John Bakane doesn’t like to see the work of spinning cotton into yarn – or turning yarn into cloth – dismissed as relics of a bygone era.
The longtime textile executive is well aware of his industry’s decline in North Carolina as factories, and the jobs they supported, moved overseas. But, he says, those jobs can’t all be replaced with so-called new economy jobs in computers or other cutting-edge fields.
Bakane, CEO of Frontier Spinning Mills in Sanford, says his company has added 400 jobs in the past three and a half years, thanks in large part to help from the federal government’s Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. companies compete in foreign markets.
Bakane previously spent more than 30 years with the now-defunct Cone Mills, rising to CEO of the Greensboro-based business that at one time was the world’s largest producer of denim.
On Thursday, he started work on the advisory board of the Export-Import Bank. He hopes to expand the bank’s role in his industry in ways that will bring textile jobs to North Carolina – the kind of jobs that he says once brought stability to communities across the nation, and could do so again.
“This country needs badly to re-establish its manufacturing job base,” says Bakane, 61. “That’s the thing I want to work on for the last few years of my career.”
The Export-Import Bank, commonly called the Ex-Im Bank, is a federal entity created in the 1930s that helps U.S. businesses export goods by offering loans and guaranteeing payments by foreign purchasers.
When traditional banks tightened credit in the wake of the recession starting in 2009, Bakane says many textile companies, including his own, relied on the Ex-Im Bank to do business.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan helped establish the new position on the bank’s advisory board that Bakane will fill – a seat dedicated to a textile representative – in hopes of helping more of the state’s textile firms increase their exports.
“I’m pleased that John has been selected to provide a voice for the textile industry, which supports thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses in North Carolina,” Hagan says. “I’m confident that our state’s economy will benefit from John’s expertise and his efforts to increase exports from North Carolina textile manufacturers.”
Whirlwind of change
Bakane grew up in Birmingham, Ala. His mother died when he was only 5, and his father, a postal worker, cared for him and his brother alone for several years before he remarried. Bakane says his father’s commitment made a huge impression.
“He made my mother a promise that he would take care of us, and he did,” Bakane says. “He became my hero.”
The single father didn’t want his young boys to be lead astray, so he sent them to Catholic schools – some of the only schools in Birmingham where black and white students shared classrooms in the early 1960s.
Bakane remembers looking out from his classroom window, perplexed at the demonstrations outside over the integration of public schools.
He stayed in Birmingham after graduation, working his way through college as a night supervisor in a phone company computer room. He went on to earn his MBA at the University of Virginia.
Bakane might have ended up as a computer executive. He held a summer job with IBM while at Virginia., and he hoped to return full-time. But the company was in the midst of a hiring freeze.
Instead, he was recruited by Cone Mills when he graduated in 1975.
“I traded a dull professional job with the computer industry for a fascinating high-level job in the textile industry,” Bakane says. “It’s been an exciting job with never a dull moment. I have no regrets.”
He started at Cone in cost accounting and moved up the ranks to CEO, eventually adding president and chairman to his title as well.
During that time, he says, he traveled the world and was immersed in the trend toward globalization that transformed world commerce. He helped his company buy and build operations in China, Mexico and other countries.
He also saw his industry suffer as cheap foreign goods flooded U.S. markets. At Cone, the shift was dramatic. Bakane was chief financial officer when the company successfully went public in 1992; in 1995, Cone reached its peak annual sales, exceeding $900 million.
By 2003, as CEO, he had to take the company through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, selling it to another large textile manufacturer to create International Textile Group. Bakane remained CEO of Cone Denim, a subsidiary of the new company.
But it was a personal setback that ended his time at Cone, Bakane says. He retired in 2007 to spend time with his wife, who was terminally ill with a brain tumor. The pair spent their time doing the things she had always wanted to do, like swimming with manatees and riding horses in the mountains.
She died in 2008. In 2009, Bakane went back to work, this time as CEO at Frontier.
Expansion in Sanford
The brief retirement fits Bakane’s hard-charging personality. He frequently works 12-hour days, including an hourlong commute to and from work; he counts long hours as a key to his success.
“Things arise that you have to stay with, no matter when they arise,” he says.
Frontier has five plants – four in North Carolina – that turn raw cotton into yarn that will eventually be used in shirts, socks and other products. It is one of the largest yarn-manufacturing companies in the country, with more than $500 million in annual sales.
Bakane has focused the company on selling its yarn abroad, particularly to China; exports now make up 85 percent of its sales. Since Bakane took over, the company has also poured more than $60 million into new plants and equipment.
He says the Ex-Im Bank has played a big part in that expansion by offering the same kinds of government support that exporters have long enjoyed in China and other countries.
The bank came under fire earlier this year by conservative Republicans in Congress who tried to block its re-authorization, claiming its programs amounted to corporate welfare and distorted trade. But the re-authorization passed in May.
For Bakane, a registered Republican, the bank helped level the playing field for businesses that have struggled to compete internationally. One of his goals on the advisory board is to help smaller textile companies take advantage of the bank’s assistance.
“I believe in jobs,” he says, “and this is one tangible way to jump-start jobs in the United States.”
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