Obituary: Roger Milliken, industry icon led 145-year-old textile giant

Home News Obituary: Roger Milliken, industry icon led 145-year-old textile giant

SPARTANBURG, S.C.—Roger Milliken, one of the last in the tradition of industrialists who built America’s manufacturing success, died Dec. 30. He was 95.

His five children issued the following statement: “Daddy lived a rewarding 95 years. We are grateful, as was he, for the friendship and support from so many that enabled him to live a full, productive, creative and passionate life. He enjoyed every minute of it.”

Born Oct. 24, 1915, in New York, Milliken was the eldest son of Gerrish and Agnes (Gayley) Milliken. After graduating from Yale University in 1937, he immediately entered the business world. Milliken didn’t start in the executive suite, but instead worked as a “follow-up boy” in the New York office of Mercantile Stores, in which his family had an ownership stake. There he made the rounds of suppliers, seeing to it that coats and suits ordered by the stores were delivered. Ultimately, in 1941, he was given stewardship of three small woolen mills in Maine.

Milliken lived by ideas and principles from which he never wavered. He believed America’s manufacturing leadership was the foundation of its economic achievement.

His personal examples of uncompromising integrity, hard work in any just cause, and an inexhaustible passion for excellence shone in his every undertaking, his children noted. “His beliefs were his commitments, whether to life-long education, to quality, innovation or, as demonstrated, in his commitment to the health and safety of his associates.”

Milliken was an environmental steward long before the term green was fashionable. Sustainability has long been a watchword at Milliken & Co. and was acted on in tangible ways, as the company pursued recycling and emissions- and waste-reduction programs, which led to its current carbon-negative status. The company diverts 99.98% of all its waste away from landfills and to places where it can be reused, recycled or converted to energy. Milliken and Co. has reduced its rate of water usage by over 50% since 1991.

Under his leadership, the company—founded in 1865 by his grandfather, Seth Milliken, and expanded by his father— grew to become the largest privately held textile and chemical manufacturer in the world and home to the world’s largest textile research facility.

Upon the death of his father in 1947, Roger Milliken, then 32, became president of the company and served in that capacity until 1983. That year, he became chairman and CEO. He stepped aside from daily management in 2006. Milliken continued as chairman of the board until his death.

Milliken understood the importance of safeguarding the lives of company workers. When a fire burned to the ground the company’s Live Oak carpet manufacturing plant in LaGrange, Ga., in 1995, he showed up the next day committing to rebuild “starting tomorrow” and have the plant operating again within six months, a promise that was fulfilled.

He also assured the plant’s 700 associates, none of whom were injured, that Milliken & Co. would keep them employed in the meantime. When some of them transferred temporarily to Milliken plants abroad, he arranged for video teleconference calls for them to talk to their families.

Milliken was known for his outreach to Milliken workers, whom he insisted be called associates. It was common for him to walk up to an unknown associate, offer his hand and introduce himself simply, and engage in conversation. He was eager to hear views from the factory floor and instituted an “opportunity for improvement” process, whereby management committed to review and quickly implement changes according to suggestions written in by associates.

A day after his funeral, a public service celebrating Milliken’s life was held Jan. 3 at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg, S.C. Over 1,000 mourners came to pay respects to a man who touched so many lives in countless ways. The epitaph on his gravestone consists of one word: Builder.

Predeceased by his wife of 55 years in 2003, Justine “Nita” Van Rensselaer Hooper, Milliken is survived by his five children, Jan, Nancy, Roger, David and Weston, and nine grandchildren.

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