IFAI Holds a Successful 2021 In-Person Outlook® Conference

by Devin Steele, eTextileCommunications.com

After a year-and-a-half of virtual meetings during the pandemic, Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) hosted its first in-person event, its annual OUTLOOK® Conference, August 29-31 at Hilton Head Island, SC. Turnout and engagement indicated the industry was more than ready to be face-to-face with colleagues to learn, network and reconnect.

The conference attracted over 110 industry professionals from around the country and featured a diverse roster of speakers who shared insights into topics ranging from military textiles to fiber markets, trade and policy, reshoring to the economic picture, sustainability, recruiting and retaining talent. The day and a half of business sessions closed with an inspiring keynote presentation by MSNBC/NBC News anchor, journalist and author Richard Lui, a thought leader at the intersection of media, social impact and storytelling. Attendees also participated in several networking and social activities as well as roundtable discussions.

During a half day of military sessions, four subject matter experts offered deep-dive information into the supply of textile and apparel products to the Department of Defense (DoD) and other federal agencies.

Paul Campbell, general manager of Clothing & Textiles for Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR), kicked of the segment with an overview of UNICOR, a wholly owned U.S. government corporation created in 1934 as a prison labor program for inmates within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and a component of the Department of Justice. About 11,000 inmates around the country currently work for UNICOR, with 29 locations handling textile production primarily for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) making clothing and gear for soldiers, he told attendees. “We don’t exist to make a product for the military or to turn a profit,” he said. “Our sole existence is to try to turn around the lives of federal inmates.”

Teresa Downs, vice president of Business Development at The Kennedy Center, Inc., discussed the capabilities of SourceAmerica, which employs adults with disabilities who produce textiles and apparel for the DoD and other federal agencies. The Connecticut-based Kennedy Center, a Central Non-Profit (CAN) of SourceAmerica, is an independent agency whose mission is to employ adults with disabilities, veterans and wounded warriors, she noted.

Ron Houle, founder and president of Pivot Step Consultants LLC, offered an in-depth look at the the FY2022 DoD Budget. There are competing demands on constrained resources, he said. Within this, there is a budgetary context and a strategic context, which determines the broad shape and angles of how more than three quarters of a trillion dollars will be allocated.

Speaking to the U.S. Army budget specifically, which may have the greatest relevance to the industry, Houle noted that it has been flat in recent years and stands at $173 billion for FY2022. “This is not a good trend because even in a year when it’s flat, you’re not counting for inflation,” he said. “Inflation may not be much, but not much of a big number is a big number. So having a flat budget is not a good outcome. We haven’t been at $173 billion since fiscal 2018, and that’s fairly dramatic. The Army is concerned about that, and they should be. The Army requires timely, adequate, predictable and sustained funding, and they aren’t going to be able to buy as much of anything.”

Lisa Marie Vivino,chief of the Field – Clothing Division, Clothing & Textiles at the Defense Logistic Agency’s Troop Support within the DoD, discussed her group’s mission and details on the procurement of clothing, textile and equipment items for the department and other customers. Nearly 60 years old, the DLA provides world-class integrated logistics solutions for clothing, individual equipment and textile items to warfighters and emergency responders in peace and in war, around the clock and around the world, she pointed out.

“We’ve lost a few vendors who have closed due to employment and other issues,” Vivino said. “So we have some opportunities that exist because of those unfortunate circumstances. Other opportunities are available through follow-on procurements and others still are related to individual equipment, as new items are entering on the protective side of things through military R&D that is now ready to come to Troop Support.”

Following the military updates, Laura Murphy, research director at Wood Mackenzie Chemicals, gave an overview of the impact the coronavirus, trade wars and other events has had on the U.S. and global fiber markets. Supply and demand is “normally” balanced, she said, but labor, raw material pricing, ocean freight and other forces majeures have wreaked havoc on that economic theory over the last couple of years. She explained by delving into the numbers related to mill consumption for various fibers, price forecasts and more.

Auggie Tantillo, president of SRG & Associates and former president & CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), reviewed various federal policy matters confronting the U.S. textile sector. Also a consultant to the IFAI’s U.S. Industrial Fabrics Institute (USIFI) and Narrow Fabrics Institute (NFI), Tantillo updated the group on military procurement under the National Defense Authorization Act; key legislative and enforcement initiatives related to international trade; and efforts to bolster domestic production of medical personal protective equipment (PPE).

Tantillo thanked those involved who helped ensure that the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed in January, contained a provision that will decrease the Berry Amendment Simplified Acquisition Threshold (SAT) level from its current level of $250,000 to $150,000. Military purchases at or above the SAT are subject to Berry Amendment requirements and must be sourced wholly in the U.S., he noted.

In addition to a number of international trade issues, he also covered the Per- or Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) matter, which has become a bigger issue that we had anticipated,” he said. “The call to ban PFAS is growing across Congress, and the problem is they want to paint them all with a broad brush. But the textile sector does not use the specific types of PFAS directly tied to environmental issues, so we are pushing for segmentation.”

Tantillo later moderated a panel discussion on “Recovering & Reshoring: U.S. Manufacturing and PPE Production” that included Morris Collins, director of member relations at INDA; and Joe Przepiorka, vice president of marketing at Shawmut Corporation. Each discussed the industry’s transition into PPE production when the pandemic struck.

“The industry did some remarkable things in terms of transforming business virtually overnight, even working with competitors to construct large supply chains for PPE,” Tantillo said. “As someone who works on government policy, I feel a burden to convey to folks in Washington that they did this not to make money. If they could make money, great. But they did it because there was a national emergency and supply chains had been severed and were drying up, and it was the right thing to do.”

With several pieces of federal legislation to shore up domestic PPE production on the table, he added that this is the moment for the U.S. government to take heed of the industry’s heroic efforts in order to avoid another shortfall.

“If the government doesn’t do the right thing at this fork in the road, not only are they going to undermine the past 18 months, but they are going to create a disincentive the next time,” he said. “The next time when the government comes in and says, ‘emergency, stop what you’re doing,’ we would have to tell them that we would have the production line in place already if they had simply taken two or three steps to bolster a vibrant PPE supply chain. The next 12 months are going to be critical in this area.”

The next morning, Dr. Roger Tutterow,professor of Economics at Kennesaw State University, provided an overview of the economic climate. He touched on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the retail and real estate sectors, the causes and effects of recent changes in energy prices, the structure and effect of the recent fiscal stimulus and the linkages between trade policy and currency valuation, an overview of recent Federal Reserve policy actions and the ongoing impact of changes in the political and regulatory climate on the manufacturing sector.

Based on the Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI), manufacturing is performing well, he pointed out. “Over the last seven months, we have averaged a PMI reading above 60, and you would have to go back three decades to see those kind of numbers,” Tutterow said. “So despite the supply chain disruptions and the labor shortages, the manufacturing sector is having a broad-based expansion much better than the service sector.”

Aubrey Hilliard, CEO, Horizon Energy LLC, covered “Surviving and Thriving in a Net Zero Carbon Future” with a general overview of what a renewable and biodegradable future means for our businesses. Striving to become sustainable and carbon neutral is good for the growth and profitability of your business, he said.

“Regardless of your politics or faith in science, people around the world are becoming aware of the effects of manmade greenhouse gases and awarding good business citizens with their transactions,” he said. “Your customers are looking to partner with you to improve sustainability.”

Jeff Sackaroff, M.Ed., director of Career Services, at the N.C. State Wilson College of Textiles, discussed ways to recruit and retain tomorrow’s textile leaders. He provided a look into the expectations of today’s college students and how companies can attract that generation of talent.

We don’t know what long‐term effects COVID will have on the world of work,” he said. “But we do know that employers will need to continue to be flexible, intentional and engaged when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent.”

In closing the event, Lui offered an uplifting presentation on how people can make a difference to their businesses and to others by becoming more selfless instead of selfish. The author of “Enough About Me: The Unexpected Power of Selflessness,” he gave several personal examples of mentorship and caregiving and the impact they have had on him and others.

The next IFAI OUTLOOK® Conference is scheduled for April 24-26, 2022 at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va.