Redeeming Time

PrintPrintEmailEmail

But Prince Hal was now king. The playboy, it turned out, had quietly mastered the cotton business. For years he had kept a loom in his basement and there tested ideas and suggestions. “For a man who loves machines,” Elliott had discovered, “a cotton mill beats an airplane.”

But if Elliott was king, he soon discovered he was monarch of a deeply troubled kingdom. The mills turned out to be heavily mortgaged, much of their machinery worn out. His father’s reckless gambling in the stock market had further weakened his finances. Still worse, the American economy as a whole was sliding rapidly into the black hole of the Great Depression.

Elliott moved at once. He suspended dividends, postponed debt payments, slashed his own salary, rationalized the corporate structure, and used his liquid assets, including the last fifty thousand dollars of his personal funds, to begin a massive repair and rebuilding program.

His competitors had slashed their capital spending after the Crash, but Elliott expanded. (In a gesture that Sigmund Freud would have loved, he built one expansion right over his father’s grave, refusing to have the body moved.) His mills were soon the low-cost producers, and he showed a profit all through the Depression.

It was soon clear that Elliott was a much better executive than his father. Unlike his father he was a conservative, hands-on, cost-cutting manager, while always open to new technology. (Springs Industries in the 1950s would become one of the first manufacturing companies in the country to use Computers.) But like his father, when he was bold, he was very, very bold.

In a gesture that Dr. Freud would have loved, Elliott White Springs insisted on expanding the factory right over his father’s grave.

For instance, when orders were slow in the 1930s, he often manufactured cloth for which he had no market, just to keep his mill hands employed, content, and un-unionized. He stockpiled this cloth in warehouses, sometimes for years, confident he would one day be able to sell it. The Second World War turned it into a bonanza.

After the war Elliott decided to expand still further. His mills had produced mostly “gray goods,” unfinished cotton cloth that other firms turned into such retail products as sheets and towels. He wanted to manufacture his own, under the Springmaid trademark. He was told that the cost of the expansion would equal the value of the existing mills. He bet the ranch.

Once the manufacturing facilities were in place, Elliott set out to make the Springmaid trademark a household name. He did it by using his gift for the English language, his irrepressible sense of humor, and his love for—guess what—wine, women, and song. He created a now-legendary advertising campaign that featured drawings of leggy, bosomy women supposedly dressed, to the extent that they were dressed at all, in Springmaid fabrics. His copy was full of double entendres and risqué innuendos.

“Protect your assets,” warned one ad that featured three showgirls backstage dressed in the miniest of mini-skirts. “Beware the goose,” suggested another, showing a farm girl startled by an aggressive gander. “We put the broad in the broadcloth,” offered a third. The most famous pictured a hammock made from a Springmaid sheet. In it, sinking into a blissful repose, is a young Indian brave. Stepping out of the hammock is a clearly satisfied Indian maiden. The headline: “A buck well spent on a Springmaid sheet.”

The Pooh-Bahs of the advertising industry were scandalized. Some of the prissier magazines, notably The New Yorker and Life , refused to run the ads. But the campaign did exactly what Elliott had hoped for: it made Springmaid a household name. He claimed that when his campaign began, Springmaid sheets were sold in only six retail outlets. A few months later they were sold in ten thousand and were soon the largest-selling brand in the country.

Elliott White Springs inherited a kingdom and left an empire. When he took over from his father, the plants were valued at $7.25 million and had sales of $8 million. When he died twenty-eight years later, they were valued at $104.5 million and had sales of $163 million. Springs Industries was the seventh-largest—and most profitable—textile business in the country.

Would Leroy Springs have been proud of his son? I suspect he would have been. I also suspect he would have taken a horsewhipping rather than admit it. That, too often, is also the way of kings.