Roger Milliken, the last of a breed of larger-than-life South Carolina business tycoons with a wealth in the billion-dollar range, died Thursday in Spartanburg. He was 95.
In a career spanning more than 60 years, Milliken left a mark as big as his fortune in areas ranging from politics to environmentalism to philanthropy to industrial innovation to worker safety.
“We have lost a giant,” said Lewis Gossett, chief executive officer of the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance.
During his 63 years as Spartanburg-based Milliken & Co.’s leader, Milliken accumulated more wealth than most people can imagine. In 2008, Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $1 billion.
In 2009, Forbes listed his family-owned Milliken & Co. as the 185th largest private company in the United States, with $2.54 billion in annual revenues. Keeping the company private, away from Wall Street pressures to unceasingly hike profits, allowed Milliken to spend millions on developing staff, improving product quality and beautifying his company’s facilities with trees, ponds and even statues.
On the death of his father in 1947, Milliken inherited a handful of textile manufacturing sites. Today, Milliken & Co. has 50 plants in seven countries. It employs 9,000 workers, manufacturing technical and industrial materials, specialized chemicals and floor coverings. It sells its products worldwide, and holds more than 2,300 patents in the United States alone.
Milliken blazed paths in areas other than business. He was, after all, a man who read four newspapers a day – before the Internet – and whose childlike curiosity led him to do things, as an adult, like crawl under machines to see how they worked.
In the 1960s, Milliken helped fund the founding of the modern, conservative Republican Party in South Carolina. Later, he gave liberally to numerous conservative politicians, including the late U.S. Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., as well as President Ronald Reagan.
Milliken gave Republican candidates so much money that dismayed Democrats took to calling him “Daddy Warbucks.”
Just smart business
In the workplace, Milliken’s life record contained contradictions.
In the 1950s, he drew national publicity when he closed a Darlington mill, throwing some 500 workers out of a job, rather than let them unionize. But he also kept 700 workers — he called those he employed “associates” — on the payroll in 1995 for six months after a plant in LaGrange, Ga., burned down while it was being rebuilt.
In his later years, Milliken’s manufacturing sites won international, national and state awards for workplace safety, quality products, innovative hiring and employee development practices.
As an environmentalist, Milliken was responsible for giving millions of dollars to plant trees on and around his company’s 650-acre main campus in Spartanburg. He also gave money to plant trees at local interstate on and off ramps. He liked touches of beauty – skylights, ponds and fountains at his plants – and, despite not believing in climate change, was an enthusiastic supporter of solar and wind power developments.
Conserving energy was just smart business, he once told a reporter.
Milliken loved trees so much he kept national tree experts on retainer.
For many years, his annual fall parties to celebrate the 6,000-odd trees on his company’s main Spartanburg campus attracted hundreds of movers and shakers in politics and business from around the state. Attendance was by invitation only. One year, he flew in a tree expert from 11,000 miles away — all the way from Singapore — to talk about how that country was beautifying its cities with trees and green spaces atop buildings.
As a philanthropist, Milliken gave millions to Spartanburg colleges Wofford and Converse, much of it going to beautify their campuses. At Wofford, for example, where he sat on the board of trustees for more than 50 years, Milliken oversaw the planting of some 6,000 trees from the 1970s to the early 2000s. He bought up more than 200 small parcels of land to enlarge the campus to more than 150 tree-filled acres from 90 acres.
As the chief executive officer for more than 50 years of his privately owned company, Milliken was a hands-on manager. He knew the names of numerous employees. He had a workaholic’s work ethic and passion. “I like what I’m doing,” he said at the age of 85, still actively involved in company operations.
Only in 2006 did Milliken step aside from the daily management of his company affairs. Still, he continued as chairman of Milliken & Co.’s board until his death.
Milliken — called “Mr. Milliken” by all who knew him — stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall and walked with a loose, coordinated stride. When young, his hair was a hearty auburn, giving him his nickname – “Big Red.” He was an outdoors person, a golfer and skier into his 80s.
During much of his career Milliken stayed away from the media, developing a reputation as somewhat of a recluse. But he could be an engaging personality with a wry streak of humor.
Born on Oct. 24, 1915, into a life of wealth and privilege, Milliken attended Yale University.
After majoring in French history and graduating from Yale in 1937, Milliken “was given the stewardship of three small woolen mills in Maine,” according to a company statement. The company had been founded in 1865 by his grandfather, Seth Milliken, and expanded by his father, Gerrish, who had inherited it when his father died.
In 1947, when his father died, Milliken became company president. In 1954, he and his late wife, Justine, whom he had met in New York City and married in 1948, moved to Spartanburg.
As his company grew in the Upstate, Milliken also played a vital role in helping attract other manufacturers to the I-85 corridor, giving it a reputation for international business.
‘Crafted with Pride”
One of his passions for years — destined to be a losing cause — was trying to protect U.S. businesses from foreign competition. To Milliken, that meant not shipping jobs overseas and making sure the United States kept a strong manufacturing base. Lowering trade barriers to the detriment of a strong, productive national manufacturing base was folly of a high order, he said.
In 1983, he launched the nationally known “Crafted with Pride in the U.S.A.” advertising campaign, trying to control the flood of cheap textile imports that threatened the U.S. textile and apparel industry. During the 1990s, Milliken often found himself working with Democrats and union members to keep trade barriers in place for what he liked to call “fair trade,” not “free trade.”
Milliken also helped bankroll the protectionist presidential campaigns of Republican Pat Buchanan and independent Ross Perot.
Although identified with segregationist Republicans in the 1960s, Milliken stood up for African Americans in 1964 when the Wofford board of trustees was debating whether to admit blacks to the college. Milliken “insisted” the board open admissions, pledging to personally make up for any alumni donations lost due to desegregation, according to a statement released by the company Thursday. Wofford became one of the first Southern colleges to admit blacks.
With Milliken’s death, the future of his company enters uncharted waters.
Often, family companies are sold to the highest bidder to an acquiring company that lays off employees to hike its profits. Thursday, the company issued no statement about the its future.
One legacy Milliken left that is almost sure to last are his trees.
In 1999, he established the Noble Tree Foundation to encourage the planting of enduring and beautiful trees, particularly in overlooked areas of the Upstate.
At Wofford College, president Benjamin Dunlap said Thursday that for more than 50 years, Milliken had “transformed every square inch of the campus, and many of us who worked there as well. That he prized both quality and efficiency is widely known, but I think he loved creativity even more.”