Fabricating Growth

Rick Mejia, MD of Milliken Europe, talks to Jane Gray about growth opportunities and challenges for technical textiles and deciding on manufacturing as a career industry.

Rick Mejia, MD, Milliken Europe

Textile manufacturing for apparel has migrated to Asia. They have the skills set for it now and it is unlikely that we’ll see any real return of volume, commodity manufacturing to the UK.”

It’s a disappointing opening statement to my lead interview alongside a sector focus on UK textiles making – but that’s before Rick Mejia, MD of Milliken Europe starts waxing lyrical about the applications and growth potential of technical textiles, his company’s speciality.

“There has been a bit of a renaissance in manufacturing returning West after the Global Financial Crisis. We’ve seen it in the US and in the UK,” acknowledges Mr Mejia. “But honestly, in many cases that is because the talent in supply chain management became so depleted that companies found themselves without the ability to manage the complex global supply chains they had created.”

This prompted reversion says Mejia, but he claims that in the US, reshored manufacturing for commodity items is now swinging back once again to low cost economies after investment in supply chain management capability at point of manufacture – rather than from a Western HQ.

Moving on to focus on opportunity, Mejia says, “The best prospect for the UK is to come out with products that are not commoditised and which can solve unique problems.

These businesses might be on a smaller scale but they will be characterised by a level of technical ability and knowledge which creates significant value.”

Challenges to growth

Mejia hit on two key obstacles to growth and competitiveness for the technical textile sector and wider industry in the UK.

Firstly, the ability to attract talent and secondly, energy.

“The single biggest issue we have, both in the UK and on the continent, is talent. It is very difficult to find talent that is interested in joining an industry that has been battered as textiles has in Europe,” says Mejia.

“Whether we are looking for engineers or for financial leadership and skill we have a very hard time finding candidates that want to join the industry or who have experience.

“Any chance of a renaissance in textiles manufacturing in the UK will be severely hampered by this.”

Continuing to address energy costs and security of supply, Mejia shares, “We are constantly looking at energy and, quite frankly, it is one of our biggest concerns.

“The prognosis for energy costs in the UK in the next few years is daunting,” Mejia explains.

“Specifically this is due to the spikes that are projected due to having insufficient supply to match demand.” Milliken focusses heavily on sustainability to try and counteract energy risks says Mejia – particularly in its commercial carpets division.

“We use a lot of recycled material and we are about to invest in a solid fuel regeneration facility at Wigan to take waste from our factories around the UK.”

Getting growth

The US-born business leader is a level headed strategist with a CV which boasts a long list of achievements in turning around business interests to achieve profitable growth.

Having taken the helm at Milliken Europe in 2012, Mr Mejia is single minded about the same goal. “Growth is the target,” he says simply.

“This means different things across our three main business divisions but the vision is the same.”

Elaborating, Mejia explains what he wants for Milliken Europe’s three core business strands which make car airbags, commercial carpets and dust control products – a fancy term for door mats.

“For airbags we need to add capacity,” he says – a straight forward route to growth given the booming UK automotive industry.

Milliken’s airbag making hub is based in Bury and the division won TM’s prize for World Class Manufacturing at The Manufacturer of the Year Awards 2013 in December last year.

“For carpets we need to expand in Europe and the Middle East and invest in creating new designs that keep us in the lead, like our recently launched Nordic Stories collection.”

This moody colour theme was designed in the UK and Mejia hopes it will bring in around £25m a year over the design lifecycle.

“For the mats division it’s about making sure we continue to drive a shift, which is already underway, towards installed systems rather than leased, removable mats.”

Mejia sees an opportunity to develop Milliken’s service offerings as well as products in response to this shift.

“Whereas suppliers of mats to commercial premises like supermarkets and hotels used to offer a service which leased a mat to a customer and which they would replace when it needed cleaning, now we can move towards localised cleaning services,” Mejia explains.

While dedicated to the growth of all Milliken’s businesses Mejia admits a certain soft spot for the mats division – since it was via this business that he first joined the global company in 2007.

“People do pull me up on it,” he grimaces guiltily. “I like it partly because of the additional familiarity I have with the business from having worked there, but also because few people expect door mats to be interesting – and really, the value proposition we offer customers is very innovative.

“We’ve done studies which show how much our systems can save on cleaning costs – but also how they can extend the life of expensive commercial flooring.

Controlling the entry of dust and dirt into a building can extend the life of flooring by as much as two or three times which means the customer doesn’t have to go to the expense or suffer the business disruption of replacing flooring for a much longer period.”

It’s such unexpected applications and value propositions in the world of technical textiles which excite Mejia about his work.

“I don’t think people think about textiles in this way very often. But I am fascinated by the number of unique places where textiles play a role in industry, sports and peoples everyday lives.”

Giving an example, Mejia talks about a reinforcement fabric which Milliken makes in Ghent, Belgium. “It goes inside high performance tyres – in some cases Formula 1 tyres.”

Such fabrics exist inside all tyres says Mejia. “They are critical to a car being able to function. But most people don’t know it.”

Would Mejia like more recognition for the contribution technical textiles make to so many parts of the economy and to living standards?

High and lows

Rick Mejia’s best and worst career moments:

Career crunch point: “Straight out of uni I got a job offer at Microsoft. I turned it down because at that point I decided I wanted to go into manufacturing. I wanted to feel the product of my work which is something you can’t do in the software industry. It was the best and most positive moment in my career because it took me into a challenging space.”

No regrets – but hard decisions: I am very thorough and methodical in my decision making and there I can’t think of a decision I regret in my career. However, the most difficult decisions to come to are those decisions which effect the livelihood of others. Financially, it can be easy to make the case for cutting jobs, but emotionally it is extremely hard.

“Personally, I wish that people knew us better, but it is difficult to explain what we do succinctly,” responds Mejia. “Also, in the past we have been very secretive, this makes it harder to promote your contribution.

“I do push for us to be active in our communities though,” Mejia assures. He also says Milliken is seeking out an appropriate trade body through which to become more engaged in its industrial community and influence relevant policy.

Generalists versus specialists

Mejia speaks with authority on the needs of the Milliken’s businesses in the UK and Europe – two markets which are managed almost independently he says.

But he is not a textiles man by training. As nuclear engineer and business administration graduate, did he find it difficult to gain the confidence of textiles specialists when he joined the industry?

“Whatever industry you are in, specialists will tell you about its unique competitive and technical challenges, but at the end of the day running a business in any industry is pretty similar.

“The strategic challenges maybe different,” Mejia admits, “and the levers you pull on to address them may be different. But fundamentally, business is business. It’s about creating a product which solves a unique problem in the marketplace.”

An outsider perspective

Much commentaryon industrial strengths and weaknesses in the UK comes from indigenous business leaders, politicians and trade body representatives.

US-born and having spent a large part of his professional life on the other side of the Pond, how does Rick Mejia view the competitiveness of British manufacturing?

“One difference which was immediately apparent to me on coming to the UK – and Europe more generally – was the approach to innovation compared to the US,” he comments.

“In the US, there is always someone knocking on your door with a new widget or a new product which they believe is the next big thing.

“There is not the same level of activity here in the UK. There seems to be much more acceptance that things are done in a traditional way because that is the way they always have been done.”

On a more positive note, Mejia admires the level of pride that British manufacturers pour into their work. “I’m struck by the way people seem to leave a little of themselves in every product that goes out the door.

“In the US, the approach tends to be a lot more ‘mechanical’.”

For a version of this interview including a brief biography of Rick Mejia go to our digital edition.