Belevation keeps textile industry alive in Fort Mill
In an area that grew up around the textile industry, all that’s left is the shell of a long-closed Springs plant, a few other artifacts and a giant legacy.
Unless you know where to look.
Tucked away in a business and industrial park that seems to be hiding in plain sight between S.C. 51 and Carowinds Boulevard, is a local manufacturer keeping the township’s textile tradition alive. The operation created by Tom and Susan Miles may not be on the ubiquitous scale of the former Springs Industries, but their company Belevation proves that if you have the know-how and find the right niche, local manufacturing can be as much about the future as is it was the past.
The couple designed, produces and sells a line of maternity support garments and fills dozens of orders daily. Their products are becoming so popular that the CEO of a major tech company is a customer.
It started with an idea not born from the need to fill a void in a marketplace, but from the ashes of their former company – and a need to feed their family. The couple moved to Fort Mill from New Jersey in 2005 in order to support a company they ran together.
But then things changed.
“Our source of income that we had relied on for 30 years had virtually dried up,” Susan Miles said.
The couple was left with a large – and costly – seamless knitting machine, but no product to sell and a teenaged son to support. They originally used the machine to produce items used in menswear, so naturally, whatever they designed had to have a larger diameter than the typical garment for women.
“We had to figure out what we were going to do, and I had one knitting machine that could possibly make a garment (for women), so I picked out a category of garments to make, and designed it to that machine,” said Tom Miles.
That’s how the Belevation Belly Band, PettiPant and Support Maternity Brief were born. Each is specifically designed to comfortably support a pregnant woman’s growing belly.
The couple is very proud of that cart-before-the-horse Belevation origin story, but it’s been far from easy. In the early years, Susan took a job at the Lowe’s store on S.C. 160 West across from Baxter Village in order to help make ends meet while Tom worked on perfecting their product line. She handed out samples to pregnant co-workers to get feedback while he painstakingly tweaked materials and CAD programming to invent a product line the two are proud of.
Initially, the couple had trouble finding companies that would dye and sew their relatively small inventory. Undeterred, Tom decided the solution was to rent space at a dye factory and color the garments himself. He also bought a sewing machine and took on stitching duties, too.
The couple encountered another hurdle when they attempted to find small boutiques that were interested in selling Belevation products.
“When we realized we weren’t being adopted by wholesale accounts, small stores and things, we were at another juncture asking ‘Do we keep doing this?’ and we almost quit,” Susan Miles said.
The solution, they found, was to drop the price and sell it themselves straight from their Fort Mill warehouse.
“That’s kind of what we’ve used a bit for marketing, that it’s direct from a few feet from where Tom is knitting the garments,” Susan Miles said.
Made in America
Belevation’s website boasts that the company’s products are “Made in the USA,” and indeed they are, but the company’s sourcing goes deeper than that. Belevation only has a handful of employees, but the impact of doing business regionally is far reaching. All of the yarn comes from North Carolina plants. The products are also dyed in North Carolina before they’re shipped back to the Fort Mill warehouse.
The Miles’ son Alex and some friends designed the logo and packaging in Jerry Howell’s graphic design class at Fort Mill High School. He also designed the company’s website. The garment tags come from a company in Rock Hill.
The company hired photographers in Rock Hill and Baxter Village to take product photos for the website. The models, who in real life are a school teacher, a nurse and a banking employee, are all local too. Every business day Susan makes a trip to The Postal Route on Pleasant Road in Fort Mill to ship packages of maternity wear as far away as Alaska.
“It’s what is called ‘localism,’ ” said Shaw Kuester of Kuester Real Estate Services and chairman of the Fort Mill Economic Council.
“It’s buy locally, produce locally, ship it locally, and a lot of times it’s a lot faster, in fact, to do it that way and it’s a lot less expensive for everybody and you cut out the middle man. It’s the rebirth of the old local towns; It’s not necessarily going with a big franchise, it’s going with the local mom and pop shops.”
It’s a stark contrast to what happened to textiles globally in the past decade. The trend among American textile manufacturers has largely been to shift production overseas where labor and materials are a fraction of the cost and working conditions are largely unregulated, including the exploitation of children and other vulnerable workers.
What Tom and Susan Miles are doing represents a far-reaching impact Susan said has become very dear to her.
“These are (future) jobs for our children that we want to keep in our communities,” she said.
For 120 years, Springs Industries employed thousands of South Carolina workers. It was arguably one of the industry’s largest employers in the state. Springs closed its last manufacturing plant in the Carolinas in 2007. The plant’s closing was a devastating blow to the people who worked in the factories. Much of Springs’ holdings were sold to a Brazilian company and the Montes Claros-based operation now known as Springs Global is related to the old Fort Mill empire mostly in name only.
After the long, slow decline, the domestic manufacturing landscape is slowly improving. The number of people working in the sector is slowly climbing back to where it was nearly a decade ago, though no one expects the number to reach last century’s high water mark. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows roughly 239,000 manufacturing jobs in the state.
In 1995, that number was close to 350,000.
And while textile jobs account for a fair share of the total – Chinese-owned Keer America opened a sizable plant in Indian Land two years ago – it’s still a sector in flux, Tom Miles said.
“The trouble with the textile industry is that when they say ‘it’s coming back, it’s coming back,’ Yes, but the infrastructure is all gone and the infrastructure to put that back together is like Humpty Dumpty – it’s very expensive and difficult,” he said.
Tom Miles has a master’s degree in textile engineering and was also at one time a Springs employee. He worked for the company’s knit division in New York City in the 1970s.
“He has a lot of experience, he’s an older person and should be retired by now, but this is his hobby and his vocation,” Susan Miles said.
Tom likes to joke that he works for free. The couple works seven days a week and couldn’t remember when they took their last vacation together. But they consider it worth the effort.
“It’s a labor of love,” Susan Miles said. “You have a bigger investment emotionally in making sure everything goes right.”
After eight years of trial and error, the couple finally feels as if they’ve got a winning product line. Susan said the demand is outpacing the production and they’re working hard to keep product on the shelves. And besides quality, the company aims to provide value.
“We give a quality product at an affordable price because a lot of women don’t have a lot of money to spend on things,” Tom Miles said. “They can’t go out and drop 50, 60, 70, 80 dollars on a pair of underwear... I like to be able to help these people out.”
Belevation operates four – and soon to be five – machines on one shift a day and produces roughly 1,500 garments each week. The company bought several large dying machines from a plant that closed in Lancaster and wants to begin putting those to use, but a larger building may eventually be necessary. Tom and Susan would like to add a shift and find outside partners with textile experience to help grow their business, they said.
Belevation products are sold on the company’s website, belevation.com, and also, for the past three years, through online retail giant Amazon.com. Susan said she is very proud of the company’s consistently high reviews and ratings on Amazon and said it is the result of their small business approach.
“It’s fun that the machines are right here and we are shipping the garments in the next room,” she said.
More and more all the time, in fact.
“The products seem to have a life of their own at this point,” Susan Miles said.
Katie Rutland: firstname.lastname@example.org
Did you know?
▪ Belevation’s most popular summer product is Mid-Thigh PettiPants
▪ Belevation Support Bands are the biggest seller year-around
▪ Susan Miles said their “Most exciting order” was from Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer while she was pregnant with twins
▪ Susan Miles will be attending Amazon’s first Women’s Entrepreneur Conference in Seattle Aug. 16