Charleston Regional Development Alliance

Berkeley, Charleston & Dorchester Counties

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Union Underwear Inc. to hire 100-200 workers at large distribution center

May 1, 2005
Charleston Post and Courier
By John P. McDermott
Bucking otherwise gloomy trends for U.S. textile makers, a company that is part of Fruit of the Loom said Tuesday it plans to hire 100 to 200 workers at a large distribution center it is building near Jedburg.

Bowling Green, Ky.-based Union Underwear Inc. hopes to open the 350,000-square-foot first phase no later than February, said John B. Holland, president of Fruit of the Loom.

Holland declined to disclose the value of the investment. He also said the company will consider building additional phases but made no guarantees.

Union picked Berkeley County after looking at every major port city in the Southeast, Holland said at a news conference at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance headquarters Tuesday.

"We're very impressed with the facilities available at the Port of Charleston," he said.

Holland said some of the other key attractions included state tax incentives available to new and expanding businesses, as well as the quality of the local labor force.

Also, Holland liked the "zeal" that business recruiters showed, saying they "almost wrestled us to the ground" to win the project, which will pay wages at or above the county's average of $10 to $11 an hour.

Fruit of the Loom has been in the region's sights for more than a year. The company is now starting to clear trees from a property it bought along Interstate 26, just below the Piggly Wiggly distribution center. Hiring is expected to begin by the end of the year.

"I'll tell you this was something of a major decision for us," Holland said.

The competition within the global textile business has grown more fierce, especially since quotas on imports were lifted in January, he said.

"But fortunately, we're one of the few in the industry that continues to be successful ... and continues to make capital investment in the United States," Holland said.

Fruit of the Loom is a "vertical" manufacturer of cotton garments, meaning it makes its goods practically from scratch. Other brands include BVD and Lofteez.

Holland said the Berkeley County distribution center will process imported underwear and other items for "just-in-time" delivery to North American customers, including Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, he said. It also will handle exports. "What we're trying to do is create something that is state of the art, with a lot of flexibility," Holland said.

The textile business has changed dramatically since Holland joined Fruit of the Loom as transportation manager in 1961. He rose to president and chief operating officer by the mid-1970s, and served in those roles for about 20 years.

Fruit of the Loom was operating under bankruptcy protection in the late 1990s when Holland came out of retirement to engineer a financial turnaround. His fans now include superstar investor Warren Buffett, whose Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought Fruit of the Loom for $835 million three years ago.

Holland said his company has made a big push to upgrade equipment and take advantage of new technologies to lower its production costs and remain competitive. He estimated that Fruit of the Loom has invested $225 million in those areas over the past five years.

Sales at Fruit of the Loom were $1.3 billion in 2004. In its annual report, Berkshire Hathaway said the household brand was single-handedly responsible for the 6 percent revenue increase last year in its broader $2.2 billion apparel business, which earned $325 million in pretax profit.
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