve got a world market and it’s gone, and he was so right and a lot of people didn’t think he was right at the time.”
The TDA attracted some of the biggest names in the apparel industry to speak at its annual meetings, including Milliken, Hal Kahn, Mackey McDonald, Paul Charron and Roger Farah.
“Milliken stands out for me because he has certainly been the most significant textile executive of the last several decades and he’s still around,” Roberts said during the interview. “It was one of the great times in business, I’ll tell you. For the textile industry, those were the halcyon days. We took our product and launched it and turned it into a half-a-billion dollar business. Everybody was making money. There was a lot more cooperation between supplier and customer. It was a different world.”
While many executives lamented that the rising waters of global trade would inevitably swamp the domestic industry, Roberts for years encouraged them to look for new ways to compete.
In a 1994 speech, following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the agreement which cleared the way for the World Trade Organization, he told a crowd of textile executives, “The passage of two trade bills has given our industry one of two choices: We can either cry about them, or, we can use them as an opportunity. We are on the cutting edge of technology, and we have a superior industry.”
Augustine Tantillo, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, said on Tuesday, “I had the privilege of speaking to his group in the early Nineties, while they were trying to determine their position on NAFTA. I always found Bruce to be highly engaged and very open-minded to various policy views and issues.”
As the relentless global competition took its toll on the domestic industry, putting scores of converters out of business and resulting in the closure of dozens of U.S. mills, Roberts expressed regret at seeing the industry’s decline. As the TDA’s industry whittled away, the group was forced to discontinue its glamorous events, which included an annual dinner-dance that was held at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan and its annual meeting and golf outing, which over the years had been held in New York’s Catskill Mountains and near Atlantic City, N.J.
“I hate to see what happened to so many wonderful companies,” Roberts said in August 2002, when the TDA said it was laying off its staff and slashing its budget. “So many good and solid companies who supplied textiles to this country of ours are just disappearing.”
Roberts was born in Manhattan on July 6, 1923, and lived all his life in the New York City area, moving to Westchester County after the birth of his second son.
He was also well-known for his work supporting charitable causes. During his career, the textile industry was the sponsor of scores of charity lunches for causes including the Boy Scouts, the United Jewish Appeal and the National Coalition for Community and Justice. Roberts could be seen on the dais of many of these events, which typically was a sign that he’d been pressed into service securing commitments for tables.
While he always said he enjoyed his charity work, he joked that it was overwhelming at times. During one of the TDA’s final musical lampoons, which were a mainstay of its annual meetings, Roberts sang an altered version of the song “My Favorite Things,” in which he listed “every fund-raiser that doesn’t call me” as among his top loves.
Founded in 1938 as the Textiles Distributors Institute, the TDA sought to protect the domestic textile industry and champion causes such as establishing flame-resistant standards in apparel. The emergence of man-made fibers helped spur a boom in the domestic textiles industry between 1955 and 1975, a period in which the TDA and textile manufacturers had their greatest influence on the political scene and the apparel industry.
Membership in the organization eventually reached 365. However, the rise of low-cost, overseas manufacturing was a force too great to overcome, and the TDA’s sphere of influence and relevance steadily declined. In mid-November 2007, about 25 of the remaining 50 members gathered at Sardi’s restaurant here to lay the groundwork for dissolving the group.
The TDA’s annual meeting was a sold-out affair for years, and the annual dinner-dance held at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center was an annual highlight. Roberts said anybody and everybody in the textile and apparel industry was a target for the musical lampoon. At times, a cast of as many as 30 people spent months rehearsing and helping to build elaborate sets for the final performance, which featured popular tunes set to altered lyrics and sung by some of the industry’s more distinguished types decked out in hula skirts and lipstick, among other fetching accoutrements.
“We speared anybody we could think of,” said Roberts. “There were costumes, we had a makeup artist, we built sets and some of these guys worked on it for months.”
The TDA closed in 2007, and in an interview that December, Roberts, having just presided over the association’s final meeting, said: “It was a growth business, it was a domestic business and it was a great business. Not only was it a successful business, but it was fun and collegial. There was lots of competition, but they worked together in many cases.”
Assessing the efforts of the TDA, Roberts said he had few regrets. The one exception was Crafted With Pride in the USA, the nationwide marketing campaign to spur consumers to “buy American.”
“There was a great deal of money spent by Crafted With Pride, which the TDA was a prime mover,” he said at the time. “We did the best we could. We contributed to it and we worked at it aggressively.”
Ultimately, American consumers showed they favored elements such as style, color, fabric quality and — above all — price over concerns about where goods are made.
“I wish we could have done a better job with Crafted With Pride; I wish we could have impacted the mentality of the American consumer,” Roberts added.
J. Nicholas Hahn, the former chief executive officer of Cotton Incorporated who now runs his own consultancy, said, “Bruce and I were competitors on one level, cotton vs. polyester, but friends on another, enjoying each other’s company and good-natured barbs — polyester smells, cotton is the death cloth, polyester doesn’t breathe, cotton uses to much water, on infinitum. We shared the same customers and had mutual friends within the industry, never allowing business to interfere with our friendship.”
He added, “Bruce loved our industry and the industry loved him back. His work on Crafted With Pride and the Fashion Institute of Technology was legendary. Bruce Roberts was one of a kind. He built his career during the meteoric growth of the man-made fiber industry and moved effortlessly into the period when U.S. textiles were in decline while never losing his passion for supporting the business he loved.”
In 2007, FIT dedicated the Bruce and Rita Roberts Room in the Marvin Feldman Center in honor of the couple’s support of the college. Roberts was a member of the executive committee of The Educational Foundation for the Fashion Industries at FIT from 1988 to 2009. In 2008, the Textile Distributors Association/Bruce Roberts Scholarship was endowed at FIT in support of Textile Development and Marketing students who offer evidence of academic merit and financial need.
Gail Strickler, who just stepped down as assistant U.S. Trade Representative for textiles and apparel, called Roberts a “renaissance man” who promoted the American textile industry but also foresaw the opportunities in globalization and advised textile producers to prepare for a seismic change in the sourcing paradigm.
Roberts was a driving force behind Strickler becoming the first woman president of TDA, where she served for five years. Strickler noted Roberts’ critical role in the Crafted With Pride in the USA campaign.
“His dedication to the industry was really amazing,” she said. “As much as he was involved in Crafted With Pride, he also understood that this was a global industry and that U.S. companies had to be part of the whole global supply chain.”
Roberts was also involved in helping textile producers at home, advising them on copyright protection for prints and working hard to facilitate the Los Angeles textile show, which TDA cosponsored.
Roberts “was ahead of his time,” Strickler said. “Bruce was smart enough to see the writing on the wall and was trying his best to help make the industry [more competitive]. He was very pragmatic about it. He was very fast to recognize that technology was playing a huge role. Those companies that were willing to invest in state-of-the art technology stayed ahead and really had long-term strategies for not just survival but success.”
Roberts is survived by four sons: Richard, who runs C.S. Roberts with his wife, designer Cynthia Steffe; Brett, who owned B&B Button and Trimming before he retired; Conrad, and William, and five grandchildren.
A memorial service is being planned.