Back in 1865, a German immigrant settled in the small farming community of Faribault and began a business carding wool. Carl Klemer’s fledgling company brushed and cleaned wool to be spun and woven by other manufacturers. Before long, Faribault Woolen Mills expanded and began designing cloth, flannel sheeting and blankets.
Today, nearly 140 years later, Faribault Mill stands as the sole survivor of the nation’s wool mill industry.
“When you’re the last (to survive) it means you’re either the luckiest or the dumbest,” says Mike Harris, Faribault Mills president and CEO. “I really believe we’re the luckiest.”
In the late 1800s, there were about 800 other woolen mills across the central United States. Klemer realized his company needed to be exceptional. By controlling everything under exacting specifications – from wool cleaning and dyeing to designing and manufacturing blankets – Klemer believed he could make a product superior to his competitors. It was a wise move; Faribault Woolen Mills grew, prospered and built a reputation for quality.
That didn’t prevent the mill from falling on hard times.
After decades of success and prosperity, the family-owned business started failing in the 1990s. The
company didn’t automate its processes and was largely a niche-market player, Harris says. Also, one of the mill’s key products – wool airline blankets – suffered a major sales slump from declining air travel that resulted from the Gulf War. In 1998, the Klemer family lost their business to an investor group, which staved off bankruptcy and closure of the mill.
Harris, a security industry veteran and one of the investors, started running the company in 2001. Two years later, Faribault Woolen Mills expanded into cotton blankets and throws by acquiring Beacon Blankets of Westminster, South Carolina. The combined companies are now known as Faribault Mills.
“We avoided bankruptcy and we’re hiring new people,” Harris says. “We’re making history by working with new fibers and finding new opportunities … It’s extremely rewarding.”