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Kent spins plans to be next Teflon Print E-mail

Monday, May 28, 2007 Richard Breen, Editor GSABusiness Journal

Are you making a photocopy, or are you “Xeroxing” the document? Do you need a tissue, or a Kleenex? When it’s windy and misty, do you stay comfortable inside your Gore-Tex? An Upstate businessman hopes his name joins the list of brands that are synonymous with particular products. “If we are going to remain a player and be a major player on a global scale, we are going to have to chase this vision,” says Mark Kent, Greenville resident and president/CEO of The Kent Manufacturing Co.

The vision is to launch a new brand, Kentwool, that seeks to become the premier innovator in wool manufacturing. Like Teflon, Kent sees Kentwool turning up in a variety of products that will all be known for cutting-edge quality. “In these market segments, we need to be the leader in that market segment or vacate that market segment,” Kent says. “There’s no room for second place.”

Kent Manufacturing, which operates a facility in Pickens, will now market itself as Kentwool. The company employs approximately 110 workers and is not suffering in the same way some of its textile counterparts are, according to Kent. “We have been able to make the necessary changes because of our size and quickness,” Kent says. “We felt that’s the exact time to make something happen. “A lot of companies wait until they’re embattled or troubled.”

A Web site, www.kentwool.com, has been launched to assist with the rollout. Kent says the company plans to work with Clemson University’s advanced materials researchers to achieve further innovations. “I think over the next couple of years,” he says, “you’re going to see some fascinating products come out of a collaboration between Kent and Clemson.” The company had not been standing still. It recently became the first U.S. firm to produce a “superfine” wool found in $12,000 Italian suits. “It’s so fine, it’s difficult for the human eye to see” individual threads, Kent says.

The 44-year-old Kent heads a company that was founded in Pennsylvania in 1843. He has been president since 1992. The company’s yarn can be found in products ranging from dress suits to hiking socks to buffing pads. “We are in a lot of things that people probably don’t know about,” Kent says. “We make a special yarn that is used for burn victims as a second skin.” The company is also working on a second-skin material for U.S. combat troops, he says.

Being a privately held company has benefits during the rebranding, according to Kent. “It gives us the advantage of not being pressured by Wall Street or by equity funds or by other investors,” he says. Kentwool will be rolled out to industry contacts, then to the broader public. If it goes as expected, Kent says, “we’re going to be hiring more people.” “We are going to try to reach people that maybe we’ve never touched before,” he says. “Our hope, ultimately, is to reach the consumer with the brand.” The move to become a leader in wool innovation follows some of the economic development theory that has been preached in South Carolina in recent years. Theory holds that American manufacturers will need to be on top of the latest technological advancements, otherwise they will lose market share to companies in nations where production is cheaper. Kent says he has seen exports gain more than 80 percent of the U.S. market share when it comes to commodity-level textiles, but he believes simple logistics will always leave some share for domestic companies. However, he also sees potential in a cluster-based economic development model involving advanced textiles. “We’re probably long overdue in that field,” Kent says. “There’s tremendous opportunity for other textiles in this region to do well.”

   
 
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