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Columbia Business Monthly

Q&A with Halsey Cook CEO, Milliken & Company

South Carolina Business Awards, home of the Official SC 25 Fastest Growing Companies program, recently announced that Milliken & Company was the recipient of the 2020 South Carolina Economic Impact Award.

Organizers say the award, sponsored by BMW Manufacturing Co., is one of the most prestigious recognitions a company can receive. It recognizes companies in the Palmetto State whose activities have produced what are considered extraordinary results.

In responses to questions from Editor David Dykes, Halsey Cook, president and CEO for Spartanburg-based Milliken & Company, wrote about the award, his company’s efforts for continued excellence, and challenges it will face.

Milliken, as an international company, has received many accolades during its tenure, such as "world class," "innovative," "global leader.” How does Milliken’s company culture support these thresholds and encourage the company to strive for future excellence?

Milliken & Company has a strong foundation of 155 years of excellence on which we will build our future success. In 2019, we formalized our role as material science experts, giving structure to our purpose as a company. Milliken looks to positively impact the world for generations to come through commitments to our core values: excellence, integrity, innovation, sustainability and our associates.

Milliken at one time was almost exclusively a textile-product manufacturer. Will the textile industry re-emerge in the U.S. in some capacity in the next decade?

Our beginnings as a textile manufacturer provided sound material science footing on which to diversify into the company we are today. We added to it chemicals, floor covering and health care. Textiles are still a core part of our business, and we continue to find innovative applications that grow our business. We hope to see a strengthening of domestic supply chains for the textile industry as well as for all our businesses.

Biggest hurdles confronting Milliken in the next five years?

Like most companies in the world right now, our biggest hurdles will likely be weathering the global pandemic while still charting a course towards our strategic initiatives. 2020 has shown us that we can pivot our product lines and our way of thinking to meet the moment.

Describe the governance model for Milliken & Company.

Milliken is a privately held company but has a board of directors with mostly independent directors. In many respects, we operate with oversight like a public board with independent auditors. Recently, we have expanded our public reporting to include a corporate sustainability report to share our planet, product and people goals and compliance reporting.

Milliken has a history of long-term thinking and future-focused strategy planning. How do you approach that legacy as the leader of the company?

Being a privately held company offers us the ability to take a long-term view of strategic investments and have the patience to see those investments return over longer periods. We benchmark ourselves against the S&P index of total shareholder returns. We also practice a balanced scorecard approach to consider the positive impact of our actions on all stakeholders, including the communities in which we operate and our associates. 

You are the first CEO in more than 20 years to come from outside Milliken. How has that helped shape your vision for the company?

When I first came to Milliken, I spent nearly a year immersing myself in the culture here. Milliken culture is both a wealth of knowledge and an inspiring legacy. I saw many things we wanted to protect and cultivate from our history. At the same time, Milliken’s board and the owners wanted a clearer view of our long-term strategy. That meant we needed to be committed to change and improvement in our products, processes and the markets we serve. With the support of the leadership team, we have redefined our vision for the company include our past but make it more relevant to our future.

What has been your economic impact on the state and talk about why giving back to the community is important.

The culture of Milliken giving is firmly rooted in the company. We pride ourselves on emphasizing local giving and volunteering efforts to encourage our associates to give back in ways most meaning to them. Giving is even prioritized as part of our company values, and it becomes more important as the global pandemic brings health, economic and societal challenges.

Our economic impact in South Carolina is significant and spans more than a century. We created skilled job opportunities, bolstered manufacturing operations in the state and continued to invest at a time when those jobs were leaving for other locations. Milliken employs over 3,200 associates in South Carolina in 16 locations. Milliken’s associates live across 23 different counties in South Carolina. In addition to our associates and plants, we spend over $350 million in South Carolina annually. We understand our responsibility to our communities in operating each of these facilities. Milliken values the opportunity to support South Carolina through both economic investments and community giving.

We will remain an economic leader for Upstate South Carolina, which for us means prioritizing key business initiatives that grow our company so we can enhance our hometown communities. These include championing diversity and inclusion efforts to bolster our innovation process, strengthening domestic supply chains, and lending our support to issues of the day like addressing the plastics end-of-life challenges.