Note: Upon reading the published article, Absecon Mills provided the following testimonial – “Getting ISO certified would have been much more difficult if it weren’t for the help Absecon received from NJMEP. Thanks again for all the help and support you provide for our company.” – Ethan Taylor, Absecon Mills
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Absecon Mills’ 100,000-square-foot workshop has people you don’t find these days at lots of other American textile factories.
They’re called workers.
Absecon Mills has more than 75 of them in its plant, and another 15 or so people selling the products they turn out to customers across the U.S. and beyond. Those products include everything from movie-theater seat coverings to glass fiber substitutes in surfboard coatings to cloth that goes into bullet-proof vests to fabrics used to armor military vehicles.
In those ballistics-grade fabrics, documentation is a key. If a bullet-proof vest should ever fail, investigators will trace responsibility back through every step of the supply and production chain.
The new emphasis on documentation recently led to a new international certification for Absecon Mills, plus new investments in fabric research and development. That’s a major commitment for a family-owned company in a textile industry that shed 75 percent of its jobs across the U.S. during a recent 20-year period.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics counted more than 1.8 million jobs in all sectors of the U.S. textile industry in 1992. By 2012, textile employment had dropped below 576,000, BLS reported.
“I can name you 20 mills that have gone out of business,” says Jim Morelli, an industry veteran who became Absecon Mills’ president last year. He added that hundreds of thousands of jobs were “toast” as textile companies closed plants here and moved production overseas in search of lower costs.
But this local company is not just hanging on, it’s growing. David Adair, the executive vice president, said sales were up by more than $2.2 million during the past 18 months. Absecon Mills also added a second shift, bringing 14 new workers to its workshop, which is in a mainly agricultural section of Galloway Township.
And maybe because not many people see the plant, Absecon Mills is something of a secret, even in its home region almost 40 years after it was founded in 1977.
“If I’m out at a party and tell people I work for a textile company, some of them say, ‘You what? Those still exist here?’” said Adair, a 27-year veteran of a company that has survived much more than industry cutbacks.
In April 2011, a fire hit part of the mill and burned for 20 hours, partly because its area doesn’t have water lines and fire tanker trucks kept running dry. The fire burned down walls, collapsed a section of the roof and closed the workshop for weeks, keeping workers off their jobs and ruining everything in the plant.
The company lost 150,000 yards of fabric and another 80,000 pounds of yarn to smoke damage, all together worth “millions and millions of dollars,” Adair said . But one small bit of good news was that 95 percent of the products scheduled for immediate delivery were already out the mill’s doors, in a separate warehouse.
“There were a few calls going out and saying, ‘There’s going to be a slight delay in your delivery,’” Adair said. But people at Absecon Mills also saw positives in some of the calls that came into the company’s offices, which were relocated within hours to a sister business, Douglass Industries, in Egg Harbor City. (The two companies are co-owned by brothers Randy and Douglass Taylor. Randy focuses on Absecon Mills and his brother runs Douglass Industries.)
“Customers were saying, ‘Do you need us to pay all our invoices early?’ … And suppliers gave us preferential treatment” to get Absecon Mills back up and running after the damage was cleaned up and all workers were back within three weeks of the fire, Adair said. He cites that as evidence of the relationships the owners have developed over decades when they’ve “done the right thing” in business.
Another group they did right by after the fire was the workers: The company kept paying them even when the workshop was shut down.
Part of the reason for Absecon Mills’ latest round of growth is that it recently won certification from the Switzerland-based International Organization for Standardization, or ISO. That took a year’s worth of effort by the company that included extensive training for workers and improved documentation of all its processes and suppliers.
It was an expensive proposition. Company officials figure that ISO approval cost $80,000 to $100,000 to gain, including the staff time involved. The project leader was Ethan Taylor, Absecon Mills’ quality manager and a third-generation owner — the family roots in the fabric business tie back to his grandparents, Howard and Naomi Taylor, who founded Douglass Industries in 1954. Ethan Taylor’s first job in the company was cutting the lawn at the original plant.
But the rewards of the ISO certification include eligibility for government contracts, including those high-tech military fabrics that Absecon Mills sees as growth opportunities. Adair said the core business is still seating fabrics, but these “technical fabrics” are now about 20 percent of sales and climbing.
“The potential is such that we’re just really scratching the surface,” he said. “It’s a multibillion-dollar business that’s out there.”
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