"There will always be companies making sheets and towels, but we're not likely to see a company the likes of Springs Industries ever again. Nor is there likely to be another (CEO) like Crandall Bowles, the last president of the freestanding Springs."
Those two sentences were the opening lines of a column written in August by Warren Shoulberg, editor of New York-based HFN, a leading publication in the home furnishings field.
Shoulberg's tribute to Springs and Crandall Close Bowles followed Bowles' recent announcement that she was retiring from the Fort Mill-based company that her family had guided since 1887.
The textile company that was once Springs Industries, wrote Shoulberg, "has passed into history and nothing like it will ever exist again. Springs was always the class act, the mill that seemed as concerned about its employees and the world around it as it was about making a buck.
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"That decency, that caring for your fellow man, was not just some corporate slogan. It came straight from the top, from the Springs-Close-Bowles family that oversaw the company for 120 years."
That salute from a seasoned and respected editor, who knows his way around the huge home furnishings industry, is an indication of the high regard that Springs earned over the years in the intensely competitive world of textiles and home furnishings
Shoulberg wrote from the perspective of an outsider, a perceptive, knowledgeable big-city journalist accustomed to talking with home furnishings executives on a daily basis. His assessment is all the more meaningful because he had no ax to grind.
His exposure to Springs was mainly from the sales and marketing organization, based in New York. Had he seen Springs from the manufacturing end, centered in York, Chester and Lancaster counties in South Carolina, he would have been even more impressed.
The tri-county area was Springs' base for generations, and the impact of the company and the founding family upon the history, culture, economy and development of the area was enormous. For years, Springs was the largest private employer and the largest taxpayer in South Carolina, and one of the most generous in terms of community support.
The Springs story began with Samuel Elliott White, Crandall's great-great-grandfather, who was fanning 4,000 acres of cotton in Fort Mill Township in the 1880s. He was prospering, but he was troubled by the plight of hundreds of his neighbors, small farmers who had lost their land during the dismal years of reconstruction following the Civil War. They were penniless. They needed jobs and there were no jobs. White led the establishment of a textile plant in Fort Mill. It not only provided those jobs, it ran for more than 90 years as the first unit of what became Springs Industries.
Spurred by that success, merchants in nearby Lancaster prevailed on the town's business leader, Leroy Springs, to establish Lancaster Cotton Mill in 1895. It was a success from the start. Leroy Springs, who married Samuel White's daughter and was Crandall's great-grandfather, later added to his operations existing mills in Fort Mill, Chester and Kershaw. He was a tough, hard-nosed businessman, but in a day when child labor was commonplace on the farm and in the mills, he was a strong advocate of compulsory public school attendance in South Carolina and public financing of literacy programs for blacks and whites. He started an informal program of scholarships for young people who wanted to go to college. He also paid out of his pocket for medical care for mill families long before formalized health care programs were established.
Leroy's son, Elliott White Springs, Crandall's grandfather, took over when Leroy died in 1931. It was the second year of the Great Depression. Banks, businesses and manufacturing plants were closing. One fourth of the nation's work force was unemployed. Elliott discovered to his dismay that the textile organization his father had built was in serious trouble. In his old age, Leroy had let his mills slip into decay. Liabilities matched assets. At the risk of his health and his personal fortune, Elliott began the difficult job of rebuilding during hard times. He drove himself relentlessly, consolidated and renovated the mills, and slowly averted what could have been a disaster. As the depression dragged on, many mills simply closed down, but Elliott ran his mills three days a week, even when he could not sell the cloth. He did it, as one of his workers put it, "so we could live".
Along the way, Elliott created The Springs Foundation in 1942 to promote "the general welfare of the residents" of York, Chester and Lancaster counties, regardless of their race, religion or place of employment. Since that time, the various Springs Close foundations have poured $92 million into the plant communities to enrich health, recreation, education and other programs serving area people. Elliott also created a formalized program of interest-free scholarship loans. To date, that program has sent more than 8,000 area young people to college at a cost of more than $8.3 million. Over the years, 98 percent of the recipients have repaid the loans they received. The foundation work will continue.
When Elliott died in 1959, he was succeeded by his son-in-law, Bill Close, husband of Anne Springs Close, Elliott's daughter. Bill Close was a very human man, warm, friendly and strongly people-oriented. He believed in openness, accessibility and straight talk and his office door was open to spinners, weavers, community residents and the news media. He was convinced that the textile industry needed to improve its public relations. He was also convinced that actions speak louder than words.
He embarked on a program of building new plants, renovating old plants, and installing the latest technology. He built a modern customer service center near Lancaster and a 21-story sales headquarters in New York. He took the company public, with stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He broadened the product line and put more emphasis on fashion.
At the same time, he began a program of long-range planning for the Springs Foundation, built a foundation-funded eight-story hospital in Lancaster, supported the development of a Lancaster-based branch of the University of South Carolina, gave strong support to York Technical College in Rock Hill and expanded the college scholarship loan program and enrichment programs for area public schools. The work of the foundation has grown and changed, but the philosophy remains the same. Anne Close has put it this way: "My daddy drummed it into me from the time I was a little girl that the money came out of those mills, and we were going to put it back."
Bill Close was succeeded by two non-family CEOs, first Peter G. Scotese and then Walter Y. Elisha. They provided strong leadership and contributed significantly to the growth and diversification of the company. They also continued the governing family's commitment to integrity and the welfare of employees and community residents.
Last of the line
The last family member to lead Springs Industries was Crandall, daughter of Anne and Bill Close. She took the reins in 1998. It was a difficult time. The pressure of imports from low-wage countries was increasing. Low price mass merchandisers such as Wal-Mart and Target were becoming more dominant. Competition among the shrinking list U.S. textile manufacturers was intensifying. Production costs were growing. To stay competitive, Crandall began buying fabric from Coteminas, a huge, well-managed Brazilian textile company with far lower production costs. The strategy worked for a while and Springs' sales volume soared, topping $3 billion a year. No one could have done a better job than Crandall, and no one could have been easier to work with. She was smart, warm, friendly and decent. Everyone liked her and no one worked harder.
But in 2005 textile import quotas were eliminated and a staggering flood of textiles from China and other low-wage countries poured in. That led to a merger with Coteminas and, finally, Coteminas control. The surviving company is called Springs Global. The headquarters is in Brazil, as is the textile production. The machinery that once ran in Springs' South Carolina plants is there, too.
Springs Global is shooting for the world market and the outlook is bright. But the local plants that Springs Industries once ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, are silent now. And the family that led the business for 120 years is no longer running the show. That presence will be missed for a long time to come.
The editor of Home Furnishings News was right: Springs was a class act. Nothing like it will ever take its place.