published Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Fireproof denim delivers jobs for Georgia factory

Rolls of fabric are stored in the distribution center Monday at Mt. Vernon Mills in Trion, Ga.
Rolls of fabric are stored in the distribution center Monday at Mt. Vernon Mills in Trion, Ga.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

TRION, Ga. — Steam boiled into the Monday morning skyline as this sleepy town woke up with renewed purpose.

The fabric business is intensifying again in what has been called the U.S. denim capital, which survived Sherman's march to the sea but was badly battered by the Great Recession.

Mount Vernon Mills prospered when jeans' popularity peaked, but languished during the past decade as Asian competitors -- free from wage spikes and government regulations -- ate into profits.

The city of Trion, which receives about 75 percent of its tax revenue from denim and finishing plants, suffered right along with Mount Vernon when the company was forced to lay off all 250 workers on the denim plant's third-shift.

But things are starting to look up this year, thanks to a new line of business.

Mount Vernon still sells fabric to the biggest names in denim like Lee, Wrangler, Carhartt and Dickie, but with an added twist -- much of the material is fireproof.

"Passing a rule to require workers to wear fireproof clothes is the best thing OSHA's ever done," said Don Henderson, vice president and general manager of Mount Vernon's Trion operation.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration began in the last two years to enforce a rule that requires many electrical and oil workers to wear fire-resistant clothes.

The rule has been a boon for business in Trion.

Since the plant began manufacturing fireproof clothing in 2005, the company's market share in the flame-resistant sector has jumped to more than 40 percent, Henderson said.

The fireproof fabric business now makes up a fifth of the Trion's output, he said, and could go even higher to serve the expanding domestic oil and gas industry.

The expansion created more than 100 jobs since the layoffs of 2008, boosting total employment at the plant to about 1,300. This year, Mount Vernon plans to invest $5.5 million in the fire-resistant product line to capture additional market share.

Over the last two years, South Carolina-based Mount Vernon already has pumped more than $15 million into the historic plant, parts of which date back to 1876.

That was the year the plant burned to the ground, Henderson said.

"But before the embers were cold, [then-owner Andrew] Algood was out in the forest marking which trees he was going to use to build it back twice as big," Henderson said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, nearly 30 similar mills sprung from the earth, dotting the Georgia countryside during the textile industry's heyday.

A Mount Vernon executive said that only one of those mills survived -- the Trion plant.

These days, Mount Vernon uses a steam plant to power its machines instead of the old water wheel. Mechanized spools wash the denim through an ammonium phosphate bath, which forms a flame-resistant chemical bond that can survive 100 cycles through an industrial washing machine, officials say.

Just to be sure it works, workers regularly try to set the fabric on fire -- first after 50 washes, then again after 100. Untreated denim burns almost completely after 12 seconds of exposure to a flame.

But the company's fireproofed material just blackens a bit and becomes brittle.

Other tests involve dressing a mannequin from head to toe in the company's garb and blanketing it with jets of flaming gas, and zapping the clothes with arcs of electricity.

"In this business, we have to be sure," said Henderson.

Though the plant has shed some workers permanently over the years, replacing manual labor with automated processes has been necessary to keep up, said Bill Sabo, manager of the Trion Finishing Plant.

Sabo is especially proud of the company's nine-story, $20 million automated distribution plant -- the tallest building in Chattooga County.

High shelves stretch off into the distance, piled high with rolls of fabric. Between the rows, robots on rails zip back and forth, up and down, depositing and withdrawing fabric as necessary.

"I've been here 33 years, and though we've got fewer people, we're putting out more yards than we were before," Sabo said. "We've doubled our [flame-resistant] output alone since 2010."

The entire plant produces about 2.2 million yards of material each week, he said, with a capacity for about 3 million.

In addition to creating products for utilities like TVA and contractors like Halliburton, Trion's workers also are manufacturing the uniforms for all four branches of the U.S. military.

The two biggest reasons for the plant's recovery are Mount Vernon's six-state, vertically integrated footprint, which keeps costs low, and a new wave of consumer longing for homegrown apparel, said David Tuggle, product development manager at Trion.

"But the denim end of the business has been our biggest growth area," Tuggle said. "The working guy, the electrician and the guy in the oil field, they like to wear blue jeans to work. And they don't want to buy anything out of China."

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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