March 23, 2015
As the Ashley Company grew and prospered, Mike Trull never set aside his love of music.
Even as storm clouds were gathering on the horizon, the next ten years were the glory years for the Ashley Company. Mike Trull was making jackets for the super stars of NASCAR and band hats for most of the market. As NASCAR kept growing – and it was one of the fastest growing sports in the world – the Ashley Company grew as well. It seemed NASCAR fans couldn’t get enough of the fancy embroidered jackets, which made Mike, after years of 60 hour weeks, feel the future was more secure.
“I was spending time in the track garages of folks like Dale Earnhardt and building the business at the same time,” he remembers, smiling broadly. “It was fun and profitable.”
In those ten glorious years, the Ashley Company kept 150 workers busy making band hats and jackets. They no longer worried overly much about finding niche markets. They were big time now. Mike and his partner closed a community development block loan, built a new 14,000 square foot factory for the jacket business, and had become the tenth largest employer in the county. They had added embroidery machines, graphic designers, the latest graphics software and more computers to handle accounting. Between 1985 and 1995, they managed to fund an annual 15 percent growth in the business. As long as the orders kept rolling in things were great; the bank was being paid, employees had good wages and health care, and global competition hadn’t yet become the threat it would. Mike and his partner worked hard to keep it that way because they knew a stable environment for their work force was essential to maintaining the quality they needed.
As the decade of glory wore on, problems began to surface, like boils on an otherwise healthy body. Mike and his partner had allowed the jacket business, which was beginning to attract stiff completion, to overwhelm the stable but smaller band hat business. Toward the end of the glory days, the competition for the NASCAR business was better able to keep prices down and margins low, undercutting what the Ashley Company needed to keep faith with employees and meet the other obligations of the company. NASCAR loyalty began to dry up. What was happening all over the nation was happening to Sylva, N.C. Global competition was changing the landscape and when NAFTA and the GATT Treaties were passed in the name of free trade, the game changed forever. In North Carolina, the textile industry began to contract and it was only a matter of time until most of the jobs in the USA textile industry disappeared. At the same time, health care costs were skyrocketing, putting more pressure on the bottom line of the Ashley Company. The day when American quality justified American wages in the minds of the green eye shade folks was over.
Mike responded by introducing efficiencies in the manufacturing process, cutting waste, buying supplies at lower costs and doing things like Stop Smoking campaigns to cut health care costs. In short, Mike and his partner were fighting a holding battle that couldn’t last long. In the end, racing teams found the overseas connections and orders were shipped off-shore. Like Gordon at Khartoum, the numbers couldn’t be resisted.
“We just couldn’t overcome the price differential,” laments Mike. “It’s as simple as that.” The fun had ended.
It never rains but it pours. They still had a solid band hat business, but their success had alerted uniform makers to the desirability of making their own. Fortunately, Mike had developed a strong relationship with the largest band uniform maker in the nation, which, at the time, was growing because so many other manufacturers had gone out of business, affected by the same price competition Mike faced.
The options for Mike and his partner were dwindling. They had borrowed heavily to keep things going even as sales began to fall. When the uniform company offered to buy them out in 1999 and keep the company in Sylva, Mike and his partner signed the company over to new owners and became employees.
“After 22 years, I was no longer the boss,” says Mike. “The good news was that I was able to pay off every creditor. The bad news was that I was responsible for sales but not for production.”
Mike recalls frustrating attempts to regain control of their market. “We met and planned; we met and planned. We just met and planned and nothing happened.” For a hard-driving personality that had been in charge all those years, it was not a promising prospect.
The tension between sales and production became intolerable. The sales staff had to promise clients the best price and delivery dates in order to close the deal, while the production side, which was controlled by the new owner, had different priorities. The failure of the new owner to funnel some of the production to the Sylva plant contributed to the tension. Although Mike was free of financial obligations and was part of a larger organization, he wasn’t happy. He could no longer be confident that what he was trying to do was a shared perspective.
But now he was free to make a change. Was it time?
NEXT WEEK: CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
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