Industry difference maker Chesnutt going ‘whole hog’ into retirement
Posted November 5, 2020
In April 2014, I broached the ‘R’ word with septuagenarian Jim Chesnutt in his National Spinning Co. office in Washington, N.C. “Do you have any plans to retire?” I asked this veteran warhorse of the U.S. textile industry and the company’s then-chairman and CEO.
“Who knows how long ol’ Jim might be around,” he said. “I’m approaching 73 but I have fun every day. I had an agreement with our former chairman that I would be around until I had five days in a row that I didn’t want to come to work. Or if my health got to a point where I couldn’t give the company a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Or the first morning that I couldn’t find the office – then I’d probably go home and stay.”
Well, six years later, that day has come. Sitting in his SUV in the parking lot of a famous Eastern North Carolina barbecue joint in Greenville, N.C., recently, ol’ Chesnutt went, well, whole hog into explaining his reasons for deciding to hang up his hat, before reflecting on his long and storied career in the industry.
His decision likely comes much to the dismay of many who have witnessed him fighting in the trenches on the industry’s behalf during his 47-year career in its ranks.
Over a two-year span, he had major back surgery and two knees and a shoulder replaced, which took him out of everyday work life and made him realize that National Spinning would do just fine without him, he said. The company in 2018 had named Jim Booterbaugh CEO, so he knew National Spinning was in good, capable hands, he added.
Chesnutt expressed his desire to relinquish his role as chairman of the board in May, and last month he held the gavel for the last time at its board meeting. He will remain a member of the board and an advisor to the company for five years, assuming his health holds up, he said.
“My goal was to work until I was 80, which will be in August 2021. That is also the 100th anniversary year for National Spinning Co.,” he said.
“It seems like a lot of people in this industry are afraid to retire,” he added. “They’re more afraid of retiring than they were of getting married or having children. It is a fact that after you have worked so long that one day you were going to retire, and I knew at some point I'd have to do it.”
Chesnutt said he still plans to go to the office a couple of times a week, and will continue to attend industry events as he can. He also speaks several times a week with Booterbaugh, he said.
“The biggest disappointment in retiring is how much I’ll miss the many friends I’ve made,” he said. “And because of the virus, the opportunities to go to various meetings doesn’t exist right now.”
A roaring lion for U.S. textiles, Eastern N.C.
Speaking of friends, it has been one of life’s joys to have called Chesnutt one for more than two decades. We hit it off early on when we learned of each other’s Eastern North Carolina roots, growing up two counties away in different generations. I quickly learned that he cared deeply for his impoverished and often-ignored region of the world, his company and the American textile industry.
Behind his Southern geniality and pleasant smile is a fighting spirit that I saw manifest itself several times during the industry’s battles in the years around the turn of the century, when elected officials and policymakers were using American textiles as a bargaining chip and many companies were hanging on by a thread as a result. If Chesnutt was in a room with anyone who had a hand in any of those decisions and that person was speaking at a podium, it was only a matter of time before everyone in the room would know exactly where Chesnutt stood. And he was not shy about standing up and taking a stand.
These mano-a-mano “battles” became legendary, be them with state or federal officials, or anyone with any say-so in the direction of the industry. Invariably, Chesnutt would rise and passionately state the industry’s case, demand action and usually toss in a smoke bomb or two, such as “I’ve heard this kind of bull from people in Washington for years.” Jim Leonard III, when he was deputy assistant secretary for Textiles, Apparel and Consumer Goods in the U. S. Department of Commerce after serving as a longtime executive at Burlington Industries, was often on the receiving end of Chesnutt’s harangues.
Now, Chesnutt was never rude or hateful – most of these officials, such as Leonard, already knew him and were probably expecting a skirmish when they saw him – but he was resolute, spirited and fearless. And the session typically would end with the two greeting each other with a handshake and a private talk.
The poignancy and zeal of this industry pugilist, Chesnutt, is demonstrated in this excerpt from a letter he penned to elected representatives regarding a 2017 National Spinning plant closure: “Elected representatives in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have ignored blue-collar workers for decades. Bad trade agreements have been negotiated by bureaucrats and approved by Congress and signed by presidents with little thought to the consequences for hard-working U.S. citizens living in rural communities.”
He continued: “This is another sad day. Am I angry? Hell yes! Don’t send me any future mailings asking for campaign monies, as I am finished. … You all are out chasing the Amazons and ignoring the jobs that feed rural areas.”
As a leader in our industry and in community and state endeavors, Chesnutt had access to many decisionmakers and served as a heroic four-star general for his employees and neighbors. In the textile sector, he served stints as the top officer with the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), the American Yarn Spinners Association (AYSA), the North Carolina Textile Manufacturers Association (NCTMA) and the National Cotton Council (NCC), along with serving on the board of the American Cotton Exchange.
It's no secret just how far the U.S. textile industry steeply declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as NAFTA and other trade agreements came along, and China was allowed to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO). But would there even be any domestic textile industry left were it not for the likes of Chesnutt, Duke Kimbrell, Roger Milliken, Allen Gant Jr., Ed Schrum and a number of other leaders? My guess is no.
Part of the reason was these and other giants of our industry recognized the need to change in order to see some kind of silver lining in certain trade deals, and try to work with presidential administrations to find the good, Chesnutt said.
“We have come a long way from being in a position of having to oppose everything to now being positive and being for something if it doesn’t damage us,” he told me in that 2014 interview. “In the old days, we opposed NAFTA, we opposed CAFTA, we opposed everything. And now this industry has moved forward and accepted globalization and accepted that we all do business somewhere else and we source from other places. We’ve accepted it and embraced it and we can be for something, provided it does no harm. Just like the medical profession: First, do no harm. I think that’s important. That was a big step for us.”
Like many in the industry, National Spinning, after being decimated for years by low-lost imports, had to retool and diversify just to survive. (Who could’ve ever imagined 20 years ago the company would now be producing nonwovens in addition to its premier product, spun yarn?) And ironically, the company’s craft yarns division now heavily relies on imports. The Hampton Arts unit offers craft products, not knitting yarns.
“Ninety-percent of what we sell though that division is imported,” he said.” And for someone who has railed against imports for years, that sometimes is hard to stomach. But most of what we sell, you cannot source in this country.”
‘A good way to end your career’
In our rainy-day SUV conversation, I told Chesnutt he probably never imagined, when he started his career in the banking industry, that at the end of his career, he would be sitting in front of a barbecue restaurant talking about the textile industry.
“Not at all, especially after graduating from East Carolina, because we didn't have a textile department here – zero,” he said.
But after 10 years in banking, he was offered an opportunity at spinner Harriet & Henderson Yarns in Henderson, N.C., where he spent 23 years before joining National Spinning in 1997.
Some of the most difficult times in his career were those during the industry’s downturn when he had tell employees their plant was closing, he said. I reminded him of an anecdote he had shared with me years ago, when he saw one of his former longtime employees working the breakfast bar at a local hotel in Washington, N.C. She had told him something to this effect: “Mr. Chesnutt, I wish I was still working at National Spinning because I have to work two jobs now just to make ends meet.”
“It was a tough situation and we saw it all over our industry, especially in the Southeast,” Chesnutt recalled. “The work was hard, but they were steady jobs that paid well, and the benefits were unbelievably good.”
We also talked Eastern North Carolina and the strong voice he lent the region to try to improve its standing in the state. He devoted much of his career to the advocacy of jobs and economic development and growth of North Carolina, focusing particularly Down East. He has served in numerous capacities, including several on boards and councils at his beloved alma mater, ECU. He currently is a member of the Board of Trustees of Vidant Hospital and on the board of directors of its parent company.
“If east of I-95 was a state, it would be the unhealthiest state in the country,” he said. “And maybe that's a lot of barbecue and a lot of fatback, maybe, and perhaps a lot of smoking and some of the whiskey that was made down here for years. If you look at North Carolina today, from the Tidewater complex on the state line to south of Wilmington, the only oasis in the East of any consequence is Greenville. And we have to develop this entire region in order to get this part of the country to where it needs to be. And the hospital system and the university are the places that will make a lot of this development happen.”
He added: “I will devote most of my remaining time as I can giving back to the community and being involved in the Economic Development Commission in Beaufort County (where he has a beach house), and in Pitt County, taking an active part in the hospitals and the university.”
Retiring now is easier because, after years of reassembling and finding its way in the new landscape, National Spinning is in a strong position and is on a solid path for continued success after 99 years in business, he added.
“The craft business is beyond expectations during the pandemic because people are at home cocooning,” Chesnutt said. “Many have decided they needed to make something, so they are either going to Walmart or Michael's or Joann Fabrics and buying craft products. And that has almost completely depleted our inventory, but we are fortunate to have good manufacturers and good feet on the ground in China. The craft business is a diversification that the company could not be more pleased with.”
Likewise, its nonwovens business is thriving, especially during COVID-19 as remodeling projects and new home construction has taken off, he added. Its Carolina Nonwovens division in Maiden, N.C., produces premium insulation for dishwashers and nonwovens for automobiles and prison and jail cots – and these products have been “rolling” non-stop, he said. And its home furnishings and military businesses are also going strong, he noted.
Its yarn division, which includes a yarn-spinning facility in Whiteville, N.C., and a fiber-blending plant in Kinston, N.C., is also running at full capacity, he reported. The Whiteville plant makes yarn for Coats and Clark, owned by Spinrite.
“The hosiery business is coming back in a big way after the hosiery plants all reopened,” he said. “And we're selling a lot of greige yarn that is going to the package dyers. But what is really strong for us is wool and wool blends. The yarn plant is essentially full as long as we can keep a complement of people to keep it full.”
During the pandemic, National Spinning has been supplying yarn to sock maker Thorlo, Inc., which has pivoted into the production of face masks, as well as another hosiery producer.
Chesnutt added that with Booterbaugh and the company’s division managers – Ed Hull of Carolina Nonwovens, Inc., Mike Behar of Hampton Art, Inc. and Kenny Goodman of National Spinning, LLC – as well as all the team members within each, he has no reservations about stepping aside.
“I never even worry about it,” he said. “They’re rock stars.”
He continued: “The company is in good condition. Financially, we're in good position. We’re a diversified, strong, financially centered company with a great group of young people to run it. What a good way to end your career.”
Chesnutt plans to spend as much time as possible in retirement at his beach house in Carteret County and his lake house at Lake Gaston in Warren County, N.C. Last year, he sold the family’s riverfront home in Washington, N.C., and moved 30 miles to Greenville, N.C. – which feels like a homecoming, he said.
“After leaving here at 1963 when I graduated, I feel like I'm back home because I’m probably not going to live in (his hometown of) Turkey, N.C., again,” he said. “But with all that said, there have been so many high points in my career in this industry. I've been in the business for 47 years after 10 years in the bank, and there's no doubt that the people I've met and the rewards we've had and the good things that have happened – they’re all pretty good. I have no reservations. It's been a great run, a great decision to be in this business.”