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Fabric of Success

Gehring emphasizes diversity in products

May 4, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald
The president of Gehring Textiles, which has two local manufacturing plants and employs 200 people, has seen other area textile mills go out of business over the years, but his company survives.

He attributes the company’s continued success, in part, to diversity.

“The key is diversity of products and customers,” said Skip Gehring.

Gehring Textiles was founded as a family business in 1946. The company operates Gehring-Tricot Corp. in Dolgeville and Helmont Mills in St. Johnsville.

The company makes warp knit fabrics used in apparel, home goods, sporting goods, medicine, industrial and engineered applications.

Gehring Vice President of Operations Paul Gutowski and Helmont Mills Plant Manager Charlie Sammons started working at the company while still in school more than 40 years ago.

“We have many employees with over 15 years [of service],” Gutowski said. “Turnover is very low here.”

Like so many other longtime employees, the third generation Skip Gehring worked his way up through the ranks, starting with cleaning rest rooms more than 20 years ago.

“I haven’t been there that long compared to a lot of the employees,” he said.

The company has made the transition from primarily apparel goods to commercial, military, emergency personnel and medical specialty fabrics.

Nearly a million textile jobs have been lost in the United States since 1994. Local textile mills that have closed since that year include Johnstown Knit, Lee Fashion Fabrics and Fab Industries, all in Johnstown; Guilford in Cobleskill and Herkimer; and Native

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Textiles in Glens Falls.

Gutowski said total textile sales for Gehring Textiles were more than $26 million in 2007.

Gehring said the company sold $5 million in military protective apparel in 2007 and will sell about the same amount this year.

“Our soldiers are wearing apparel made by us in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.

“We’re still here, and we plan to be here for a long time to come,” Gutowski said. “We’ll grow if we can. We survived the first onslaught [of textile plant closings].”

Gehring said he recently signed an agreement that will further diversify the company’s product line, from warp knit and circular knit to weaving fabrics.

“The weaving machinery will stay out of state, but we will incorporate the dye house at the Dolgeville location.” he said.

Gutowski said custom manufacturing is the company’s strongest asset. He said because of the company’s diversified products and ability to take on smaller jobs, it can do many things that might have been sent overseas previously.

“We’re now redoing some work that has come back from China,” he said.

The company constantly tests products to keep the company up to commercial standards. The company has a testing laboratory on the premises.

“We can’t afford to have a customer dissatisfied with our product and go elsewhere,” Gutowski said.



Effects from flood

The company has had recent setbacks.

After the flood of 2006 along the Mohawk River in Montgomery County, Gutowski said company employees pitched in and helped clean up the St. Johnsville plant immediately.

When state investigators came to the site three months later, the plants looked like they had received much less damage than they actually experienced, according to Gutowski.

“We’re still having electrical problems stemming from the flood,” he said. “We can’t prove it, but we’re pretty sure some computer malfunctions with the machinery are because [of moisture from] the flood.”

“We were under 18 inches of water,” Sammons said. “The bottom rolls of all our material were ruined.”

“It was moldy and stunk,” he added. “There was no salvaging it.”

Gutowski said a state grant secured by state Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Niskayuna, for $300,000 helped, but represented a small portion of the loss.

“We lost about $4 million in the flood,” Gutowski said. “We had to get back on line as fast as we could to keep our customers. We still lost some.”

“Our employees were terrific,” Sammons said. “We never laid off an employee through the whole flood recovery.”

Gehring praised employees at the Helmont Mills plant.

“Our employees took vacation time and personal time to help clean up the plant,” Gehring said. “They had us up and running in two weeks.”

Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce President Debbie Auspelmyer agreed that Helmont Mills did a great job of recovering after the flood.

“The recovery of the businesses that were impacted by the flood plays a tremendous role in the continued economic growth of Montgomery County,” Auspelmyer said. “To be able to save jobs and continue operation, especially in this type of industry, is a credit to the agencies that assisted.”

Gutowski said a business income insurance claim is still unsettled two years later.



Longtime worker

In the lab at the St. Johnsville plant, Kim Scherneck was steaming dyed fabrics for color fastness and examining other fabric under a microscope Wednesday. He said his father, Fred Scherneck, had been plant manager there and brought him in when he was still in school.

“I’ll be here 40 years next year,” Scherneck said. “I work slower than my father wanted, but I’m careful. Customers demand a higher quality these days.”

Scherneck said he began cleaning cotton lint off machines and would leave work covered with lint when he first started with the company.

“It wasn’t much fun,” he said. “Then I worked my way up.”

His story was repeated many times with management willing to train and promote from within.

“We are always looking for talented people we can train and move up,” Gutowski said.

Gehring said the increase in energy costs, trade agreements with other countries and the devalued dollar in comparison with the Euro (the company buys much of its machinery from Germany) have all been difficult.

“It’s not just the oversees competition that have hurt us,” Gehring said. “It’s been the free trade agreements, increased workers compensation and constant redevelopment in areas we haven’t been before.”

Many of the specialized textiles are used by the military, emergency personnel, hospital and medical personnel and in construction garments. The company displays commendations from the U.S. Marine Corps and personal letters of thanks from military combat equipment suppliers.

“We got a letter from a fireman who said our protective clothing saved his life,” Dolgeville Plant Manager Gary Farquhar said. “That makes it all worthwhile.”



Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at ga@leaderherald.com.

Article Photos

Photos by Bill Trojan/The Leader-Herald

Charlie Sammons, plant manager at Helmont Mills in St. Johnsville, shows one of the operations at the plant Wednesday

 
 

 

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