Kayla Beaty | Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2017 5:25 pm
Sock mill to add 442 more jobs
Fort Payne was, at one time, known internationally as the “Sock Capital of the World,” and while the city may be a ways away from regaining that moniker, a new deal with Wal-Mart and the Renfro Corporation is a positive step in the right direction.
According to Renfro CEO Bud Kilby, Wal-Mart had contacted the business “several years ago” when it first began its “Made-in-the-USA” initiative.
Kilby said Wal-Mart was aware of his company’s manufacturing capacity, and asked them if they would like to participate in the initiative. He said this latest initiative expands the U.S. product offering at Wal-Mart.
“Renfro began selling socks to Wal-Mart in the late 1970s,” Kilby said. “As Wal-Mart has grown over the years, so has our business with Wal-Mart. Renfro remains a key supplier to Wal-Mart of a number of brands and a variety of socks and hosiery products.”
Kilby said Renfro supply’s Wal-Mart with Athletic Works, Fruit of the Loom, Work Gear and Dr. Scholl’s health care products — all of which are made in the USA.
Kilby said the arrangement came out of that shared interest.
Jimmy Durham, executive director for the DeKalb County Economic Development Authority, said the deal with the Renfro Corporation has been in the works for “quite some time,” but was recently confirmed.
Durham said Renfro is currently the biggest of 16 hosiery mills remaining in DeKalb County, and the contract would add an additional 442 jobs to a work force already more than 600 strong.
“Renfro presently has about 600 [employees], and they’ll be adding about 442 new ones,” Durham said. “They are our largest hosiery operation right now.
“We’ve got about 16 leftover from the approximately 125 when the hosiery industry was at its maximum.
“This is related to Wal-Mart’s ‘Made-in-USA’ campaign where they are trying to buy more American-made products. So, with Renfro being in Fort Payne and being big, they were able to land a contract with Wal-Mart that will hopefully bring back a lot of new jobs to Fort Payne.”
According to a January release from Wal-Mart, the company, which has 1.5 million associates across the U.S., had outlined plans to create more American jobs and invest in local communities.
The company was planning to invest $6.8 billion of capital investments in the U.S. in the coming year to support an estimated 34,000 jobs through expansion and improvement in the company’s store network.
The release also said that, in addition to 34,000 retail and construction jobs, the company agreed to invest in American jobs by purchasing an additional $250 billion in American-made, grown, assembled and sourced products through 2023.
Over the next fiscal year, the program will continue to provide job-creating opportunities, such as the deal with the Renfro Corporation.
Durham said the sock mill industry’s peak in DeKalb County was in the 1990s, but the local economy crashed, slicing the industry to these16 remaining plants — 14 in Fort Payne, one in Fyffe and the other in Henagar.
At the time, the unemployment rate skyrocketed to nearly 17 percent, Durham said.
The local economy has bounced back from those numbers, and is closer to the statewide average of 5.8 percent.
But, the new deal means good things for DeKalb County, and Durham is optimistic about the future of the sock industry in Fort Payne.
“We’re hoping that it will maybe put some people back to work in the hosiery industry again; hopefully better pay and increased pay, and we can try to get the economy picked up a little bit more,” Durham said. “I think the fact that we had some existing workers and available workers here, hopefully they will be able to get to work real quick.”
Kilby said the company has a long history in Fort Payne, and he’s happy to bring the influx of jobs to the area. He said the local office is currently in the process of filling the new positions, but that it would “be gradual and take place during 2017 and into 2018” as the factory’s capacities increase.
“The Fort Payne factory was established in the 1980s, so we’ve been there for a long time and are still making a significant number of socks there,” Kilby said. “We take a lot of pride in the Fort Payne area.”
Both manufacturing and supervisory positions will be amongst the 442 available jobs, Kilby said.
“Our expanded program at Wal-Mart represents meaningful growth in our business,” Kilby said. We expect the offering to continue to expand at Wal-Mart, resulting in continued job growth at our U.S. factories.”
Fort Payne Mayor Larry Chesser said he believes the deal will be a great addition to what is currently being offered by the city.
He, too, is optimistic that this agreement will bring future growth to the industry, as well.
“This deal is also a good opportunity for smaller mills to expand and gain more business and possible open up more mills,” Chesser said. “We’re happy to see [Renfro] coming.”
— Bradley Roberts contributed to this report