A legacy for Spartanburg, and it keeps on giving
DECEMBER 9, 2009 3:01 p.m. (4)
Its curator told him the man who planted the garden never got to see the full magnitude of what he had created.
Many say the same about Milliken, a private man who reinvented his family business into what is regarded as the nation’s best-run textile and chemical company, who is credited for the rebirth of the Republican Party in what had been a staunchly Democratic state and whose influence can be seen in almost every square foot of the Wofford College campus.
“Like that gardener, the trees Mr. Milliken plants, the seeds he sows are long-term benefits to generations yet to come,” Barnet said. “In many ways, he’s touched our lives in Spartanburg. Some are well-known and some are the deeds of a private man who cares about the community in which he lives.”
He is a man of contrasts.
He fought unions in his plants to the point of closing one, yet worked with union leaders years later to try to defeat free trade legislation. He is a fierce competitor, a man who doesn’t like to lose, who works hard and expects the people who work for him to do the same.
In 2008, he was listed No. 1062 on the Forbes list of world’s billionaires with a net worth estimated at $1 billion, yet he lives in a relatively modest house in Converse Heights. He dropped off the list for the first time in years in 2009.
Milliken took over Milliken & Co. in 1947 after the death of his father, Gerrish Milliken.
He moved his family and the company headquarters to Spartanburg in 1954 and has built it into the largest private textile company in the world. The company has 47 locations around the world and manufactures about 19,000 textile and chemical products, including those that give tennis balls their soft texture and Jell-O pudding its creamy smoothness.
Milliken turned 94 in October and still holds the title of chairman of the company.
Roger Milliken Jr. remembers taking walks with his father around the Milliken campus, built on an old peach orchard. He said his father also would take him and his four siblings to walk at Milliken plants that were under construction. The wires on the floor, the stacks of boards, the piles of bricks were wonderful things for the boys to discover.
He realized later the walks were a way for his father to combine family time with work time.
When the watchman stepped up to shoo them away, Milliken said his father would walk right up and introduce himself and proceed to carry on a conversation about everyday things.
The last time Milliken Jr. stayed at the guest house at Milliken’s LaGrange, Ga. plant, one of the workers told him she hadn’t seen his father lately and proceeded to tell him about the time she taught the elder Milliken, one of South Carolina’s richest men, how to poach an egg.
“He loves his community and he loves the people there,” Milliken Jr. said. “He loves to drive around Spartanburg and just look at what could be done to improve things.”
Milliken is known for working long hours, seven days a week when necessary.
“The joke is a Milliken half-day is from 8 in the morning until 8 at night,” Milliken Jr. said.
Jock Nash, Milliken’s long-time Washington D.C. counsel and lobbyist, once asked Milliken’s late wife, Nita, how much her husband worked.
She answered, “He doesn’t work. This company is his avocation.”
Up until a short while ago, Milliken worked every Saturday, every Sunday as well as every Monday through Friday, Nash said.
“I always said Milliken employees get 26 vacation days a year – every other Sunday,” said Nash, who reported only to Milliken and who is retiring at the end of the year. “Seriously, nobody worked harder than he did. When you’re working with somebody like that, you try to keep pace and that’s tough. It’s really tough. He’d run circles around men half his age.”
Milliken was known as a union-buster in the 1950s, and then worked with unions in an attempt to defeat free-trade legislation decades later.
Milliken decided to shut down a mill in Darlington County in 1956, a day after employees there voted to unionize. Five hundred people lost their jobs. Milliken fought a lawsuit for 25 years before paying a $5 million settlement.
The lawsuit chilled unionization in the South, especially at textile mills.
Milliken’s critics called him anti-worker, but the company has been voted to this year’s Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list and the 2009 World’s Most Ethical Companies list by Ethisphere.com.
But Nash said Milliken’s decision to close the plant came because he didn’t want outsiders being able to influence his business.
Decades later, the two sides joined forces in the unsuccessful attempt to block free trade legislation.
“Did we lose textile jobs because Burlington and Milliken forgot how to make textiles; all of a sudden became stupid? No. We lost those jobs because we don’t have a rational trade policy,” Nash said. “Roger Milliken warned of what would happen. He’s been a prophet. We lost and I think America has lost.”
While Milliken opposed free trade because he feared jobs would be lost overseas or to Mexico, he did not hesitate to use foreign-made equipment in his textile plants when he thought it was the best.
And Milliken invested heavily in research and development, something that many of the other big names in textiles did not. Milliken & Co. flourished, while many of the other companies are now out of business.
“There was no technology that existed that we didn’t have or at least have on order while I was at Milliken. Nobody had better equipment. Nobody had better training,” Nash said. “Roger Milliken can take a human being and given the right training, experience and equipment, can make as good a product as any worker in the world.”
Milliken has an almost restlessness, his son said.
“He hates complacency. He’s a ferocious competitor, whether it’s ping-pong or golf or anything. He doesn’t do things in a light way,” Milliken Jr. said. “He never has been interested in doing today what he did yesterday. He had this saying that the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.”
Milliken, who agreed to serve on the Wofford board so he could help straighten out the college’s finances and stayed on for 50 years, has an inexhaustible interest in ideas, said Wofford College President Bernie Dunlap.
“He traffics in ideas,” he said.
It was Milliken, who majored in French history at Yale, who came up with the idea to have the school’s science center be the intellectual crossroads of the campus.
“Most of the time science buildings are just science buildings, and English majors and philosophy majors don’t want to be anywhere near the building,” Dunlap said.
But the Milliken Science Center has Great Oaks Hall, reminiscent of the Widener Library at Harvard. Tapestries with reproductions of pages of Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks hang ceiling to floor. A café attracts students to the building at all hours.
“It is in fact the intellectual crossroads to the campus,” Dunlap said. “It’s typical of him. There are dozens of projects here that are qualitatively different because of what his foresight and execution has added.”
Milliken created and founded a program where Wofford faculty can apply for a seminar abroad.
In five years, all of the school’s faculty will have participated.
The program compliments Wofford’s study abroad program for students, recognized as a top 10 program among liberal arts institutions.
“He took a point of excellence and asked what can we do that no one else has done,” Dunlap said. “He’s got that kind of vision.”
In addition to Wofford, Milliken supported Converse College and the Spartanburg Day School, illustrating his support for private education, his son said.
Milliken also supported the arts, a love of his late wife. The Milliken Foundation gave grants totaling $1.4 million last year to cancer research, various United Ways, the Charles Lea Center and the Arts Partnership of Greater Spartanburg among other organizations.
Trees have been a major focus for Milliken with the establishment of the Noble Tree Foundation. He sponsors a Noble Tree dinner each year, a lavish affair in which he brings in speakers to talk about trees. The Milliken Arboretum at Wofford has become a tourist attraction for the small college and the scenic drive from Interstate 85 to the Greenville Spartanburg International Airport has his fingerprints all over it.
Milliken has served as the only chairman of the GSP Airport Commission since the airport opened in 1962. The airport was named Roger Milliken Field in 2004.
Some say that Milliken has lived 15 or 20 or even 30 years in the future, whether it comes to business, to helping establish and develop an airport serving the Upstate or to pushing for environmental sustainability long before it became the catch word it is today.
“I think the Roger Milliken of today is still searching for the perfect, progressive and end results as he did 30 or 40 years ago,” Barnet said. “The totality of his work is very important to who we are and where we are. And I’m not sure we’ve seen the full impact yet.”
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