AEC Narrow Fabrics comes of age
Strategic investments, key leadership hires and workforce training translate into success for 30-year-old textile producer
BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
As they commemorate their company’s 30th year in business, executives at AEC Narrow Fabrics plan to capitalize on their unbroken record of continual growth by making strategic investments in both research and development and in new technologies. They believe their commitment to hiring experienced leaders—as well as continuous workforce training—also will create an environment in which productivity keeps pace with the innovations they plan to bring to market.
AEC was co-founded by Keith Crisco, Warren Knapp, Carl Oldham and Herb Wright in 1986 as Asheboro Elastics Corp. The Asheboro, North Carolina-based company supplies both elasticized and non-elasticized knitted and woven narrow fabrics to multiple markets, including the bedding industry.
“My father first worked for Burlington Industries and then he was the president of Stedman Elastics,” says Jeff Crisco, Keith Crisco’s son and an AEC vice president. “After years with Stedman, Crisco and the others branched off and established Asheboro Elastics.”
By the early 2000s, Keith Crisco had bought out his partners and ran the company until 2008, when he left to become North Carolina Commerce Secretary. In 2014, while running to represent North Carolina’s 2nd district in the U.S. House of Representatives, Crisco died unexpectedly of natural causes at his home.
Charles Adams, president and chief executive officer, is the second outside executive to run the company since 2008. The first, Larry Himes, now serves on the AEC Board of Directors.
Adams joined the company in 2014, after spending 25 years in various positions at Milliken & Co. He then served as CEO of Nonwovens at Polyester Fibers LLC.
Adams acknowledges that running a family-owned business as an outsider comes with its own set of challenges. “You have to maintain the touch and feel of a family-owned, small company, while at the same time upgrading and bringing in outside expertise in strategic areas,” he says. “There also has to be complete strategic clarity across the whole business with the goal of creating an organization where the leadership is aligned and everyone understands each member’s deliverables. This all needs to be done without losing sight of the values that underpin the family business.”
Adams points to Ed Folkomer and Laura Allred, who both joined the company in 2015, as “great examples” of the strategic hiring of outside experts to help move the company forward. Folkomer, who heads product development, came from Elastic Fabrics of America in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was formerly with Hanes Brands Inc. Allred is the product manager who oversees all of AEC’s mattress industry business.
She came to AEC from Lava USA, a subsidiary of Belgium-based Lava Industries, a producer of knitted fabrics for mattress covers. “At AEC, I am directly involved with design and product development. Many customers will send in examples of their ticking fabrics for me to create tapes and trims exclusively for their brand,” she says.
At AEC, she has found a culture and structure, which, she says, have allowed her to thrive. “The company utilizes my skills and abilities and supports me in what I love to do,” she adds. “I know that we’re on the same team, pulling in the same direction, and continuously improving. No one is willing to just rest on their laurels.”
Having the right people in strategic positions enables the company to effectively implement its business plan, which, according to Adams, includes “a keen focus on the markets we want to participate in and continually trying to understand customer needs and solve customer problems.”
Jeff Crisco says, “We are also committed to intensive research and development, growth in our existing markets, and opening new markets.”
In addition to bedding, the company’s markets currently include the apparel, automotive, medical and athletic-leisure markets. Growth in these markets, company executives say, has come organically and through acquisitions. Recent acquisitions include the purchase of Honduras-based Tesa Elastics, which allowed the company to expand jacquard weaving to Central America, and Narricott Industries, which manufactures seat belt webbing for the automobile industry.
But the 2002 acquisition of Southern Webbing, with headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina, “put us into the mattress industry,” Crisco says.
The company sees the industry as a growth-oriented proposition. “There’s a lot of potential in mattresses,” Crisco says. “At the time of the acquisition, this industry accounted for about 5% of our business and now it’s about 10% of our total annual sales. This year over last, we had a 20% increase in sales to the mattress industry.”
Although the privately held company does not publish its annual sales, Adams says, “In our 30-year history, they have grown year over year and increased substantially in 2015 as the result of the acquisition of the Boykins facility.”
The apparel, automotive and mattress industries are the top three contributors, respectively, to the company’s annual sales. Adams describes the mattress industry as “a compelling business. We track our business with our ‘top 10 customers,’ ” he says. “We have one bedding company in the top 10 and expect to have more by the end of 2017. We’ve never had that before, and it’s a lot to be said when we have huge apparel and automotive companies on the list.”
“The new placements we have today are more design-driven,” he adds. “Our business continues to move from commodities such as elastics for fitted sheets to highly decorative woven and knitted mattress trims—products that consumers can see at the point of sale. Laura Allred’s industry relationships and intimate understanding of mattress customers have helped us enormously in that regard.”
Allred reports that the company has 59 mattress manufacturers of all sizes on its account list. “I enjoy helping them define their brand, creating innovations that set them apart and answering their specific needs on an on-going basis as the market evolves,” she says.
Among the products that AEC produces are woven, printed and knitted mattress tapes with coordinating ribbons and handles. The company also offers a quick-ship program of 1-7/16-inch mattress tapes in an array of patterns and makes low-stretch elastics for use with stretch knit ticking fabrics. “We can also apply durable water repellent and flame retardant finishes and do our own dyeing to create custom colors,” Allred says.
“Not everyone who produces narrow fabrics has the capacity to produce elastics,” she says. “The fact that we started out in elastics means that we also have the expertise and machinery to accomplish that.”
Allred believes there is a synergy among the products AEC produces that is beneficial to its customers. “A lot of mattress tape and trim concepts originate in apparel,” she says. “Currently, more and more mattress manufacturers are incorporating looks from leisure wear into their bedding introductions. And since our apparel customers have strict color-fastness requirements, and our industrial customers have strict testing and performance requirements, these standards are ingrained into our culture and cross over into our mattress product offerings.”
Much of that synergy gets its start in the company’s commitment to research and development. “We have a centralized product development group and specialists who work in that area full-time,” Adams says. “All of the equipment that we have in the field, we have here. We try to do all the new concept work here and send the specs to the factories so if the customer wants tweaks it can be done in the field.”
AEC has five manufacturing factories. All products for the mattress industry are produced in the company’s two Asheboro, North Carolina, facilities. The three other factories are in Boykins, Virginia; San Salvador, El Salvador; and Quimistán, Honduras. There also are distribution centers in Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
“We sell into all of North and Central America, plus China and Vietnam,” Crisco says. “Our companywide capacity roughly includes 250 weaving machines (100 of which are jacquard) and 200 knitting machines.”
Adams sees this geographical footprint as one of the company’s key competitive advantages. “The key is to follow our customers. In North Carolina, the focus of our business is mattress products. The proximity to the mattress industry customers makes it easier to quickly understand their needs and respond to them. We have a world-class vertically integrated knitting facility in El Salvador and a jacquard facility in Honduras to serve our brand-name apparel customers. Each facility has its own management team in place and that immediacy makes us important to our clients,” he says.
Following the customers also will be the driver behind any future expansions the company might consider. “Expansion will be demand based,” Crisco says, “and may not be limited to this hemisphere.”
Meanwhile, company officials remain focused on meeting the challenges that will ensure they remain relevant to their customers. Staying engaged with those customers tops the list. That engagement, Adams says, will allow AEC to “make the right decisions about capital investments and the innovations that we bring to customers.”
“We will continue to focus on the wants and needs of our customers and pay great attention to our workforce,” he says. “We are only as good as our associates, and we want them to be focused and well-equipped to make the products that our customers need.
“With advanced technologies, a dedication to R&D, and a well-informed workforce, we will continue to enjoy improved quality and increased productivity.”