Kindness, humility, and empathy – with every fiber of his being, Robert “Rob” Hett Chapman III exemplified those characteristics and used them to weave a legacy for bettering the people, places, and things that crossed his life’s path.
Among his family and friends, the late Spartanburg textile mogul and philanthropist will always be remembered for fully engaging in life, giving himself completely, and a generosity of spirit he shared with no strings attached.
“He was so inclusive,” said Lacy Chapman, his wife of 41 years. “He always made sure everyone felt his equal. If someone called him Mr. Chapman, he would always say, ‘I’m Rob; please call me Rob.’ He was so interested in people.
“I’m just so thrilled we had so many great years together,” she said. “He was great, gracious, and he never lost that boyish twinkle in his eye.”
Chapman, the chairman, CEO, and treasurer of Inman Mills, died on Aug. 23. He was 66.
Chapman was born in Spartanburg, the son of the late Harrison Shackeford Chapman and Robert Hett Chapman Jr. He graduated from the Spartanburg Day School and then attended the University of the South, where he majored in economics and was captain of the school’s golf team.
Throughout his life, Chapman earned degrees from the Institute of Textile Technology, Harvard Business School, and the National Cotton Council.
After college, Chapman worked for three years at Citizens and Southern National Bank in Columbia. It was there that he met his wife.
“Our friends wanted to set us up on a blind date,” Lacy Chapman said. “We saw each other and everything just grew from there.”
In 1975, the couple married and moved to Spartanburg in 1976, where Rob Chapman joined the Inman Mills textile company founded by his great-great uncle James A. Chapman in 1901.
“He loved manufacturing,” his daughter Jane Harrison Chapman Fisher said. “He enjoyed being a part of the vision that helped transform the industry. He could see and feel the end results. But he always wanted it to be about the people and not him. Many of his employees said it best: He made everyone in his path feel important and special.”
Like many of the great textile companies impacted by the decline of U.S. textile manufacturing during the 1990s and early 2000s, Inman Mills faced some difficult decisions.
The company had grown to five manufacturing locations, including its original Saybrook plant in Inman, and its Riverdale (later renamed Mountain Shoals) and Ramey facilities in Enoree. By 2001, Inman Mills had shuttered its original Inman plant and some of its Riverdale facilities.
“I think most people could see how much it hurt him when he had to lay people off,” Lacy Chapman said. “It was the most difficult thing he had to do in his life. He always tried to empathize with them. These weren’t just his employees. They were his friends, like family to him.”
Since Chapman’s passing, his cousin, Norman Chapman, who he worked beside for 32 years, has taken over leadership of the company with support from the late leader’s son-in-law, Ellis Fisher.
“He was unbelievably caring,” Norman Chapman said. “He had a passion for people. He learned their names. He learned about their families. Rob was a servant leader. There are a lot of different ways to lead. He didn’t do it for the glory. Where the credit fell was immaterial to him.
“He was not a micromanager. He put very capable people around him and empowered them to do their jobs,” Chapman added. “His biggest overarching legacy is in culture. He really wanted to make sure everyone was treated fairly. … He had an open-door policy.”
Chapman said his cousin introduced everyone as “his friend.”
“It didn’t matter who you were,” he said. “You were his friend, and he was going to introduce you to his other friends.”
“We were really close,” Chapman added. “There wasn’t one thing he wanted to do that he couldn’t do. He was still a 2-handicap golfer. He was a great fly fisherman. He’d wade out in the water and put out decoys in the duck pond. He was the guy who was doing all of the activities like he was a teenager.”
Chapman served on the boards of the YMCA of Greater Spartanburg, Sage Automotive Interiors, Spartanburg Regional Medical Foundation, and the National Council of Textile Organizations.
He led efforts to boost tourism and build community in Linville, N.C.
Chapman served as a committee chairman at Augusta National Golf Club, where he led the Cup and Tee Marker committee that set up the course for the Masters Tournament.
He was a past member of the boards of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the New York Cotton Exchange, the Arts Partnership of Greater Spartanburg, Spartanburg County Foundation, United Way of the Piedmont, Carolina Golf Association, American Textile Manufacturers Institute, S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, Advance America, Converse College, Bumber2Bumper Media, Tuscarora Yarns, FabTech Industries, Spartan Communications, S.C. Independent Colleges and Universities, Spartanburg Arts Council, S.C. Technical College System Foundation, Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Bank of America’s local advisory board, and the J.E. Sirrine Foundation. In 2016, he was inducted into the S.C. Business Hall of Fame.
His business travels spanned the globe, but he never lost sight of his home –Spartanburg.
“I think he left a legacy in life and leadership that will not soon be forgotten,” said Spartanburg business leader George Dean Johnson Jr. “People knew that he cared about them. He was known for his humility, kindness, his smile, and his laughter. I never heard him say a harsh word. He was genuine.”
“He was a wonderful citizen and a great friend,” said former Spartanburg Mayor Bill Barnet. “He was a force for good, a source for improving Spartanburg in many ways, some of which have been well-documented and some that haven’t.”
Chapman was essential to an effort led by local leaders to raise money for a new venue for performing and visual arts, science, and history. That venue opened in 2007 and was named the Chapman Cultural Center.
Chapman’s friends said the late leader was initially opposed to having the Chapman name attached to the center, but later embraced the idea.
“He was so inclusive of everyone,” said Jennifer Evins, president and CEO of the Chapman Cultural Center. “He didn’t want people to think that the Chapman family was the only contributor to the center. They’re a huge family. So many of them practice the arts as professionals. It wasn’t about him or his leadership. It was about a family legacy of valuing the arts.”
“Bill [Barnet] shared his vision with Rob, and Rob totally got it,” Evins added. “The biggest thing our community had ever done was raise $3 million for the library. We were talking about raising $32 million. Bill convinced Rob that this was a risk worth taking. What I know is that he understood the importance of the arts because of the loss of textile jobs and that it took tremendous commitment to succeed. He understood that revitalization was needed to give people hope. Because his family is full of creative people, he understood the hope that the arts give people. He saw other successful cities and realized the arts are a big part of that success.”
Chapman’s family and friends said he had a curiosity about life. He was never afraid to lean on other leaders for advice.
Although he stayed busy, he always managed to strike a healthy balance between his work life, community service, and family time.
“Dad lived life to the fullest every day,” Fisher said. “He never focused on the negative.”
His eldest daughter, Dennis Chapman Hughes, remembered her father always made time to speak with his family no matter how busy he was.
“He called it ‘windshield time,’” Hughes said. “He had 25 minutes typically during his drive from Inman to Spartanburg. If he called you, you knew you’d better answer.”
She said no matter what her father did, he always viewed his work as a passion, rather than a job.
He encouraged his family to think big and to use their talents and abilities to have an impact on others.
“He pushed us to go out of our comfort zone and do things outside of the norm,” Hughes said. “He made you feel like you were the only person in the room.”