Last week, the fiber, textile and apparel industry lost one of its most revered leaders and a dear friend of all. Bruce Roberts was a central figure in the industry during its most explosive growth years between the mid-50s through the 70s, before manufacturing began to move offshore and supply chains became globally connected. During the 80s and into the 21st century, Bruce saw these major shifts occurring and attempted to guide the industry to the dynamics of technology and globalization.
I first met Bruce in the late 60s when I was a young, entry-level upstart in the fibers division of DuPont and he was a vice president and the head of marketing for the Eastman Chemical Co., a major competitor of DuPont. I’ll never forget his effervescent energy along with his booming, deep voice and huge friendly smile, which would mark his persona for me throughout our decades of a deepening, friendly relationship. Bruce touched everyone who knew him in the same profound way.
Bruce joined Eastman in 1955 and rose to chairman of its general management committee prior to leaving the company in 1986. He then became senior vice president of Springs Industries, a textile home goods company, where he served until 1990, when he accepted the role of executive director of the Textile Distributor Association (which he had joined as a member in 1955).
He arrived to lead the TDA none too soon. He spent the next 12 years doing everything he could to save the sector that was inevitably being decimated by the globalization and offshoring of the fiber, textile and apparel industries.
Bruce was a visionary. He anticipated the global shift in manufacturing. In 1984, under the auspices of the TDA, he teamed up with the iconic Roger Milliken, the CEO and son of the founder of Milliken and Company, to lead a nationwide campaign, “Crafted With Pride in the USA.” Its goal was to get U.S. apparel manufacturers and brands to label their goods with the slogan and to urge retailers to promote the concept at point of sale. This marketing strategy was intended to compel consumers to “buy American,” in an attempt to save the domestic manufacturing base. Bruce led a relentless and valiant effort…but to no avail. At the end of the day, consumers didn’t seem to care where their apparel was made.
None of these setbacks would break Bruce’s determined optimism that the industry could deal with enormous changes, adapt, as well as prevail in the global marketplace. As reported in the November 3 WWD obituary, he gave a speech in 1994 following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which cleared the way for the WTO. Roberts told a crowd of textile executives, “The passage of two trade bills has given our industry one of two choices: We can either cry about them, or, we can use them as an opportunity. We are on the cutting edge of technology, and we have a superior industry.”
In the same WWD obituary, Gail Strickler, a close friend and successor to Bruce as head of the TDA and recent assistant U.S. Trade Representative for textiles and apparel, called Roberts a renaissance man who promoted the American textile industry but also foresaw the opportunities in globalization and advised textile producers to prepare for a seismic change in the sourcing paradigm.
“His dedication to the industry was really amazing,” she said. “As much as he was involved in ‘Crafted With Pride,’ he also understood that this was a global industry and that U.S. companies had to be part of the whole global supply chain.”
Roberts “was ahead of his time,” Strickler said. “Bruce was smart enough to see the writing on the wall and was trying his best to help make the industry [more competitive]. He was very pragmatic about it. He was very fast to recognize that technology was playing a huge role. Those companies that were willing to invest in state-of-the art technology stayed ahead and really had long-term strategies for not just survival but success.”
Robert’s optimism, determination and leadership were also hallmarks of his charitable efforts. He was a frequent sponsor of events and lunches for organizations including the Boy Scouts, the National Coalition for Community and Justice and the United Jewish Appeal. He was also influential in building robust attendance to these events.
Bruce was a member of the executive committee of The Educational Foundation for the Fashion Industries at FIT from 1988 to 2009. In 2008, the Textile Distributors Association/Bruce Roberts Scholarship was endowed at FIT in support of Textile Development and Marketing students who offer evidence of academic merit and financial need. In 2007, FIT dedicated the Bruce and Rita Roberts Room in the Marvin Feldman Center in honor of the couple’s support of the college.
Finally, on a personal note, Bruce Roberts never lost sight of the most important part of his life. His love for his wife Rita, his four sons and his five grandchildren was paramount. He was a person with great integrity and a sense of fairness. He was passionate in his beliefs and led with determination and by doing the right thing. Bruce Roberts was a fine human being and a great guy to be with.
I will miss him greatly, as will the thousands of others who were fortunate enough to have known him.