FORT MILL — Springs Global might build a plant in China, following expansions by Wal-Mart and other customers into the huge, growing market, an official with the textile company said Thursday.
Ted Matthews, vice president of corporate communications for Springs' U.S. subsidiary based in Fort Mill, said building a plant in China is "in the cards," though no plans are in the works.
"We've looked at it. I think it's inevitable," he said. "It might be three to four years; it might never happen."
Wal-Mart, Springs' largest customer, is expanding its stores in China, as are other retailers who buy Springs' Springmaid and Wamsutta sheets.
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Adding production in China would further Springs' goal of increasing its market share in sheets and towels worldwide, Matthews said. Springs Global now is the world's largest supplier of those products, with about 7 percent to 9 percent of the world market. The best opportunities for growth are in Europe and Asia, he said.
"Does it make sense to have all your manufacturing assets in North America and South America to serve the Asian market? Not necessarily," he said.
Springs could build a plant that cuts and sews fabric for bed linens and towels and buys fabric from outside producers -- as it does now in the United States. Or, it could build a fiber-to-sheet plant that includes spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing and fabrication -- as it once did in the United States.
And a plant in China might export to other regions, as well as supplying Asian stores, Matthews said.
Matthews' comments come as Springs continues to pare its U.S. work force. Most of its remaining S.C. workers are within a 30-mile radius of Fort Mill, where the family-owned company began in 1887. Layoffs announced in the past four months will leave the company with about 2,300 workers at its offices and two plants in South Carolina, down from 14,000 in 1992. It also will have about 3,900 workers at 11 plants in other U.S. states and 300 workers in Mexico.
The job cuts were in response to an onslaught of low-cost imports, but Matthews said Springs still believes it will need some U.S. production capacity to fill bare shelves for U.S. retailers when a product sells more quickly than expected.
S.C. textile mills and sewing shops employed 205,100 in people in 1973, its all-time high. This year, employment has fallen below 39,000.
Springs went private in 2001 and merged in January with Brazilian textile manufacturer Coteminas in a 50-50 joint venture called Springs Global Participacoes S.A. Coteminas employs about 12,000 workers in Brazil and Argentina and became a key supplier to Springs in 2001.
Springs announced Oct. 17 it would lay off 465 of its 1,500 workers at its Grace complex in Lancaster by February 2007, as some of the plant's equipment is moved to Coteminas plants in Brazil. Grace includes a plant that bleaches, dyes and prints fabric, as well as a plant that cuts, sews and packages sheets for retailers.
That followed Springs' June 14 announcement that it would close its Katherine and Frances plants in Chester County by February, cutting 760 jobs and eliminating its last U.S. weaving capacity. Those layoffs started this month.