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April 2000
A Pattern of Success
      They go together like hand and glove; or perhaps in this instance, like leg and stocking. Sisters Clare Cook Faggart, president of Concord-based Willis Hosiery Mills, Inc., and Suzanne Howard, vice president of manufacturing, always find a way to support each other. "We're a team. If I'm having a bad day, Suzanne lifts my spirits," says Faggart. "If she's having a bad day, I lift hers. We won't allow each other to have the same bad day." The support the two sisters give each other is an essential ingredient in this third generation company's success. Like other mills, Willis Hosiery has had to continuously adapt to the fickle nature of the textile business to survive. The company makes fashionable high-end custom hosiery products for such brands as Liz Claiborne, Jones of New York, Izod and The Gap and a private label for Marie Gray's exclusive St. John Knits. They also produce socks for the parochial school market and a variety of other hosiery products. Fabrics, colors and patterns may change from season to season, but in this male-dominated business, Faggart thinks Willis Hosiery has a distinctive advantage. "Who better to make it than she who wears it,"she reveals. And while it may seem a bit ironic that a female-owned hosiery business should stand out, Faggart is matter-of-fact. "We're accepted and respected as business people. No one looks at us as women; they look at us as professionals."    
     Apparently the industry looks at them as very smart professionals. In December, Clare Cook Faggart became the first female chairperson of The Hosiery Association. This group, formed in 1905 as the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers, now serves the international hosiery and related industries. The Hosiery Association may have been behind the times in taking so long to have a woman as its chair, but Faggart's vision for the association is very much for its future. She hopes to use it as a catalyst to work more closely with consumers and suppliers and to share knowledge and technology. Her ability to look ahead has helped Willis Hosiery survive the "feast or famine" cycles of the textile industry. For example, Faggart made the decision to move away from contract work for other hosiery mills and focus on making, marketing and distributing proprietary products. She has also utilized sophisticated technology to diversify the mill's product line, thus softening the blow of adverse economic conditions. With a constantly changing marketplace, Willis Hosiery has also had to be receptive to new products and innovations.     
     Cabinets running the length of the conference room are stacked with hosiery boxes full of developmental ideas. Fashion magazines are declaring this the year of the bare leg, so Willis is busy working with a new spandex product to wear with open-toe shoes. Tights In A Can is another new concept containing three pairs of childrens' white tights and a set of colored permanent marking pens. The child may draw on the tights or have friends draw on or autograph them. Faggart's aim is to find out what the customer wants and to provide it for her, constantly looking to make the customer happy with different patterns, colors, textures, and creative ideas. Still, surviving in today's textile business is no easy task. The industry is highly cyclical; Willis Hosiery's 144 knitting machines and three shifts do not always run on a full schedule. Moreover, each type of machine requires specific training. With the unemployment rate at less than one percent in Cabarrus County, finding and keeping quality employees has been a struggle. Faggart and her mother, Sue Cook, ceo, as well as other members of their staff, have even taken Spanish classes in hopes of communicating with and securing Hispanic workers. Ninety percent of the company's 120 employees are female.   
      The two sisters feel they do have a different perspective on the female employees beyond benefits and competitive wages. They can empathize with their employees' problems because they have the same problems too. "The employees know that we will do anything we ask them to do," says Faggart. "We have dumped trash and unloaded trucks." They have also made a concerted effort to operate the business as lean and efficiently as possible.

back to the future
     Considering how close Clare and Suzanne are, it's surprising that neither sister originally intended on working for the family business. The mill, purchased in 1927 by great grandfather, Edward King Willis, originally made cuff socks for girls and cotton stockings for ladies. "Mr. E.K." as he was known in the community, had two daughters. Their husbands, Eugene "Gene" Clark Cook and M.L. Lafferty, took over the mill in the early sixties. In addition to the making of cotton stockings, the two bought a machine to make pantyhose.     
     When "Mr. E.K." passed away in 1971, the Cooks bought out the Laffertys making Gene, his son-in-law, and daughter, Sue, the sole owners. Cook's prescient vision of private labeling landed him the Saks Fifth Avenue account. He diversified, putting in place a cut and sew operation and a dyed yarns operation. He also began making maternity hosiery and socks for Izod. Cook included his three children, Clark, Suzanne and Clare in the business, working them part-time or having them tag along with him as he checked on matters at the mill. Oldest daughter Suzanne attended Peace College in Raleigh, then went into banking in the regional operations sector. Youngest daughter Clare attended Salem College in Winston-Salem for two years studying voice performance. On the completion of her sophomore year, her father had a talk with her. "He told me 'Clare you have a beautiful voice, but you are going for a degree in voice performance,' " relates Faggart. " 'You can't teach with that degree and if you don't make it in the performing arts, you'll have nothing to fall back on to support yourself.' " The next year Faggart enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, finished her degree (in business) and took graduate courses in accounting. She went to work in the business full time in 1976, trading the spotlights of the stage for the fluorescent lights at Willis Hosiery. Gene Cook passed away at the young age of 58 and Clark assumed his father's duties. Faggart persuaded her sister to leave banking and join the family business in 1988. In 1990, Clark stepped down as president of Willis Hosiery and Faggart took over. Suzanne Howard became vice president and along with their mother, Sue, as chairman of the board, the two sisters were running the show. They have help from the usual cadre of advisors: a banker, lawyer, and accountant offer sound business advice and guidance. This group is second only in importance to husbands, Jeffrey Faggart and John Howard, who lend their constant support. Faggart is a big proponent of teaching the consumer how to buy the product and what to be aware of with the labeling on the package. "Sizing is an issue," she says. "Be honest about your weight. If it's a close call, go up to the next size." Faggart would like to see consumers buy the right product for the right event - sheer or ultra sheer for evening, trouser socks for slacks, tights for daytime, and support hose for comfort. As the chairperson for The Hosiery Association, Faggart will give her welcome and opening remarks at the International Hosiery Exposition on April 8, 2000 at the Charlotte Convention Center. She will be back onstage and up front. Her mother says that's where Faggart is most comfortable. "Her background in the performing arts has served the company well. She has the knack of presenting herself and our product to other people to a great advantage." "On the other hand," Faggart counters, "Suzanne can fix any machine in the mill, rewire a lamp or start up the boiler. If the copy machine breaks, we call Suzanne." As they head out the door at the end of the day, the two sisters give each other a "high five." They are a team. And, today they both had the same good day.
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