Industry icon Jim Conner remembered

Posted September 2, 2020

 

I was informed a few days ago of the passing of an industry icon to whom I came to know during my early years of textile journalism and the twilight years of his long and storied career in the industry. Jim Conner, who in 2001 retired as executive director of the now-defunct American Yarn Spinners Association (AYSA), Gastonia, N.C., died last November at age 82 after moving back to and spending his retirement in his native Georgia. Many in the industry had lost contact with him. But his name came up recently.

 

Peter Hegarty, who worked in Conner’s office at the American Textile Export Company (AMTEC), and Mike Hubbard, Conner’s successor at the AYSA, broached the question of their former colleague’s whereabouts, then found his obituary from late last year. They brought the news to my attention, and his passing should not go unmentioned, especially given his impact on the U.S. yarn/textile industry.

 

I interviewed Conner a few weeks before his retirement in September 2001 after a 30-year career leading the association. As many of you remember, that was a good time to get out while the getting was good. The U.S. textile industry’s downturn was in full force, and China was about to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December of that year – which most suspected would deal another major blow to the manufacturing sector (and it did).

 

In the interview for Southern Textile News (STN), he told me, “Without question, the last two years have been the most difficult for the textile industry during my career.” Asked to offer an outlook for the industry, he answered, “In my view, the survivors will be those companies with the lowest debt-to-asset ratio, the technology in place to realize maximum cost efficiencies and a marketing plan flexible enough to meet ever-changing customer demands.” Prophetic, indeed.

 

Among his many honors were his being named among the Top 50 Textile Leaders of the Century in 1999 by Textile World and receiving the Southern Textile Association’s (STA’s) highest honor, the Chapman Award, in 2001.

 

In an editorial to accompany the Q&A, I wrote: “Conner learned how to become the ‘conscience of the industry,’ as then-AYSA counsel Frederick Houston suggested he should become when Conner joined the association in 1971. It took Conner several years to fully comprehend the meaning of that phrase, he said, but experience is a good teacher. Basically, he said he learned ‘the importance of dealing with members honestly and straightforward rather than what I thought they wanted to hear.”

 

The editorial continued: “It’s hard to imagine that Conner has ever said anything just to appease someone. He’s hardly one to mince words. He can be diplomatic, yes – and very likable – but he’s brutally honest, as well, and we consider that an asset for a person in his position.”

 

Conner fondly remembered

 

Those who knew or worked with Conner spoke fondly of him, including Hegarty, who called him a “fearless promoter of USA textiles.”

 

“Jim Conner was a friend and mentor who I have known for most of my textile career in America,” said Hegarty, a native of the U.K., who now serves as president of TriBlend Textiles, LLC. “I traveled the world with Jim and was always impressed by how well he was received globally by textile executives in the public and private sectors. Everyone knew and respected Jim.

 

“As the leader and face – even though he always used an old photo – of AYSA, he spearheaded the promotion of USA textiles at home and abroad, and produced the camaraderie of competing textile executives in ways that had never been seen before,” he added. “This can be exemplified in today's NCTO (National Council of Textile Organizations, which AYSA merged into). Jim was a skilled negotiator, especially when working quietly, yet effectively, on the sidelines of all the major textile trade agreements the USA entered in to – protecting HIS industry.”

 

Conner was an “instrumental vision” in the formation of AMTEC in 1985, Hegarty noted. This was the first export trading company of any kind to be certified by the U.S. government. Its formation, and its successful increase in the export of USA yarn, resulted in the AYSA being awarded the coveted President's “E” Star Award for Excellence in Exporting, he pointed out.

 

“We had may fun times, too,” Hegarty added. “Whether it was a ‘bierkeller’ (beer cellar) in Germany, a honky-tonk in Latin America or a formal dinner at a foreign embassy, Jim would be the center of the entertainment. Again, he was first and foremost my friend and he will be missed.”

 

Lillian Link, longtime secretary/treasurer of the STA, worked for Conner for 27 years when she was on the AYSA staff, as well. Conner hired her on the spot when she was a young single mother, and introduced her to the industry.

 

“I have enjoyed more that 40 years in the textile industry all because of him,” Link said. “He taught me everything I know. He was a man of character and integrity but one who didn’t mind saying what he thought. I will forever be grateful for everything he instilled in me.”

 

Robin Haynes, current treasurer and director of finance and administration of the NCTO, worked with Conner for 22 years at AYSA. Echoing Link, she said his influence in molding her career was immense.

 

“He was a teacher, a mentor, a father-figure, the likes of which I had not known in my life,” Haynes said. “He most definitely set the foundation for my 40 years in association work serving the textile industry. He was a wealth of knowledge and most instrumental in teaching me in the bookkeeping field, as I learned how to post and ‘close the books’ longhand for months before computerizing the accounting files on the first desktop computer AYSA purchased in 1985. He always said that experience was the best teacher!”

 

Conner, under the direction of the AYSA board, hired Hubbard in 2000 to be groomed for the job.

 

“In all of my adult life, Jim Conner likely had more influence on me than anybody else,” said Hubbard, current director of International Trade at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC). “From the very beginning, he was a mentor and a source of deep knowledge on a range of issues. Whether working, traveling or fishing together, he was a pleasure to be with. He brought an immense amount of respect to the industry in Washington because he was always a straight shooter, but he was also a creative thinker. His leadership laid the groundwork for much of the success we still enjoy today.”

 

Jim Chesnutt, chairman of National Spinning Co., Washington, N.C., was one of many industry leaders to serve as AYSA president and work closely with him.

 

“The industry has lost another great man,” Chesnutt said. “He worked tirelessly for the American Yarn Spinners for many years and enjoyed many successes. I will always remember his story about sitting on wing of airplane after it went into water on takeoff. He will be fondly remembered by many of us who had the privilege to work with him on our issues in Washington.”

 

Undoubtedly, the legacy Conner left is monumental, and his care for the industry is unquestionable. I well remember attending his retirement, a three-plus hour “lovefest” that attracted dozens of friends and colleagues who came to, laugh, tell stories and bid adieu to a friend and colleague who made a tremendous difference in many lives – and to an industry that survives today because of his influence and leadership. R.I.P, Jim.

 

Read Conner’s obituary here.

Two longtime staffers pay tribute to Conner

 

Lillian Link:

 

I was very saddened to learn that Jim Conner passed away more than eight months ago. He was one of (if not the best) boss I ever had, having worked for him for 27 years at American Yarn Spinners Association.

 

He took a chance on me for which I am forever grateful. I was a young single mom at the time, with no real work experience other than being a bank teller. He hired me on the spot, I turned in my notice at the bank and never looked back.

 

I have enjoyed more that 40 years in the textile industry all because of him.  He taught me everything I know. In fact, he is the very one who set me up for the position I hold now managing the Southern Textile Association (STA). It started with his charging me with overseeing the Textured Yarn Association of America (TYAA) and the Carolinas Textile Club (CTC) in the mid-80s before contracting with STA to bring them under the AYSA umbrella.

 

Jim was a great negotiator and a warrior for the textile industry, working endless hours on numerous trade deals. He was a man of character and integrity but one who didn’t mind saying what he thought.

 

He survived a heart attack while in Europe and a plane crash – Flight 5050 – in New York City when Hurricane Hugo was threatening the U.S. coast. He enjoyed numerous deep-sea fishing trips with his buddies: Bruce Lanier, Artie Newcombe, Dick Hunnicutt, Bob Davis and Duke Kimbrell, to name a few. 

 

He was the life of the office Christmas parties, especially with the kids, always encouraging them to be as rowdy as they could possibly be without causing bodily injury. And, man, could he cook a beef tenderloin that was always on the Christmas party menu. Memories such as these will be forever etched in my mind.

 

I will forever be grateful for everything you instilled in me. Rest in peace Jim Conner, and may God bless and keep you forever and ever. 

 

Robin Haynes:

 

At the tender age of 19, while attending Gaston Community College, I was sent to a job interview, where Jim Conner hired me on the spot, just as he did Lillian. My eyes were opened to a world I didn’t know existed when I joined the AYSA staff, as association work is like no other.

 

It was more like a family, and Jim was more than just a boss. He showed care and compassion to his staff while instilling strong work ethics. He was a teacher, a mentor, a father-figure, the likes of which I had not known in my life.

 

He most definitely set the foundation for my 40 years in association work serving the textile industry, with 22 of those years working under his direction. He was a wealth of knowledge and most instrumental in teaching me in the bookkeeping field as I learned how to post and “close the books” longhand for months before computerizing the accounting files on the first desktop computer AYSA purchased in 1985. He always said that experience was the best teacher!

 

Jim Conner was a true champion for the yarn sector of the textile industry, as he worked diligently to serve the members of AYSA. He worked to influence legislation as he fought for U.S. jobs, advised on numerous bilateral and multinational trade negotiations, and organized trade missions abroad, as well as a host of other actions to the betterment of domestic textiles.

 

One case in point was in the mid-80s when a high-profile soft drink company introduced a new line of clothing as “all American” when they were in fact not made in America. He worked to rally the industry who strongly objected, with some companies pulling those soft drink vending machines from their plants. The company relented, saying the clothes would now be made in the USA. This was a result of strong leadership and industry pulling together!

 

Jim always said that AYSA was unique as it “worked behind the scenes to try to ward off problems before they became problems,” which also made him unique. He worked with other textile groups such as ATMI (American Textile Manufacturers Institute); was instrumental in founding the Craft Yarn Council of America (CYCA) to promote the knit and crochet industry; and also coordinated the formation of AMTEC (the American Textile Export Company), the export trading company constructed to represent domestic members in exporting their products – that’s where Peter Hegarty came into the picture.

 

I was also saddened and shocked to recently learn of Jim Conner’s passing last year. He truly deserved a celebration of life and tribute by his numerous industry friends and colleagues. In remembering Jim and his legacy, I will always be grateful for that day I met the gentle but powerful man sitting behind his desk wearing the black-rimmed glasses and a sly smile, who put me to work in the absolute best and most far-reaching industry I know!

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