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Journal Inquirer: Looms may be humming again by month's end

June 21, 2014
In The News

This week’s seemingly sudden reprieve that kept the 161-year-old Warren Corp. textile mill from closing wasn’t really last-minute at all—and it certainly wasn’t a slam dunk, according to U.S. Rep Joseph D. Courtney, who was in the thick of the effort to keep the mill’s doors open. 

“I never would have predicted this outcome back in the fall,” Courtney, D-2nd District, said Thursday.

Now that it’s a done deal, however, the new owner wants to get production moving as soon as possible, he added. 

“They want to get the looms going by the end of this month,” Courtney said of the new owners, Miami-based American Woolen Co. 

In fact, the company’s chief executive officer said Friday that he wants to move the company’s headquarters to Stafford.

American Woolen’s acquisition of the mill required an exceedingly rare alignment of just the right timing, an enthusiastic and highly qualified buyer, an unusually rapid bureaucratic response, and a resurgence of consumers’ appetite for American-made products, Courtney said.
“The real key was the workers,” the Vernon lawmaker explained in a phone interview. Many of the mill’s remaining 80 highly skilled employees have been with the company 10 to 20 years and more, Courtney said. They are among the few people remaining in the nation’s workforce who have the necessary experience to operate the looms and other equipment used to make quality woolen fabric—the kind sought after by high-end apparel manufacturers, he said. 

That factor was more than enough to catch the attention of American Woolen CEO Jacob Harrison Long, who said Wednesday that his hope is to make his company “America’s premier supplier of worsted and woolen fabrics.”

Long said American Woolen had been looking into purchasing the company “for the better half of seven months.”

And he was clear that Warren Mill’s workers were absolutely key in drawing him to look into acquiring the Stafford complex.

“The machines don’t make the textiles,” he said. “It’s the skilled people working the machines that gets you the textiles.”

Courtney said Long has expressed a hope of recalling some laid-off Warren workers, part of what had been a workforce of more than 160. Although some of the former workers may have retired, he said, many still live in town and will likely be contacted about returning to work.

“The message to workers is that Long is someone who knows how to run the business,” the congressman said.

And Long isn’t only interested in restoring the “made in America” aspect of apparel, Courtney added. He’s also interested in establishing a “local brand,” emphasizing the town where products are made, he said. 

Courtney, however, also allowed that he had been less than sanguine last fall about the mill’s future.

“The longer it took to find a buyer, the less likely it seemed that it would be able to remain open,” he said.

But Long’s white-knight-style arrival late last year set off a chain reaction leading to the buyout, Courtney said.

Those steps included a rapid review and at least initial clearance of the Furnace Avenue site by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Old factory sites are often tainted by decades of chemicals and other toxins seeping into the soil. The most severely polluted need so-called “brownfield remediation,” which can include expensive removal of contaminated soil, among other actions. 

Before he took the title to the plant, the buyer “had to be sure he isn’t getting a hot potato,” Courtney said.
The congressman’s meeting with DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee precipitated an expedited review, he said, adding that officials in the state Department of Economic and Community Development also were brought into the loop.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Friday said that to support the Warren Mill initiative, the DECD will provide American Woolen with a $300,000 “job creation incentive loan,” as well as a $100,000 matching grant through the Small Business Express Program. Funds will be used to help cover building acquisition costs, Malloy said, as the company seeks to add up to 38 workers to its payroll.
American Woolen has also been approved for liability protections as part of the “Abandoned Brownfield Cleanup Program,” the governor added. 

The Warren Mill had been a subsidiary of the Italian clothier Loro Piana for 25 years and was expected to have closed its doors for good this month. The textiles the mill produces include cashmere, camel hair, silk, and worsted wool. 

The company operates two factory buildings on Furnace Avenue, and a more modern corporate office located off West Street. 

Loro Piana said Wednesday in a news release that “it is grateful to have found a solution” that will enable Warren to continue to be a source of textile manufacturing and employment in Connecticut.

No financial details of the deal were disclosed.

In a phone interview Friday from Miami, Long said that he’s convinced the time is ripe to develop high quality, American-made textiles. For one thing, he said, the fashion pendulum in men’s wear has been swinging back from business casual to more formal attire.
Long, 44, also said that he had looked at locating his American Woolen’s headquarters somewhere in the south—either in Georgia or North Carolina—but found it more advantageous to make Stafford the global headquarters.

And that’s because of the level of skill that Warren workers possess, he said, adding that they’re precisely what he needs to turn out the high-end textiles he envisions.

That expertise even trumps the lower taxes, cheaper utilities, and lower wages generally found in the two other states he had explored, he said. 

It also doesn’t hurt that Stafford is near the major fashion centers of New York City and Boston, he added. And while his company will establish some type of presence in New York to be easily accessible to fashion industry leaders, Long said he’s adamant that Stafford will be the company’s headquarters.
Long said he envisions re-establishing the American textile industry by “rebranding” it, in much the same way that craft brewing has changed the way younger people in particular perceive and buy beer. 

Eventually, Long said, he envisions bringing Warren Mill—henceforth to be known as American Woolen Warren Mill—back to its former employment levels. Many former workers he’s contacted about returning have agreed to do so, he added.

Additionally, Long said, he envisions making the Stafford mill a “destination” for those seeking high-quality textiles by opening a retail space in one of the buildings that will be open to the public. 

He said he’ll split his time for now between Stafford and his existing home in Florida, where his wife and two small children live and have ties to the community.
“I’ll truly become a frequent flier,” he said with a laugh.

American Woolen’s roots date back to the first half of the 20th century when it was America’s worsted and woolen apparel fabric leader with about 60 mills throughout the Northeast, a company history says. In 2013 the company was acquired by Long, an entrepreneur with the stated goal of “reintroducing the concept of premium apparel textile manufacturing to the American market.”

Before becoming involved in textile manufacturing, Long spent 20 years as a Europe-based investment banker, the background information says. While working in Italy from 2006 to 2012, “he developed extensive contacts in, as well as a deep appreciation for, the Italian textile and apparel industry with its focus on product quality and luxury versus the large-scale, commodity-oriented manufacturing that typifies the U.S. textile industry,” the company history says.