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Cut and sew important – in textiles and in surgery

Steve Hawkins and Dr. David Talton pose with some of their industry partners after the ribbon cutting. (L-R) Marty Moran of Buhler Quality Yarns, Dee Dee Harris of Buhler Quality Yarns, Andy Long of Parkdale, Hawkins, Charles Heilig of Parkdale, Talton, George Sanders of American & Efird, Stacey Bridges of Carolina Cotton Works and Dan Morrison of Parkdale. Photo by Devin Steele

SWAINSBORO, Ga. – When I met Steve Hawkins and David Talton at SEAMS’ Spring Networking Conference in Savannah, Ga., in May, I was happy to learn that they were starting a new business together – a cut-and-sew operation in Swainsboro, Ga. “Yes!,” I thought – just what the textile/apparel supply chain needs in this country.

When I learned that Talton is a cardiothoracic surgeon, I quipped, “the healthcare industry must be in bad shape if their doctors are leaving to get in the textile and apparel business.”

They reminded me of that comment (which I had forgotten I had made) during dinner Wednesday night on the eve of the grand opening and dedication of their company, America Knits. Today, they shared their dream with many of their partners, friends and special guests during the celebration.

Getting to know them better over the last couple of days reminded me of the reason I love this industry so much – the people. And these are two of the finest (and funniest) men I’ve met this year.

Hawkins and Talton are best and lifelong friends. They have known each other since about kindergarten age when they were neighbors. Hawkins went on to earn a finance degree from East Carolina, while Talton earned his chemistry degree from N.C. State and, during those college years in the ’80s, they saw each other many weekends in either Greenville, N.C., or Raleigh, N.C. Their paths went in different directions, with Talton going to Wake Forest to earn a Ph.D. in medicine and Hawkins “ending up” in apparel.

“The whole reason I got into the garment business is I didn't want to move from New Bern, N.C., to Rocky Mount, N.C., where BB&T was going to put me,” Hawkins said. “So I went to work (at Hudson Manufacturing) and was lucky enough to learn the business from another N.C. State graduate, Steve Hudson, who taught me how to do time studies, how to set up lines, how to do motion analysis and break operations into elements – all of those things, including working on machines, cutting, sewing, spreading fabric. He was a believer in ‘you can't really run a plant unless you can do everything in a plant.’ And I thank him for that. So it was great to get grounded like that.”

Hawkins left Hudson to open a factory in Ayden N.C., and after NAFTA moved to Honduras for apparel manufacturing opportunities there, where he spent 14 years. For the past eight years, he managed all sales and worked as CEO of the Honduras cut/sew operations for the global powerhouse Grupo Karims.

With Hawkins in Honduras and Talton in Mississippi, they didn’t see each other much for years, but did stay in contact. “When you’ve been friends like that for so long and don’t see each other for a year or so, when you do get together, you pick up right where you left off and it seems like you just saw each other yesterday. We’re that close.”

About two years ago, they met in Miami and ended up talking about an idea that had been stirring in their heads for awhile – to start a business together. With Hawkins’ background, the apparel business seemed like a natural fit, so they began talking to some of Hawkins’ industry contacts, who strongly encouraged them to start a cut-and-sew operation, which is sorely lacking in the U.S.

“We had people in the industry saying, ‘guys, you should do this. There's nobody really on the East Coast doing this. We want quality and we want it in the U.S.’ And I told Steve that if we did this, we don't have to be the biggest player, but we need to be the best.”

So after doing their homework and finding a location for their start-up, they held job fairs last December and January and opened their doors in July. They bought brand new machinery and equipment and made sustainability and a U.S. supply chain part of their mission.

“Steve is taking a bigger leap of faith than I am, but he's taking a career that he has been good at, has had a good grip on and a good job with his company and putting it on the line. He’s taken that and taken a bet on himself. I told him, ‘look, if you do it, I want to finance it because I want to be a part of it.’ ”

Talton called the ride so far an “adventure” and reminded me of our introduction at the SEAMS meeting. “I told you then I have no idea why I'm here, but I know I'm riding it with my best friend,” he said. “I told Steve that if we went bankrupt tomorrow, I still have a best friend.”

Talton calls himself the “quasi vice president” of the company, as he has kept his day job as a surgeon in Tupelo, Miss. But he and Hawkins talk almost daily about the company, with Hawkins handling day-to-day operations.

“I don't understand the sewing industry enough yet, but I'm learning a little bit each day,” Talton said. “The more I learn, the better I'm going to be at it. Steve and I bounce ideas off each other. And I think I have a perspective of looking at it from outside the industry. I have ideas from working in the medical field, in a hospital setting about patient care and our customers, ideas that have worked well there that will probably work well here, too.”

I’ll certainly be pulling hard for these two gentlemen from my neck of the barbecue woods, Eastern North Carolina. They seem to have all the tools and personnel in place for a successful ride on this BFF adventure together. And with the textile and apparel industry desiring more cut-and-sew production in the U.S., this is truly a niche that foretells a great run.

It won’t be easy, I’m sure – but at least it’s not heart surgery.

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