By BETH GORCZYCA RYAN ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
HARRISVILLE — If you've ever worn a Carhartt coat or bought a Honda, Toyota or Volkswagen recently, chances are pretty good that you have come in contact with Troy LLC's product line.
The Ritchie County textile manufacturer supplies Carhartt and several automobile manufacturers with the thick, woven polyester fabric used to line jackets, trunks and wheel wells.
"If you look in a new Passat and look in the trunk, we made it," said Richard Kerns, chief operating officer of the company.
But there was a time not long ago when questions arose about whether the manufacturing company that supplies the automotive, apparel and industrial sectors would be able to stay open. The national economy was shaky, the auto industry was in freefall and things looked bleak.
Despite those challenges, Troy LLC celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. But the name Troy goes back to four years after the end of the Civil War.
In 1869, Troy Mills Inc. opened a textile mill in Troy, N.H., making horse blankets. That product line thrived for many decades, but in the 1920s, the company switched gears, shedding the horse blanket line and switching to textiles for car interiors. After all, automobiles were quickly replacing the horse as the primary means of transportation in the nation.
"The company stayed in transportation," Kerns said.
The company made a switch again in 1960, converting from traditional weaving machines to non-woven needle punch. In that process, thousands of needles with fine barbs quickly puncture fabric as it runs through the loom. The barbs catch individual threads in the layers of fabric and weave it together.
The New Hampshire-based company expanded to West Virginia in the early 1970s, starting construction on its Harrisville facility in 1973. It opened in June 1974. Kerns hired on with the company in November of that year as a production supervisor.
Kerns said the plant originally made vinyl mats for the automotive industry, but the mats were heavy and bulky, weighing more than 10 pounds. When the oil crisis hit in the mid 1970s, weight became an issue, so the plant focused more time and effort on producing textiles using two non-woven needle punch looms.
That side of the business took off and by 1976 or 1977 the plant halted its vinyl line completely. At about that same time, the plant underwent an expansion, growing from 40,000 square feet to 85,000 square feet. Troy Mills added two more needle punch lines and then added a fifth, which was taken out later.
"At that time, in the 1970s, we were a tier one supplier to Ford, GM and Chrysler, which means we shipped directly to the assembly plants," Kerns said. "In the 1990s, we became tier two or three," which means Troy ships its products to a supplier which then ships it to the assembly plant.
But survival has been a challenge at times for the plant, which is located in an unassuming but large building at the end of a road near the heart of Harrisville. In the early 2000s, Troy Mills struggled with financial problems. The company's New Hampshire plant was located in a five-story mill that was impractical for the modern and massively heavy looms the company used. So, it moved all of its automotive manufacturing to the West Virginia facility.
Then Sept. 11 happened and the company couldn't get parts it needed, couldn't get its products out and couldn't survive.
"Troy Mills filed for bankruptcy with no intention of restructuring," Kerns said. "They sold both facilities."
That's when Kerns and Marty Ballen, who worked in sales for Troy Mills, partnered and bought Troy's Ritchie County facility out of bankruptcy with help from Mountaineer Capital and West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust. The purchase, which was final on March 15, 2002, saved 75 jobs at the plant and kept the Troy name alive, in part.
"Instead of being Troy Mills, we were Troy LLC. But it was important to keep Troy and highlight its role in the industry," Kerns said, explaining that before it closed, Troy Mills was the second-oldest textile company in the nation.
Since taking over the plant, though, Troy LLC has had its share of ups and downs. Approximately 90 percent of Troy's business is for the auto industry, while between 7 and 9 percent of the business is for apparel companies. The remaining 1 to 2 percent of the company's business is for industrial clients.
That spelled disaster for the company when the auto industry hit hard times a few years ago. Kerns said Troy LLC's sales dropped from $10 million to $11 million when Ballen and he took over to $4.5 million in 2010. Sales started to pick up in 2011, but then the tsunami hit Japan, causing supply challenges for the larger Asian auto manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda and their subcontractors.
Kerns said sales did climb some in 2011 to $6.5 million, and things are looking good for 2012.
"Our goal is $9.5 million, and in the first four months, we are tracking ahead of that," he said, adding later that the first quarter of 2012 was Troy LLC's best first quarter. "It was rough in 2010."
Currently Troy LLC has 54 employees who work five days a week on one of three shifts. But the employment numbers are going up. The company has hired about a dozen workers so far this year and may add a few more.
"The biggest reason for our success is our people," Kerns said. "My staff stuck with me through the ordeal (of 2010), and we have an excellent hourly work force."
Lindy Golden, human resource manager for Troy LLC, said the company is proud that many of its hourly employees have spent not just years but decades at the plant.
"The first employee hired at Troy Mills (in June 1974) still works at the plant," she said.