Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald
Beacon Linens is on the cusp of something big—and looks to bring new jobs to Swannanoa in the future. (As a bonus, read an abbreviated history of Beacon Blankets following the main text.)
The roots of manufacturing run deep through Western North Carolina—perhaps nowhere as deep as the Swannanoa Valley, where Beacon Manufacturing Company, founded by textile industry visionary Charles D. Owen II, was the lifeblood of the community. The decline of the textile industry brought the end of the Beacon plant in Swannanoa, but now, rising from those ashes, is Beacon Linens, a company that is delivering new and exciting products.
President Tedd Smith and Chief Executive Officer Steve Hutcherson are passionate about the new products that Beacon Linens is developing—most notably their Safe Haven Linens™ antimicrobial sheets. The sheets kill bacteria and viruses and offer both cost-savings and a new level of protection to healthcare facilities. While the Safe Haven Linens™ are not made locally now, Smith and Hutcherson are looking forward to a time when they can bring jobs back to the Swannanoa area.
“With any luck, there will be some people employed here in the not too distant future,” says Smith. “That would be a win-win because it was disturbing to see a company go out of business and people lose their life-long jobs and their livelihood—and the whole community be affected like that. It never should have happened.”
Hutcherson has over 40 years of experience in the textile industry. He started working at Fieldcrest in product development before he finished school and held management positions with Fieldcrest, Wamsutta, JP Stevens, and Divatex throughout his career. He believes in product development and innovation to expand market possibilities. His knowledge includes worldwide sourcing and mill evaluations to guarantee the best manufacturing partners based on years of relationships.
Smith’s experience also spans 40 years and includes time with Beacon Blankets, Cannon Mills, and Owen Blankets. Most notably, he was the president of Beacon Blankets in 2001 after it was purchased from Pillowtex Corporation.
The team of Hutcherson and Smith is a superb match for the textile industry. They first met in 1981 at a Belk Show, but never worked together until 2015 when they saw an opportunity to revolutionize the textile industry. As Hutcherson explains, over the years the pair had run into each other often and kept in touch. “We also saw each other at markets and at charity golf events,” he says. “Since our product lines were very different (Smith, with blankets; Hutcherson, sheets), we never considered each other to be competitors.
“I thought, and still do think, that Tedd would be a good partner because he knows everybody in the industry, and everybody loves him. I, on the other hand, have been more involved in product development, sourcing, operations, with just a little selling. We complement each other very well. [So] we decided that we wanted to use our experience in the product lines that we know.”
Hutcherson and Smith asked themselves, why not stay in the field and use some creativity to solve some problems? They looked at the sheet industry, a $3 billion market each year, and realized that if they could obtain a small part of that market, they had the potential to see a huge return on their investment.
Smith adds they knew right away that they had to do something different. “Steve probably knows the sheet business better than anyone in the United States—as far as how to make them and weave them, the finishes, the yarn count. And it’s so technical. It’s so much harder to get appointments with retailers now. You’ve got to have something unique that gets their attention. We couldn’t afford to have a ‘Me Too’ product—we needed something unique.”
Meanwhile, the Beacon Blanket plant in Swannanoa had closed in 2002. Not long after the plant’s shuttering, the Beacon building was destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist, and the surrounding community was left to mourn not only the loss of their livelihood, but their cultural and economic history extending back nearly a century. (See sidebar, page 62, about the history of Beacon.)
In the interim, Smith had opened an outlet store in East Asheville and realized no one was currently using the Beacon name. Having been one of the owners of the failed attempt to keep Beacon open, he reached back and grabbed hold of the name, a move he now describes as turning out to be “a pretty timely and smart thing for what we are doing now (with Beacon Linens) because that name is known throughout the country—Beacon Manufacturing, Beacon Blankets, Beacon Blankets Make Warm Friends—and Beacon was the largest blanket supplier in America from 1904–2002.”
“It’s ended up being a blessing in disguise because I don’t think we have anyone say yet, ‘I haven’t heard of that name.’”
It Started with a Pocket
The number one problem that retailers were hearing from their customers was that sheets didn’t fit, or if they did go on the mattress, they would come off while people were sleeping. There was also an interest in the industry in microfiber sheets, but the biggest drawback was that it was hard to get the sheet to stay on the bed due to the slickness of the fabric.
Smith and Hutcherson found a solution to this problem by creating a fitted sheet that works with a simple construction. They have applied for a patent for this problem solver they call the Beacon Pocket™. (If all goes as planned, they expect the patent to be issued in 2017; meanwhile, they started using the trademark designation this year as there was no competition for it, and by establishing the name “Beacon” in the trademarked term, it gave them the uniqueness to pursue use of it.)
They subsequently went to New York to participate in a retail market where they rented a little space at a textile magazine show. Their first appointment was with a senior executive from one of America’s top five retailers. He had 145 appointments and told them he would only be able to meet with them for three to five minutes. He quickly saw the sample of the pocket sheet and declared it the biggest product improvement he had ever seen in the sheet business. It was simple. There was nothing fancy about it. There were no special instructions that had to be followed.
When people see the design, they can’t believe it because it is so simple. It incorporates triangles into the corners that fit underneath the mattress corner so that the sheet stays in place. The elastic is strong and pulls the sides, ends, and corners toward the center of the bottom of the mattress. This keeps the sheet smooth around the sides.
“We both have had patents before,” says Hutcherson. “We just got together and wrote up what we thought should be on the patent; made the drawing; hired a patent attorney; and then he guided us through the rest of it.”
A Safe Haven
With the pocket design in place, the Beacon Linens’ team found themselves in a situation to make a huge impact on the healthcare industry. They received a call from North Carolina State University Adjunct Associate Professor Dr. Jim Watson, who worked at Beacon in the 1980s. They had shown him the durable fabrics they were using with a sample that had been used and washed over 100 times. It was nowhere near being worn out.
“You wouldn’t believe what this does for commercial laundries and hospitals,” says Smith. “The savings potential for this fabric in commercial linens is off the charts. This stuff washes and dries in about 40 percent of the time as traditional sheets. Also, it lasts so much longer that it helps get the cost down.”
Watson brought them in contact with PurThread, a North Carolina company manufacturing high performance, high quality antimicrobial fibers and yarns that kill bacteria, odor, mold and mildew. Their barrier to get to market was cost. Watson believed if he could connect Beacon Linens with PurThread, it would be an ideal match with both the fabric and design.
Beacon Linens is now the go-to market partner with PurThread in bed linens for retail, healthcare, baby, and pet products. There are other technologies offered with antimicrobial claims; however, the PurThread technology is unique. It is safe, permanent, and offers 99 percent efficacy.
“Partnering with PurThread was the obvious next step for us, as we look to create linens that work harder to make our customers’ lives easier,” says Smith. “The high performance and durability of PurThread’s antimicrobial protection adds another valuable and hard-working feature to our linen lines for healthcare and for the home. We both offer extremely long lasting benefits, so this is a perfect fit.”
PurThread’s silver-embedded yarn was recently shown in a study by the University of Arizona to kill 99.9 percent of MRSA, CRE, VRE, P. acnes, T. Menta, and other harmful bacteria and fungi on its surface within two hours of contact. The silver, a safe, non-nano ionic silver salt, is EPA registered, and provides Beacon Linens products with highly effective and durable antimicrobial and anti-odor protection.
PurThread is the first to embed silver into the fiber itself before it is spun into yarn and woven into fabrics. This novel technology yields intrinsic antimicrobial benefits that don’t wash off or wear away for the life of the fabric or change the fabric’s physical characteristics.
“Working with Beacon Linens is a natural fit for us,” says Lisa Grimes, president and CEO of PurThread. “We were originally founded with the goal to bring matchless antimicrobial protection to healthcare textiles, and we’re thrilled for the opportunity to work with our North Carolina neighbors to do that with the added bonus that consumers can take advantage of that protection, too.”
Beacon’s Safe Haven Linens™ with the PurThread technology offers hospitals both cost savings and the potential to reduce healthcare-associated infections. According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual National and State Healthcare-Associated Infections Progress Report, published last year, on any given day, about one in 25 hospital patients has at least one such infection.
John King, executive vice president of Health Care and Hospitality for Beacon Linens, explains that while antimicrobial agents have been used in textiles throughout history (the Egyptians applied spices and herbs to the fabrics used to wrap mummies), in modern times the applications used can wear off in time or leach into the ecosystem.
“One of the unique features of our products is that the antimicrobial agents are intrinsic to the fibers used in the fabrics,” says King. “They are permanent and don’t wash/leach out. The linens we produce afford a level of antimicrobial protection to the healthcare and the hospitality industries. Simply put, antimicrobial linens will help reduce the bio-burden in the facilities where they are used. Our linens are patient/guest-safe and environmentally friendly. From a retail perspective, consumers find great comfort in knowing that the bedding they sleep in can help protect them from harmful bacteria. In the healthcare environment, antimicrobial bedlinens offer a passive approach to infection control.”
The Beacon team is providing hospitals around the United States with a cost-savings analysis of the Safe Haven Linens™. Not only do they see savings from the sheets outlasting what they are currently using, but they also save money on the laundering of the sheets as they wash and dry faster than a traditional sheet. Hutcherson has made a prediction: In 10 years, their antimicrobial sheets will be the norm in the hospital industry and probably in the hotel industry, too.
The microfiber for the sheets is currently made in China. A cotton-poly version is made in India. The antimicrobial yarn is bought from Beal Manufacturing in Gastonia, then sent to Hamrick Mills in Gaffney, South Carolina, where it is woven. The woven, unfinished fabric is then sent to a neighboring state, where it is finished. Then the finished fabric is sent to Western North Carolina, where it is cut and sewn.
A self-sanitizing/acne-fighting, antimicrobial pillowcase has also been developed, and the knitting for it is being done at Kudzu Textiles in Burlington. It is a promising product for those who suffer from acne as it kills bacteria that cause acne. Dr. David Cogburn, a board certified dermatologist with Carolina Mountain Dermatology in Asheville, is endorsing the Safe Haven Linens™.
“These linens, by their very nature in having anti-microbial qualities, are effective in treatment of patients with chronic folliculitis and acne,” he says. “I recommend Safe Haven Linens™ for anyone concerned about excess exposure to microbial contaminants while they sleep.”
The PurThread antimicrobial protection is permanent and only works with polyester because it is embedded into the fiber before it is extruded. Once it is extruded and the fiber is made into yarn, it is in the yarn and it can’t get out—in other words, as an integral part of the fiber, the silver never goes away.
Smith and Hutcherson have talked to recycling centers in North Carolina about the possibility of recycling the antimicrobial sheets. If you can recycle a water bottle, then why not a polyester sheet?
“To recycle a sheet is basically the same process that takes place when you recycle a water bottle,” says Hutcherson. “The costliest part of it is gathering the discarded products and bundling them up and taking them to a recycling facility.” The sheets are not recycled back into sheets, but instead as new polyester that might go into carpets or other products.
“Our product uses cooler water to wash it; cooler temperatures to dry it and less drying time; we can recycle it—so basically, even though it’s a plastic product, it is like a green product—more so than cotton. It doesn’t go into the landfill.”
Hutcherson recalls a phone call he received from his granddaughter’s seventh grade science teacher. She told her teacher that her grandpa was making a sheet that kills bacteria. Hutcherson was certain the teacher did not believe this claim, but he accepted his invitation to speak to four classes.
“The whole idea was not to sell our products, but that everyone can be a scientist,” says Hutcherson. “All my life, I have sold product because people liked it, because it was colorful, was the right color, had the right pattern—things like that. I’ve never been involved where I sold something that was truly helpful that could make a change in someone’s life—that could keep someone from catching MRSA. And my only hope is that we are able to lead the way in healthcare lines so that we can sell these goods at a price that can be available to everyone.”
Looking to the Future
In 2016, over a decade after the fire that leveled the former Beacon facility in Swannanoa, the emergence of new and innovative products from Beacon Linens offer an opportunity to write the next chapter of Beacon’s history in the Swannanoa Valley. Fans of the popular and valuable Beacon Indian design blankets from the past will soon be able to buy a similar product at Bed Bath & Beyond.
“Steve and I have just developed a real strong belief and dedication to the fact that we ought to be able to bring Beacon Blankets back in some shape, form, or fashion, manufacturing and so forth in a couple or three years, worst case scenario,” says Smith. “Because with all the equipment advantages now, streamlined production, there are still a lot of people in that area that know about blankets. If we can’t get anything there on the same property, we can get something within the town limits of Swannanoa.
“We are really excited about that. We both have a dedication to bring back jobs and industry to this area. Blankets, right now, are a very small part of what we are doing. We have huge plans for blankets and it’s exciting, but [at the moment] the sheet business is so much larger.”
Smith and Hutcherson say their business partnership is successful because they balance each other very well.
Smith: “I’m so much of an optimist that I will believe anything, and Steve is smart enough to say, ‘Wait – let’s think about this.’ You have to have a little bit of both.”
Hutcherson: “Tedd says if I turn over a rock, I expect to find a snake under it.”
Smith: “That’s a good thing. It’s kept us from getting snake bit a few times!”
Smith and Hutcherson own 75 percent of Beacon Linens, with a third shareholder owning 25 percent. They currently have nine employees, and anticipate starting to see significant returns on their investment in 2017, with projected sales of close to $10 million. Beacon Linens’ products will be available via QVC, as well as at Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. this year. They anticipate that 35 percent of their business will come from their home products, and 65 percent will come from healthcare products.
They are going to continue to sell the Safe Haven Linens™ antimicrobial sheets to hospitals, but their hope—and key strategy for growth—is to make the product affordable for the consumer to purchase for their home.
Notes Hutcherson, “We want, five years from now, to go into Bed Bath & Beyond and buy our antimicrobial sheets so that when you take it home for your 13-year-old daughter’s bed and she’s sleeping on this pillowcase, that she doesn’t have acne and low self-esteem. Or a 16-year-old football player doesn’t get folliculitis on his leg. There are so many attributes to the antimicrobial factor. What we would like to do is make an impact in the home with our sheets. This is something that could make a huge difference in our population. We want to get it to the point where everybody can afford to buy it.”
Hutcherson declares that he and Smith “might be two old coots,” but they are fresh thinkers. And they want to continue to be creative, innovative thinkers.
“We want to make money—that’s going to happen—but we want to bring the antimicrobial bed linens to a point where everyone can have access to them,” he says. “I love seeing the Beacon brand out there again. It was a strong label before, and it can be again—it might represent something different—more than a blanket.”
The textile industry has been a rollercoaster ride for Smith and Hutcherson, but with their desire to deliver new and life-changing products, they are on the cusp of something big. Each turn in the road of their careers has been a valuable lesson, which has led them to this point.
“I swear, I’ve got to be one of the luckiest people in the world,” says Smith. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities, met some wonderful people, been all over the country. I’ve got lots of regrets, but being in the blanket and textile business is not one of them.”
An Economic Beacon
Anne Chesky Smith is director of the Swannanoa Valley Museum and History Center, and she is quick to note the immense importance of Beacon Blankets to the Swannanoa area, explaining that though the Swannanoa Settlement was one of the earliest communities to form west of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina in the 1780s, it wasn’t until Charles D. Owen II saw a 160-acre farm near the Swannanoa Train Station in the 1920s and moved his Beacon Blankets Manufacturing Company, brick-by-brick, from its original home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that the village began to thrive.
Because one of Owen’s primary motivations for moving his mill South was to get away from the union activity in the Northeast, he did his best to ensure that his employees would have little reason to unionize. He did so by providing services to his workers—like inexpensive housing, health care, help with hospital bills, credit at company stores, and recreational opportunities, such as baseball and basketball teams for youth and adults.
According to Chesky Smith, downtown Swannanoa was centered on the mill, and for over half a century the community operated as a company town. Most families living in Swannanoa had at least one family member working for Beacon, and many children remember the mill villages as idyllic places to grow up in. They could freely roam the neighborhoods with their friends, playing games, coming and going in almost anyone’s house in the village for an afternoon snack.
“At its peak, just before World War II, Beacon employed 2,200 people, certainly the largest employer in the area,” says Chesky Smith. “As a company town, Beacon really was the lifeblood of Swannanoa during the 20th century. The Owen family did their best to keep their employees happy by not only providing jobs, but also housing, health care, recreation, and basic infrastructure to those living and working in downtown Swannanoa. And when the mill suffered, so did the community.”
She adds that after the 2003 fire, “Many former employees still lived in the mill village and equated its loss with the loss of a home. Without Beacon at the heart of the community, most businesses located near the mill closed. At least one former employee referred to the mill as ‘the big red beating heart’ of Swannanoa.”
1923—Owen bought the160-acre tract of land in Swannanoa for his Beacon Manufacturing Company, at the time still based in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
1924—Construction began on the plant, and many of the New Bedford employees and their families relocated to Swannanoa.
1925—The plant officially opened and many residents were hired.
1941—During World War II, 930 of the plant’s 2,220 employees served in the Armed Forces. Seven million blankets were produced for the war.
1964—Owen sold Beacon to National Distillers. The Swannanoa plant employed approximately 1,500 workers at this time.
1981—Cannon Mills Company of Kannapolis purchased Beacon. The Swannanoa plant employed approximately 1,100 workers at this time.
2001—Beacon Acquisition Corporation signed an agreement to purchase Beacon from Pillowtex Corporation.
April 15, 2002—Swannanoa plant closed.
September 3, 2003—A fire set by an arsonist destroyed the Beacon plant.
For more information on Beacon Linens’ products, visit www.beaconlinens.com
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…