With its industry threatened by imports from China and losing 340,000 jobs over five years, a South Jersey textile mill joined the panic, but only for a short time.
"I just decided that I'd better wake up and figure out a long-range strategy for running this business," said Randolph S. Taylor, chief executive officer of Absecon Mills Inc.
He did, and it is working.
The 150-employee, 29-year-old firm, he said, is finding ways to compete, using techniques pioneered by carmaker Henry Ford and enhanced years later by Toyota Motor Corp. and others.
Over the last decade, Absecon has become a leader in several segments of the contract upholstery-weaving industry. You probably have sat on its custom-weaved fabrics if you have gone to a church or synagogue, or to a movie. Or if you have stayed in a hotel; driven a postal, parcel delivery or garbage truck; or piloted a military aircraft.
If you are called in by an Internal Revenue Service auditor, the hot seat's fabric will have been woven by his small firm on a back road near Cologne in Atlantic County. And, later this year, if you find yourself sitting in the Singapore Airport, you will be resting on fabric woven in New Jersey.
The domestic textile industry has been shrinking - from 1.1 million employees to 760,000 between 2000 and 2005. But weaving runs deep in the Taylor family. His grandfather, Fred Taylor, emmigrated from England to work in Philadelphia's now-long-gone textile mills. His father, Howard Taylor, followed him into the craft, setting up a mill in 1951 to weave canvas Army tents for the Korean War, and establishing Absecon in 1978.
For a time, Taylor, 58, who took over when his father died in 1991, experimented with mills overseas, but that wasn't successful. So he went to textile industry seminars, listened to customers, and came up with a way to give New Jersey fabrics an edge over imports.
He knew from the start that cutting costs had to be part of the strategy. But it turned out that there was something more important: completing an order faster than Chinese rivals.
Absecon's customers are makers of seating for churches, synagogues, theaters, hotels, schools, dormitories, offices, hospitals, nursing homes, trucks, cruise ships and aircraft. In the New Jersey Devils' new hockey arena, the seats will be covered with its fabric.
Picking colors is often the last step in big projects.
"Unless a distributor is willing to sit on a ton of inventory, and risk the high cost of having obsolete colors, China can't compete with us," said David Adair, who worked his way up over 18 years from warehouse worker to executive vice president.
Absecon attributes its success to a system called "lean manufacturing," similar to Six Sigma, quality circles and other systems that have gained favor at General Electric Co. and other high-profile companies.
The brainstorming on how to improve is done by workers. "Instead of top-down management, our job is to support the workers who are making suggestions," Taylor said.
The improvement has been dramatic. Absecon has cut the time between receiving an order and delivering a product from 28 to 14 days. That beats the 10 to 12 weeks it takes to get an order from China by ship.
"If Chinese goods are shipped by air freight, the price advantage shifts back to the American market," Taylor said. And even by air, Chinese mills can't match Absecon's new 14-day response time, he added.
This progress hasn't made Taylor happy about textile imports. His industry "was sacrificed," he protests, so conglomerates could make big money in the vast Chinese marketplace.
Taylor said that, despite having to deal with utility costs that are much higher than for rivals in North Carolina, he is once again optimistic. With help from universities, he is working on new types of fabrics.
Noting that Absecon is a private family company, he won't disclose revenue. Nor will he discuss what he pays workers, except to say that, on the whole, the mill is competitive with nearby casinos. If progress continues, he said, there will be a profit-sharing program for workers.
The turnaround began when the company introduced lean manufacturing, aided by $180,000 worth of training grants from the State of New Jersey.
"Lean manufacturing," Adair said, "is about cutting wasted steps, wasted motion and wasted material." It is also about getting it right the first time. Repeating work, particularly if it requires recycling faulty product, is expensive.
Quality is very important. "We want people to get tired of a fabric before it wears out," Taylor said. Longer life reduces the overall cost of using Absecon products.
Teams of workers, representing all disciplines in the process, continuously study every detail of the work, seeking ways to improve and evidence of backsliding into old habits. At times, they watch videotape of themselves in action.
"They brainstorm in a circle, each speaking in turn. It is very common for a session to produce 48 ideas. Some come up with 60 or more," Adair said.
They started by measuring the time it would take "in an ideal world" to perform each task, Taylor said. As it turned out, the work required to produce fabric - from order to delivery - takes only three hours.
Taylor said that they would never get down to that number, but that knowing it would help improve on the 14 days now required.
Many changes were mundane. Tools were moved closer to where they are used. The shape of each tool was painted on storage racks to make it instantly apparent where it went when returned.
The flow of work was changed to reduce the set-up time between jobs. Tighter monitoring makes certain that the right materials - in the right amount - are available when needed.
"Excess inventory ties up cash and generates interest costs," Taylor said.
Suggestions are rated by the teams as high- or low-impact, and on whether they can be acted on right away. Some require evaluating whether new or additional equipment would produce good results.
The analysis started with the warps and computer-assisted looms, many of them operated by Hispanic former migrant farm workers, and has spread to office and design processes.
Some academics, including the Wharton School's Mary J. Benner, say strict process management has value in some areas, but can, as she has written, "drive out experimentation" if it is allowed to "migrate into exploratory units and processes."
Taylor insists he has avoided those risks, that his lean approach liberates workers: "We're taking out mundane things that allows more time for creative juices to flow. We're taking stress out of the work, and that lets people focus on creativity."