A Company That Knows How To Put Out A Fire

After 23 years at Milliken & Co., Jean Railey suddenly finds herself working the third shift, inspecting carpets--a task she left behind years ago. The victim of another corporate downsizing? Hardly. Bailey took up her new job Feb. 6--six days after she watched her workplace burn to the ground. The La Grange (Ga.) plant flared on Jan. 31, and two weeks later 600 of the plant's 720 employees had new positions at Milliken facilities, some as far away as Britain and Japan.

The scene seems out of place in this era of restructuring and benefit cutbacks. Many companies would use a disaster such as the La Grange fire as an opportunity for write-offs and rationalizations. Not Milliken. Its response to the inferno at a key production plant demonstrates the payoff from effective disaster planning and strong customer ties. It's also a powerful, if anachronistic, image of small-town Southern paternalism--a company taking care of its company town.

OPPORTUNITY. La Grange, population 30,000, is a place that textiles have dominated from the time of the Civil War. Since the 1960s, textile money has paid to build half of every new church in town, much of La Grange College, and the county government offices. Closely held Milliken, with $1 billion in sales worldwide, accounts for one in five jobs.

It was Milliken's Live Oak/Milstar complex--which finishes carpet from eight other factories in town--where the fire started at 2 p.m. on Jan. 31, engulfing the plant in an hour. Alarms rang as far away as Lanett, Ala. And an urgent call sounded at Milliken's Spartanburg (S.C.) headquarters, where Chairman Roger Milliken was hosting a meeting of the company's 100-person contract sales force. Company officials raced to telephones, vainly urging the U.S. Forest Service to drop fire-killing chemicals on the plant's roof. Soon, however, Milliken learned the loss would be total. "We have a terrible problem," the 79-year-old grandson of founder Seth Milliken told his sales reps. "It's also a tremendous opportunity."

The opportunity: to show customers just how good a supplier Milliken could be. Two planeloads of Milliken brass left Spartanburg that afternoon for La Grange. Over the next four days, salespeople worked the phones, contacting all 2,000 customers who might be affected. Getting the word out was critical. "Obviously, our competitors were going to be out there, telling everybody Milliken is out of business," says employee Robert Baird.

That evening, at Milliken's behest, DuPont Co. had environmental specialists from seven states en route to La Grange. And by 3 a.m., company officials had organized 30 teams of Milliken employees to cover every concern, from personnel to reconstruction. Reports, complete with timetables, were due to Chief Operating Officer Thomas Malone by noon.

HEARTBREAKER. The next afternoon, 720 Milliken employees gathered at the La Grange College gym for what many figured was their last company meeting. "I can't sit at home. I have to get back to work," fretted Greg Barnes, a six-month Milliken worker. Malone told the crowd he was devastated by the loss. "I'm a gritty businessman, but this tore my heart out," he said later. Malone promised jobs for as many as possible and immediate unemployment benefits for the rest. A ripple of excitement ran through the gym when Malone said the company would fly some production employees to work temporarily at the company's factory in Wigan, England.

Milliken decided to fly more than just workers. To reduce delays, it chartered planes to send semifinished carpeting to the Wigan plant, essentially a twin of the defunct La Grange property. The fire wiped out five weeks of inventory, but Milliken promised to meet delivery deadlines for whatever critical needs it could and refer customers it couldn't serve to other suppliers. La Grange's plants worked around the clock to make up lost time. Two days after the fire, one of the company's biggest commercial accounts placed a $250,000 order--a vote of confidence that rallied the town.

A week later, the La Grange High School band serenaded the first group of London-bound employees as they boarded a bus to take them to the Atlanta airport. Jean Railey watched as her son-in-law, Milliken dye mixer Philip Wilkerson, left for his first trip abroad. "Everything went like clockwork," Railey says. "But I don't think I know anybody who doubted for a minute that it wouldn't be that way." In La Grange, Ga., that's still the way things work.

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