Kentwool celebrates 175 years

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Kentwool's production plant at 671 Runnymeade Road in Pickens County has been running since 1954. It processed 2 million pounds of wool in 2017. Will Crooks/Upstate Business Journal

An Upstate-based textile manufacturer this year has marked a major milestone — its 175th anniversary.

Kentwool was founded in 1843 as the Kent Manufacturing Co. in Philadelphia by Thomas Kent, a businessman who emigrated from England.

The company made uniforms for the Union Army during the Civil War, survived the Great Depression, and supplied the U.S. Armed Forces during both world wars.

Today, Kentwool is known for its line of performance wool golf socks; a range of socks for men, women, and kids; and its men’s boxer shorts and loungewear.

The company employs 81 people, including 65 who work at its 135,000-square-foot yarn production plant at 671 Runnymeade Road in Pickens County.

That plant, which has been running since 1954, processed 2 million pounds of wool in 2017.

Kentwool’s corporate headquarters is on the ninth floor of Clemson University’s ONE Building off North Main Street in downtown Greenville.

The company sells its products directly to pro shops and clothiers across the country, as well as online.

A few of its customers include St. John Knits, Wigwam, Smartwool, and Goodhew Lifestyle Performance.

“We do not sell to big-box stores,” said Kim Kent, Kentwool’s CEO. “We offer a high-end product at a higher price point. We don’t want our prices to be discounted because that impacts our other customers.”

So how has one of the oldest operating textile companies in the country survived for so long in a U.S. industry decimated by cheaper labor overseas and a variety of other hurdles?

Generations of Growth

For five generations, Kentwool has been a family-owned business.

The company’s fourth-generation owner, the late Tom Kent, made the decision to relocate the business to the Upstate in 1954.

In 1992, Tom Kent died suddenly, and his son, the late Greenville business leader and philanthropist Mark Kent, took ownership of the company at age 29.

The younger Kent had joined the family business a few years prior to his father’s death.

In 2007, the company went through a rebrand, changing its name from Kent Manufacturing Co. to Kentwool.

Today, Kentwool is known for its line of performance wool golf socks. Will Crooks/Upstate Business Journal

The following year, Mark Kent was competing in the BMW Charity Pro-Am golf tournament when he hatched a plan to develop a high-quality golf sock.

“That was really his entree into [the sock market],” said Kim Kent, Mark’s widow.

Kim Kent said her husband had to do some convincing because wool has gotten a bad rap as hot and itchy fabric.

“He used to tell people that they had to try them on,” she said. “Once they tried them on, they didn’t want to take them off.”

And that’s still one of the company’s mantras today — “World’s Best Golf Sock.”

Kim Kent said the resurgence of wool has also been a positive for the company.

For several years, wool has been making a comeback, particularly in the performance fabric market. Now, it’s also making its way into the lifestyle market in the form of wool blankets, mattress tops, and other products.

“The wool industry is really benefiting from that change as people are looking at wools as a performance fabric because of its wicking properties and comfort,” Kim Kent said. “We’ve always promoted the properties of wool because that’s our bread and butter.”

A renewed focus on American-made goods, particularly textiles and other related products, has also been a boon for the company, she said.

All of its suppliers are domestic, and more than 90 percent of the wool Kentwool purchases is sourced from ranches in the U.S.

“There is no question that the foundation that Mark and those before him laid out is strong,” Kim Kent said. “We are comfortable in the marketplace as a company. I can’t today tell you what I think the future is for us. I’m new in this job. I do know we will continue to deliver a high-quality product, and continue to be innovative, responsible, and nimble in the market just as the company has always.”

A ‘Bittersweet’ Anniversary

In late 2017, Mark Kent died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest at age 55.

Kim Kent, who was serving on the company’s advisory board and managed its in-house counsel, assumed her husband’s role shortly after his death.

She grew up in Thomson, a small town just outside Augusta, Ga.

She attended Converse College and then went to law school at the University of South Carolina.

After law school, she established a lobbying business in Columbia. She met Mark Kent at a political fundraiser in the state capitol.

The couple married and had twins, a boy, Henry, and a girl, Amelia, who are now 10.

“Mark really wanted me to get involved in the business,” Kim Kent said. “I didn’t want to do that. He finally talked me into it. … Looking back on it, he was right. His reason all along was, ‘I want you to know what’s going on in case anything ever happens to me.’ You always have those conversations, but you never think it’s going to happen. I’m glad that it happened that way.

“He was an amazing man and is very missed,” she added.

She described the company’s 175th anniversary as “bittersweet,” because of what Mark meant to his family, his employees, and the community.

For example, in the late 1990s he purchased the historic American Cigar Factory on East Court Street in downtown Greenville.

He also bought the old Chamber of Commerce building, also known as the Liberty building, off South Main Street.

Mark Kent invested millions in breathing new life into structures that helped pave the way for two decades of growth in Greenville’s urban center.

That legacy lives on through Kentwool Development, the commercial property arm of the textile company.

“He had a real passion for historic preservation,” Kim Kent said. “He would have done another one [had he survived].”

Mark Kent served as the board chair of the American Textile Export Co. and on the boards of the American Textile Manufacturers’ Institute and the American Red Cross. He had served on the boards of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Greenville Foundation. He also had served as the chair of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance.

His example of service is something that is still a big part of Kentwool’s corporate DNA.

For instance, Kim Kent said the company plans to donate 30,000 pairs of socks, a value of about $600,000, to charitable organizations across the Upstate. Most of them will be for children.

Shaping the Future

Kim Kent wants to expand the company’s presence in Pickens.

The CEO said Kentwool is hiring for about eight to 10 positions at the Runnymeade facility.

She said the company offers generous health-care, retirement, and life insurance benefits, as well as competitive wages.

Kentwool also strongly encourages its employees to get involved in their communities, she said.

“Mark truly built a team here in Greenville and in Pickens of people who not only care about what they’re doing professionally, but they care about each other,” Kim Kent said. “The environment here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We’re like a family.”

She said the company is also very environmentally conscious.

“Mark used to joke that we are so green even PETA likes us,” she said. “Sheep need to be sheared. We buy [their wool], process it, and sell it. Our process is very clean. There’s not a lot of waste or water discharge.”

Kim Kent said she anticipates one of the company’s biggest challenges will be attracting talented employees to its workforce.

Part of the problem is convincing younger generations that they can have successful careers in manufacturing. The other part is the inevitable retirement of some of the company’s longest-serving, most knowledgeable employees.

“It was interesting to me as I looked through our demographics,” she said. “Almost one-third of our workforce has been with us for at least 15 years. Three employees have been with us for 40 years or more. They bring consistency, continuity, and experience. If these individuals decide they want to retire, we’d be hard-pressed to replace them. … I don’t know how we make that cultural shift. We need to do a better job of reaching out [to younger generations].”

But Kent said she is optimistic about the company’s future.

“To say I’m excited about celebrating [the 175th anniversary] is very hard. But I’m really proud of the company, and Mark, and the work that his family has put it into it. We fully anticipate that in 25 years we will still be here to celebrate our 200th anniversary.”

Company Timeline

1843

Thomas Kent, a businessman who emigrated from England, founds Kent Manufacturing Co. in Philadelphia.

1954

The company’s fourth-generation owner, the late Tom Kent, opens a production facility in Pickens County.

1965

Kent Manufacturing Co. shuts down operations in Philadelphia.

1970

Company headquarters moves to South Carolina.

1992

Tom Kent dies, and his son, the late Greenville business leader and philanthropist Mark Kent, takes ownership at age 29.

2007

Kent Manufacturing Co. undergoes a rebrand, changing its name to Kentwool.

2010

Kentwool introduces consumer products. They debut their wool golf sock at the 2010 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.

2017

Mark Kent dies of cardiac arrest. At the time, his wife, Kim Kent, is serving on the company’s advisory board and manages its in-house counsel. She assumes her husband’s role shortly after his death.

2018

Kentwool celebrates its 175th anniversary.

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