Nimble Kentwool takes a long view
Kentwool, a textile company based in Greenville, S.C., has a diverse customer base that includes golfer Bubba Watson and Amtrak, the passenger railroad service. Family ownership makes the 173-year-old company extraordinarily adaptable, according to fifth-generation CEO Mark Kent. It also allows the company to buck industry trends and keep all its manufacturing in the U.S.
"The big advantage of family ownership is having the ability to take a long-term view rather than answer to quarterly reports that are all too often detrimental to companies that are not family-owned," says Kent. He points out that family owners can wait out the downturns, preserve facilities and jobs, and avoid pitfalls of foreign sourcing.
Kentwool, which has 90 employees, manufactures yarn that other companies turn into apparel or products for transportation, medical or industrial use. The company also creates fabrics and other products, like the golf socks it introduced in 2010 and carpet and wall coverings for Amtrak trains and Southwest Airlines planes. Apparel customers include women's clothier St. John Knits, menswear manufacturer Loro Piana and outdoor outfitter Smartwool. Annual sales are approximately $35 million.
Kent, now 53, took the reins in 1993 when his father, Warren, died unexpectedly. "I was 30 years old and, ready or not, I ended up having to run the company," he says. "Those first few years weren't any fun. I quickly realized what it was like to sit in that chair with no one to pass the buck to."
His father passed on some universal truths about working in the family business, he says. "My dad told me three things: You have to be the first one here and last one to leave each day, you not only won't get special treatment but you'll probably be treated worse than any other employee, and if you're not good, you'll get fired—and that will make family holidays kind of difficult."
Change in a volatile industry has marked Kentwool's passage through five generations. It was founded by Thomas Kent in Philadelphia in 1843 and built a plant in the South in the 1950s. "By the time we reached the late 1960s, we had over 200 family shareholders during the third generation of ownership," Kent explains. "They had a big stock fight between people who just wanted cash and sold off divisions to fund a share buyback. My father bought the remaining part of the company and moved the headquarters to South Carolina in 1970."
Innovation and tradition are both important to Kent. He sits at a heavy wooden desk that belonged to his great-grandfather and, in a labor of love, has restored three historic office buildings in downtown Greenville. He's also in the process of expanding the golf socks business into a performance apparel division that will manufacture underwear, shirts, vests, and jackets for the golf market.
Kent's primary goal isn't product diversity for its own sake, but rather for its contribution to preservation of the company for future generations. He has four children aged 8 to 19.
The only other family member currently in the company is sixth-generation member Kent Barber, 31, director of operations for the apparel division and Kent's nephew. "What's really cool is the long-term vision to keep it going," Barber says. "You feel like you're part of something larger than just your own career."
Kent takes the lessons of the 1960s ownership turmoil to heart. He's the sole shareholder now, but he knows a transition plan is essential. "The hardest thing for a family business is continuity of ownership," he points out. "You can't just go down to the bank and take out a big loan to buy out the shareholders. It doesn't often work that easily." He is working with consultants on an orderly ownership transition. "We put a plan in place last year, he says, "but it has to be a living document, because things change."
Dave Donelson is a business writer in West Harrison, N.Y.
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