Surry County News

Read about new business, events and news that effects life and commerce in the western Piedmont Triad.
Mount Airy downtown is state’s #1

Mount Airy downtown is state’s #1

Facing formidable competition from the likes of a mansion, a warship and the natural wonders of mountains and seashore, Mount Airy Main Street prevailed as North Carolina’s number one attraction in a USA Today 10 Best Contest that was released at noon on Friday.

“This is so exciting for businesses in town and for the city,” said Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority (TDA). “We are very proud to be named number one in North Carolina, and this media exposure will be wonderful for the city of Mount Airy.”

“It was a real grassroots effort to get the word out locally and to our fans around the world; fans of Mount Airy and fans of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’,” said Roberts of her agency’s campaign to earn votes for Mount Airy downtown.

Also named on the 10 Best list were #2 — Battleship North Carolina, Wilmington, #3 — Biltmore Estate, Asheville, #4 — Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Durham, #5 — Grandfather Mountain, #6 — Blue Ridge Parkway, #7 — International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro, #8 — Cape Lookout National Seashore, #9 — Great Smoky Mountains National Park, #10 — Corolla Wild Horses, Corolla.

“I’m just tickled to death,” said Travis Frye, programs and events director for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. “I was kind of in shock. We were up against Biltmore and all those others.”

Frye added that coming out ahead of those heavy-hitting attractions is a reflection of the spirit of the local community.

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always a sure thing. During the final weeks of voting in the reader’s choice contest, Mount Airy had dropped down into third place, temporarily bested by Biltmore and some of the other contenders as voting progressed.

“We watched what they were doing, and then we did more of it,” Roberts explained how she and her team took advantage of that time while lagging behind the frontrunners. “We sent out texts, emails, posts on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We asked the Chamber to help, talked to different people and businesses locally so they were all doing what we were doing.”

This is not Mount Airy’s first time at the rodeo of public opinion. Several years ago, the city was one of six finalists competing for the title of Friendliest City in America. The results of that competition did not turn out so well for Mayberry, with Walla Walla, Washington, ultimately named the winner. But the experience did not go to waste.

“When we were nominated for ‘friendliest city,’ right away we put together a plan for media exposure to let the media know we were in the running,” said Roberts. That plan has been honed and sharpened over the years in subsequent campaigns, and on Friday it paid off.

“I think being named number one in the category is huge exposure for us,” said Roberts. “We could never pay for this kind of publicity.”

“We try to get people to come, and then we try to get them to stay longer and spend more money,” said Roberts of the efforts of the TDA. “Anything a tourist touches while they are here helps the local economy.”

“This is an opportunity for us to come together as a community,” said Frye of the latest accolade bestowed on Mount Airy by a national publication.“People still long for that small-town feel,” he summed up. “And we’ve got that.”

Socks appeal: How Mount Airy’s Renfro is targeting the movement for fashion footwear

Stan Jewell remembers the days when consumers viewed socks as a mere afterthought — an item haphazardly tossed in the shopping cart on the way to a more important purchase.

“It was ‘do I need my white socks or my dress socks?’” said Jewell, the newly minted CEO of Mount Airy-based Renfro Corp.

But today, buyers see socks as a fashion statement, he said. And they’re willing to spend more than just a few bucks for the fancy footwear emblazoned with elaborate graphics, designs and patterns. Hiker friendly socks that provide blister protection and resist odor-causing bacterial buildup? That’ll be $22.50. A pair of cashmere-merino wool blend socks with a classic ribbed pattern? $58, please. Compare those prices to a six-pack of men’s big and tall crew socks from Walmart for $7.47.

Indeed, there is a movement afoot to provide consumers with socks featuring various fashion designs or high-tech fabrics that promise better comfort or performance for a specific activity like running. That trend, in turn, has provided fertile ground for startups focused on selling socks marketed with words like “fun,” “novelty” and “premium.” The trend has forced sock manufacturers like Renfro Corp. — whose strength has been their ability to produce mass quantities of socks in traditional channels such as department stores — to look at their sales strategies with fresh eyes and add specialty niche socks to generate revenue and stay competitive.

That’s been a top priority for Jewell, who this summer took the reins at Renfro, a global manufacturer of private label legwear products. Jewell is focused on growing market share of brands like New York City-based HotSox, which features sock collections featuring everything from Van Gogh paintings to Scottie dogs. Some manufacturers, like Mount Airy-based Nester Hosiery, are hiring new executives to boost sales for premium sock lines. Others, such as ProFeet in Burlington, have launched new hosiery to appeal to consumers who love the outdoors. Some are even partnering with sock startups to provide production capabilities and earn a cut of the profits.

Socks are crowded segment

The fight for sock market share is taking place clear across the Triad, which is home to a crowded field of sock producers. Take, for example, the small city of Mount Airy, with just over 10,000 people. Mount Airy is home to Nester Hosiery, a high-end sock maker in the premium performance sock category, and has also long hosted a sock operation for Winston-Salem-based Hanesbrands. Look farther south to find Greensboro-based Kayser Roth, a hosiery manufacturer that operates plants in Burlington and Asheboro. And manufacturer Harriss & Covington, a producer of SmartWool socks, is based in High Point.

Sock companies here and across the country are pursuing the premium socks trend to help them generate revenue in an industry hard-hit by the shift to overseas manufacturing.

“We are trying to balance our portfolio a little bit more because the basic category of light gray athletic socks is shrinking,” Jewell said of Renfro, which makes socks for the likes of Fruit of the Loom and Walmart.

The company, which employs about 500 of its 4,500-person workforce at the company’s Mount Airy headquarters and distribution center, isn’t willing to depend solely on volume production alone.

“We’re still the biggest player in that market, but we are trying to grow our more interesting segments of the business in the performance and fashion category faster,” Jewell said.

Consumer tastes drive demand

The good news is that there is still plenty of money to be had: The global socks market was valued at $42 billion in 2016, and it is expected to expand at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.7 percent from 2017 to 2025, according to Transparency Market Research of Albany, N.Y.

The companies able to sell lines of socks that can be differentiated will be the winners in the uber-competitive category.

“Now that you can charge more and get more for it, no longer is the low-cost manufacturer in control,” said Roger Beahm, a marketing professor at Wake Forest University. “Now, when someone is looking at a pair of socks, they are looking at what’s the value-added? What am I getting that I might not normally get in another pair and does it add value? Is it the decoration? Is it the sock itself? Or a technological ingredient that allows the sock to perform better? Does it better reflect my lifestyle? Does it help me escape? Those are values that are being delivered now.”

He added that socks are also seen as an “affordable luxury.”

“You can pay $16 for a pair of socks. While that’s expensive compared to what a commodity sock would be, it’s still not going to break your budget,” Beahm said.

Jewell’s ability to generate new revenue for the company through specialty socks will be imperative to the longevity of Renfro, which is owned by private equity firm Kelso and remains one of the largest manufacturers of private-label socks for retailers like Walmart, Target and Kohl’s.

Founded in 1921, the company derives about 50 percent of its annual revenue of $500 million from the traditional sock business. That’s down from a portfolio that previously relied almost entirely on the basic sock category, Jewell said. The remaining half of Renfro’s business comes from sports, outdoor and workwear performance socks and fashion, high-end socks, Jewell said.

Jewell said Renfro’s non-basic categories of performance socks, such as New Balance and Nike athletic socks, currently make up 20 percent of the company’s overall business while fashion socks, like Polo/ Ralph Lauren products, make up about 30 percent. He estimates that the fashion sock category will grow to about 35 percent over the next five years while performance socks will grow from 20 percent to 30 percent.

He said he sees plenty of potential for fashion-oriented socks, which are often bought by those who want to add some personality to one’s ensemble and express one’s interests and tastes.

“I don’t have to think of some new combination or style of pants or shirts,” Jewell said. “I can put a new pair of socks on that is pushing my fashion sense a little bit, but it’s not a big risk, it’s not a big expense.”

Other consumers want to make a deliberate statement, he said.

“Hey, I like pizza and beer so I’m going to have pizza and beer on my socks,” Jewell said. “I like Picasso, so I’m going to have Picasso on my socks.”

A display shows off Hot Sox, which are manufactured at Renfro.

Jewell plans to generate more money from fashion-oriented socks largely by enhancing the marketing of companies Renfro has bought over the past decade. In 2007, it bought New York City based HotSox, whose main sock customer is Ralph Lauren, followed by the acquisition of California-based K. Bell in 2010. In 2014, Renfro struck a license agreement with New Balance to design, manufacture and market new and existing lines of socks for the athletic apparel brand.

Jewell said Renfro is now working on an initiative to co-market specific socks with New Balance shoes.

“When we took over the New Balance license, there wasn’t traditionally very close cooperation between the sock manufacturer and the New Balance parent company,” Jewell said. “So we’ve worked really hard to build a stronger connection, and we have aligned our product categories directly to their shoe category, so that’s new. And we are designing socks to go specifically with footwear products they are designing.”

Renfro’s advantages: Scale, speed

Jewell isn’t worried about the sock startup competition. If anything, it helps Renfro, he said.

“We are learning a lot from watching those guys and seeing what’s really sticking,” he said. “That helps inform us on what our strategy should be and how we move forward.”

He added that Renfro has the ability to scale up quickly if there is a sudden spike in demand for specialty socks — something startups can’t do as easily.

“They are really going to have problems scaling up, either with capital issues or distribution,” he said.

That’s Renfro’s strength, Jewell said. It is equipped with a total of four factories, two of which are in the U.S. and are 100 percent owned by the company: A facility in Fort Payne, Ala., is used for mass production of basic socks while a facility in Cleveland, Tenn., focuses on specialty socks. The company is also part of joint ventures in both China and India that allow Renfro to mass produce socks for companies like Walmart.

“When Walmart comes to us and says ‘we want to focus on ‘Made in the USA,’ we have the ability to do that and do it in our own factories here,” Jewell said. “We don’t have to try to piece it together or outsource it.”

Meanwhile, small companies often outsource manufacturing operations, he said. While some of the firm’s larger competitors have factories, they are typically not in the U.S., Jewell said.

He added that Renfro has an advantage over sock startups because of its longstanding relationships with department stores.

“It’s very expensive to sell to department stores, when they want to charge back for unsold inventory and returns,” he said. “Small companies just can’t afford to do a lot of business with Macy’s or Dillard’s.”

Montana Ag: American wool makes perfect socks

Montana farmers and ranchers raise numerous high quality products.

2 minute 29 second YouTube video on the Nester Process

For sock maker Nester Hosiery in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the perfect pair of socks always starts with the main ingredient: Wool.

“There’s that phenomenon that happens with one person putting wool on their feet,” CEO Kelly Nester said. “When they do that, they go, ‘Gosh, what have I been missing?'”

According to Nester, wool is the sock ingredient that manages moisture and comfort while keeping the sock together and durable.

Nester Hosiery produces about 12,000 dozen pair of socks each week, or about 288,000 individual socks including their Farm to Feet line, which uses 100 percent American wool.

“It’s still a very young brand but that brand is principled on transparency in supply and it’s much more than the origin, it’s more of telling the story of manufacturing,” Nester said. “The companies involved from the American sheep industry rancher where they have grown the wool all the way through.”

Being a family-owned and operated business, the Nester family and employees treasure the relationship with America’s wool producers.

“It’s been one of the real treasures of the last five years of my career is getting to communicate with the sheep rancher,” Nester said. “The hard work that goes into farming is something that our whole company is familiar with and getting to communicate with some of those great personalities has been a lot of fun.”

America’s wool producers can take great pride in knowing that companies like Nester Hosiery depend on American wool so people everywhere can enjoy a perfect pair of socks.

This is another great example of why wool is one of the world’s most diverse natural fibers and how Montana woolgrowers are an important part of the fiber’s success story.

SCC hosts 6th annual wine symposium

The 6th-Annual Southeastern United Grape and Wine Symposium took place Wednesday on the campus of Surry Community College at The Shelton-Badgett NC Center for Viticulture and Enology. After a full day of workshops, lectures and talks from industry professionals from wine-producing regions as diverse as California, Italy and France, symposium participants got a chance to taste some wine, enjoy a vast hors d’oeuvre buffet and listen to Melva Houston sing with the Bob Sanger trio. The wine professionals were joined by wine lovers whose primary interest in wine is consuming it, rather than producing it. The groups mingled as Ms. Houston sang jazz standards. The symposium originally came from grant funding through the Viticulture Enology Science and Technology Alliance (VESTA), according to Jami Woods, vice-president of academic affairs at Surry Community College. VESTA is a Midwestern organization and was looking for an East Coast presence. Woods said the collaboration with VESTA ultimately did not work out as a recruitment tool for the college, due to the high cost of out-of-state tuition deterring prospective students from other states. But the partnership lives on with the symposium, as wine professionals from all over the Southeast come together to share knowledge and network. “Finding the Perfect Blend” was the theme of the 2017 symposium, according to Ashley Morrison, SCC division chair. Morrison said that ‘blending’ can be important in many ways. A lot of information was provided on wine blends, where more than one varietal is blended together to make a single wine, as well as blending in the vineyard, where blending possibilities go back to choosing which grapes to plant. Morrison said these wines blend out the imperfections in grapes, fixing things that are off-kilter and correcting issues that may arise. She also said blends are the fun wines with fun names and interesting labels. “Blending is not only scientifically important, but artistically important and important for marketing.” David Bower, SCC enology instructor said Surry Community College is the only college on the East Coast that teaches the production of sparkling wines. He said, “it’s important for a region to have that one wine they are known for. We don’t have that one wine.” He thinks sparkling wines may fill that void. Surry teaches the traditional method, the charmat, or bulk method and the encapsulated yeast method. The college’s winery has won several Best Sparkling Wine awards, including one from the NC Fine Wines Competition. Students from the viticulture and enology departments were an important asset in producing the symposium, according to Morrison. Will Simmons, a student in pursuit of all three certificates Surry offers in viticulture, marketing and marketing said, “I’ve always wanted to do it, ever since high school.” He added, “I’m 23 now, so that’s been a while.” Linda and Wayne Gay, owners of Wautauga Lake Winery, in Butler, Tennessee, have attended the Symposium for four out of the last five years. Wayne Gay said, “We pick up new info. There’s always something new.” The Gays’ vineyard produced 75,000 pounds of fruit and 2,000 cases of wine last year. Their region was designated as the Appalachian High Country American Viticultural Area in November of last year. AVA designation is usually useful to vineyards but Linda Gay says their operation is being stymied because they are located in Tennessee and all of the other vineyards are in North Carolina. Due to legal restrictions, they are not allowed to do any joint sales. A tablemate at lunch suggested they hold a wine festival on the state line. There is laughter, but general consensus it might be a good idea. But Linda Gay has already thought of that and yet other legal obstacles make it impossible. Marion Venable, executive director of SCC’s Foundation, was business manager for the viticulture and enology programs for eight years at SCC before it was a degree program, back when courses were offered through the continuing education department. She assured Linda and Wayne Gay that as winemaking became more important to their area, accommodations for problems such as theirs would begin to be found.

Insteel Industries acquires Pennsylvania company

Insteel Industries Inc. (NASDAQ: IIIN) of Mount Airy, through its wholly owned subsidiary Insteel Wire Products Co., has acquired certain assets of Ortiz Engineered Products of Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania, the company announced Monday.

Ortiz services the concrete industry by replacing conventional rebar with welded wire reinforcement — a process that saves both time and costs over the course of a construction project. Its headquarters is located in central Pennsylvania about 60 miles northwest of Allentown.

Insteel manufactures welded wire reinforcements at six facilities in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. The company has a total of 10 facilities across the U.S.

“We believe the addition of OEP’s capabilities will accelerate our ongoing efforts to penetrate the rebar market with engineered structural mesh and leverage the recent investments we have made in our manufacturing facilities,” said H.O. Woltz III, Insteel’s president and CEO.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Grant giving students career education

DOBSON — A grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation is helping Surry County Schools prepare kids for the workplace.

Crystal Folger-Hawks appeared before the county Board of Education Monday evening to give an update on what has happened since the launch of a new initative was announced in late September.

On Sept. 19, the school district and Surry Community College hosted an event in Mount Airy for local businesses to talk with educators about a new program called Next Generation Career Academy, sponsored by a grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation

“The foundation supports tobacco-dependent, economically distressed and/or rural communities working to transition to more prosperous and stable economies,” Dr. Jill Reinhardt, assistant superintendent, said at the time. “Surry County Schools pursued this grant hoping to fill some employment needs over the next few years in advanced manufacturing and STEM-related fields.”

“Students will complete internships or apprenticeships designed with local business and industry partners that can and will lead to employment,” said Dr. Travis Reeves, school superintendent.

“Students will earn industry-related career credentials such as Career Readiness Certification, OSHA Certification, Lean Six Sigma Certification, and certificates from Surry Community College in content areas such as welding, construction, nursing, computer-integrated machining, and electronics,” stated Reeves.

A visibly excited Folger-Hawks said she was kept busy the whole month of October with site visits. She began meeting individually with businesses, touring their facilities, and designing internship opportunities.

One of her main responsibilities is matching students to specific careers in the supporting businesses and then monitoring and mentoring those student interns.

“Getting involved in this program is important to Smith-Rowe, but also important to our local economy,” said Jody Phillips, vice president of Smith-Rowe Inc. “We have the opportunity to teach young people about the good jobs in our community. This will help us grow our own. This is a win-win for everyone.”

  • On Oct. 13, Folger-Hawks organized a field trip to Smith-Rowe for a group of sophomores from the Surry Early College.

It was obvious that the company had put some effort into hosting the kids, she noted. When she brought this up to Phillips, she said that he responded, “We see this as an investment.”

As this trip was for sophomores, she said she would plan for the next such event to focus on the junior class.

  • On Oct. 19, a group of carpentry students from North Surry and East Surry traveled to the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh for the 32nd-Annual N.C. Department of Commerce Appenticeship Competitions.

Folger-Hawks said she had never heard of the competition before, and it was too late to sign up by the time students learned of the events. After seeing the competitions in person, the teachers told her they plan to sign up next year.

In the carpentry pre-apprenticeship category, students were given projects to complete during a briefing. Then the two-person teams had from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to design and build their own pieces to submit for judging.

The students must supply their own equipment, which is inspected to ensure safety before the competition.

Folger-Hawks told the board that in addition to looking for intern possibilities, she is trying to see what apprenticeships she can develop with businesses.

In an internship, a student may have a good idea what field is desired, but not a specific job. An apprenticement has a tighter focus where the student has a career path and is looking for training toward a specific job(s).

Before taking this position with the new school year, Folger-Hawks was a college liaison for East Surry. She said when she has been able to sit down and use some desk time, the Pilot Center on South Main Street has been kind enough to give her a place to work. Still, she said she’d rather be spending her time with the students.

Appointment of Johnny Easter as Development Services Director for Surry County

The County of Surry is pleased to announce the appointment of a Development Services Director who will oversee the operations of the Development Services Department. This department is the result of the consolidation approved by the Board of Commissioners in June as a part of the FY17-18 budget. The following departments and activities are being consolidated into this department: Planning and Development, Zoning, Inspections, Code Enforcement, Central Permitting, Lovills Creek, Flat Rock-Bannertown Water and Sewer District, Interstates Water and Sewer District, and the Elkin Area Water System. Johnny Easter, who currently serves as Environmental Health Supervisor II with Surry County, has been named to the position effective December 1.
Mr. Easter has been employed with Surry County since 2006. Prior to his employment with Surry County, he worked with Forsyth County for eight years as an Environmental Health Supervisor I. Mr. Easter graduated from North Surry High School and Western Carolina University and holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health. He has extensive experience working with the contractors and citizens of Surry County.
County Manager Chris Knopf said “I look forward to working with Mr. Easter in his new role with Surry County. His experience working with our citizens, contractors, and other County departments will allow him to hit the ground running in his new role.”
Mr. Easter stated “My sole focus as the new Development Services Director is to provide the best possible permitting process for the people of Surry County. My years of experience in Environmental Health have prepared me for the task at hand. I will be steadfast in establishing a positive, open and constructive experience for both the contractors and citizens at large”.
The Development Services model being implemented by Surry County is designed to provide enhanced customer service and improve the efficient delivery of services by consolidating those functions of County Government that cater to development activities. Giving stakeholders a single point of contact for development-related activities will assist the County in accomplishing its goals.
Surry County’s “one-stop” shop is in the Permitting Center, 122 Hamby Road, Dobson, North Carolina. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 8:15 am until 5:00 pm.
For additional information, contact: Sandra Snow, Assistant County Manager for Human Resources and Operations, at 336-401-8202.

Editor’s Notebook: It’s time for some manufacturing myth-busting

This week’s Special Report on advanced manufacturing highlights how Triad companies are using technology to increase efficiency and remain competitive in today’s global marketplace.

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, 3-D printing and design and highly streamlined processes are helping these manufacturers increase their output, improve consistency and quality, and most of all, grow revenue.

One of their biggest challenges is attracting skilled workers. While area schools are drawing more students into advanced manufacturing careers, too many parents still believe their children deserve “better.” They picture a grimy, dimly lit, smokestacked factory that belches out exhausted, grease-covered workers with a loud whistle at the end of the day.

As someone who once held that same mental picture, I admit we need to do better job of educating not just students, but parents. For example, here are a few common myths:

Manufacturing is dirty: To the contrary, the floors of these advanced facilities are clean, safe and full of shiny equipment in well-lit spaces.

• Manufacturing is for people who can’t get into college: In fact, the skills needed at today’s plants demand training in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. Much of the work involves computers, calculations and precision monitoring to make sure the machines are doing their jobs properly. For many students, devising a career path toward advanced manufacturing is a far more sensible way to find rewarding employment than a traditional college degree.

Manufacturing jobs are for men. Last week’s panelists described a diverse workforce that includes female employees who are handling technology and equipment as skillfully (or even more so) than men, advancing their careers and pay opportunities in the process.

Manufacturing jobs will just be replaced by robots, anyway, so why bother? People will always be needed to monitor, trouble-shoot and direct the computer-run equipment. And there are still many tasks that require hands-on work and human problem-solving.

Manufacturing is old-school. For an eye-opening reality check, take a tour of any of the factories mentioned in our special report.

Insteel Industries posts 4Q profit

“The resources and assistance provided by the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, the City of Mount Airy, the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and Surry Community College were essential to the success of our start up venture.”

Andrew Clabough

President, Willow Tex

Contact Us

Surry County Economic Development Partnership, Inc.
1218 State St.,
Mt. Airy NC 27030
PO BOX 7128

Contact Us

Surry County Economic Development Partnership Inc. 1218 State St., Mt. Airy NC 27030
PO BOX 7128

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