Faribault mill weaves new chapter

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2012 - 7:58 PM

Renovation plans for the historic mill in southern Minnesota include a company store that is scheduled to open next month.

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Cousins Paul and Chuck Mooty purchased the closed Faribault Woolen Mill and have reopened the historic plant. Paul held a pattern of the last blanket the mill was working on before it closed, a Twins baseball blanket.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Under new ownership, the Faribault Woolen Mill Co. is continuing its rebirth as the nation's only fully integrated textile manufacturer, boosting its workforce and landing a contract to produce blankets for J.C. Penney Co.

The historic plant about a mile from Faribault's quaint downtown had been closed for two years when Edina businessmen Chuck and Paul Mooty purchased it this past June and resumed production in August.

Starting out with about 30 workers, many of them former mill employees, the Mootys gradually ramped up production. Last fall, the mill began making blankets for the Waldorf Astoria and Hudson hotels in New York and also produced woolen throws sold in about 30 Target stores.

The plant currently has about 50 workers but plans to add about 30 more in the next several weeks, Chuck Mooty said. It recently added Windstar Cruise Lines as a customer and needs the additional workers for a second shift to begin making blankets for Penneys this spring.

"We were cautious in the fall, wanting to make sure the facility was ready to produce," said Paul Mooty. "Now we're out there more aggressively trying to cultivate business."

Management team members recently returned from specialty trade shows in New York, where they were promoting the basic product line and some new products, like alpaca and cashmere scarves and shawls.

Meanwhile, the new owners continue to renovate the plant to upgrade its engineering systems and give it a company store. Chuck Mooty said he expects the store to be open next month, initially on weekdays, with the exact hours to be determined.

Faribo brand products have been available on the company's website, www.faribault mill.com, since last fall and were sold at a temporary store at the Mall of America during the holiday season. Sales at the mall greatly exceeded expectations, Paul Mooty said.

"Maybe we just aimed too low," he said. "But at that point, when we were still so fresh out of the gate, it was hard for us to know how we would do."

The Mootys, who worked evenings at the store after spending their days at the mill, said the experience allowed them to get valuable feedback from customers.

"I think we learned the brand was stronger and broader in its reach than we anticipated. We came away believing there are more opportunities beyond blankets and throws. We can do more with scarves and other items, like cup holders and iPad holders, that are less-expensive fun things," Chuck Mooty said.

The Faribo brand name is known nationwide because at one time the products were sold throughout the country in department and specialty stores. At its peak, the mill employed 80 people and produced half the woolen blankets made in the United States.

But like many U.S. textile manufacturers, the business had a tough time competing against low-cost foreign textile mills. An ill-advised investment in a South Carolina textile mill by a previous owner proved to be a major cash drain, forcing the shutdown in 2009.

The Mootys were interested in buying the business because they believed the brand and its made-in-Faribault ethos could give it a marketing edge. They also said they had learned that products made from wool -- the heaviest textile -- had started to become more expensive for foreign producers to ship into the U.S., something that could give a domestic producer an advantage.

In addition to retailers like Target and Penneys, the Mootys are aiming to do more business with the military, hospitality and health care markets. The mill's small size means it also is flexible enough to do "nichey things," Paul Mooty said, like a recent order to make horse blankets for a polo club in Texas.

The Mooty's purchase of the business included equipment, most of which turned out to serviceable. Dennis Melchert, a longtime production manager who now oversees product development, said the new owners have added four new high-speed looms, and two machines that clean and preshrink woven fabrics.

"There's an overall modernization that has gone on to take care of some previous bottlenecks in production," Melchert said.

In addition to upgrading heating, cooling and plumbing systems, the Mootys have invested in a new roof for the building. The 170,000-square-foot mill dates back to the 1890s and actually is the third location for the company, which was started in another part of Faribault in 1865 and made blankets for Civil War soldiers.

Peter Waldock, Faribault's community development director, said the mill could have been demolished if the Mootys hadn't stepped in. The three-story building where raw wool is washed, carded, spun and woven was "purpose built" for textile production and would have been difficult to adapt to other uses, he said.

The Faribault City Council is working with the Mootys to get the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a certification that would make the owners eligible for tax credits.

"It's not architecturally beautiful, but to historians it's not about beauty, it's about history," Waldock said. "The role the mill has played in producing textiles for the nation, its contribution to the community and the state -- that's the point."

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723

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