The one-time 'Sock Capital of the World,' Fort Payne, Ala., will soon get 442 new jobs making socks for Wal-Mart as part of the retailer's $250 million commitment to American manufacturing.
The Renfro Corp., the single largest producer of socks in DeKalb County, Ala., recently landed a deal with Wal-Mart that should swell employment at Renfro's manufacturing plant in Fort Payne by more than 70 percent. The deal is the latest in Wal-Mart's 4-year-old commitment to buy an additional $250 billion worth of U.S. products to support American jobs, Wal-Mart spokesman Scott Markley said.
"With changes in energy costs and labor costs overseas, it is increasingly cost effective and efficient to manufacture closest to the point of consumption," Markley said. "And it is just good business. Our customers tell us that where products are made is most important second only to price."
The brands include Fruit of the Loom, Russell, Dr. Scholl's, and Faded Glory, among others.
"They've been a supplier of socks to Wal-Mart for a very long time," Markley said. "They're sold under various brands."
Renfro Corp. CEO Bud Kilby wasn't immediately available Wednesday. But county officials said Renfro now has about 605 employees, so the additional jobs will push employment for the hosiery mill to more than 1,000 workers.
"Renfro is the largest employer in our hosiery industry," said Jimmy Durham, executive director of the DeKalb County Economic Development Authority. "We're also seeing an increase in sales and production from our other hosiery mills."
While Wal-Mart's decision to stock more Renfro socks is a shot in the arm for Fort Payne, it still won't nudge the sock production numbers for the city, which has some 14,000 residents, back to the heyday.
At its peak in the 1990s, Fort Payne had more than 120 hosiery mills with some 7,500 workers who made one out of every eight pairs of socks worn worldwide, according to a 2016 New York Times article.
Fort Payne produced 600 million dozen pairs of socks at its peak, Durham said.
Job loss accelerated after Gildan, a company based in Montreal, Canada, bought in 2007 V.I. Prewett & Son Inc., a homegrown hosiery mill and moved production elsewhere, including Honduras.
"We lost at least 6,500 employees. Our unemployment spiked to about 16.9 percent," Durham said.
"Now we're back down to about 5.9 percent unemployment," he said. "We've been very fortunate to get some good automotive and other companies."
Dan Bartlett, Wal-Mart executive vice president for corporate affairs, said Wal-Mart is hiring more workers and buying more American goods as it expands its store network, e-commerce services and training for more than 225,000 frontline associates this year.
"With a presence in thousands of communities and a vast supplier network, we know we play an important role in supporting and creating American jobs," Barlett said in a statement last month. "Our 2017 plans to grow our business — and our support for innovation in the textile industry — will have a meaningful impact across the country."