Recruited fresh out of Rhode Island School of Design, I excitedly started my first real industry job working for textile giant Milliken & Co. in Abbeville, South Carolina. As if it wasn't shocking enough to go from New England to the exact spot where South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860, the HR manager told me that I would have to spend nine weeks attending their Leadership Orientation Program in Spartanburg.
My first introduction to executive business training was typical enough with a general overview of the company capabilities and factory visits. Evening classes in public speaking with a Dale Carnegie instructor was energizing. I still use many of those early techniques today to remember names and structure my talks. Surprisingly, my favorite part was the opportunity to learn statistical analysis, something I couldn't learn in art school. The cap of the program and the buzz among the other young executives was something called Freedom School.
Originally brought into the company by CEO Roger Milliken, Freedom School was mandatory for all high-level executives. Robert LeFevre's Libertarian program was an integral part of forming the company thinking from 1975. Milliken's support of the Libertarian views were primarily responsible for shifting South Carolina into a modern conservative Republican state and transforming the GOP through financial support of Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. His support of Freedom School exposed many corporate magnates and executives to the principle views that natural law is above the law of the state, free market reforms are essential to American economic prosperity, and pacifist resistance is more powerful than violence.
But what in the world did this Libertarian class have to do with designing and manufacturing textiles? Here are the lessons that have remained with me all these years:
Expect principles and business practices to contradict
The principles of Milliken and Freedom School were all about free trade and free market, but faced with import competition, Milliken poured money and time into lobbying for government protectionist measures. Witnessing this first hand during the NAFTA negotiations, I understood intimately what it meant to balance ideals against the realities of business and job losses.
Even when you win, you can still lose
The instructors of the program were very careful to cover the laws and language regarding unions, but the story of what happened to the single Milliken plant that unionized has lasted in my memory as a harsh lesson in reality. Immediately after the vote in 1956 to join the Textile Workers Union of America, Milliken closed the plant. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the closing illegal in 1980, the $5 million did very little for the workers still alive.
Innovation trumps competition
The tour of the flagship Milliken Research Center was the most impactful lasting lesson for me. Seeing the team of scientists and engineers utilizing the large portion of profits reinvested into research and design made a lasting impression of the power of innovation. Even after the wave of import competition has changed South Carolina textile manufacturing forcing layoffs and plant closures, Milliken & Co. is still a textile giant generating billions from their patents and proprietary innovations worldwide.