Blanket Founder Charles Owen Retires
By Don Hogsett -- Home Textiles Today, 1/15/2007 12:00:00 AM
Swananoa, N.C. —
Bringing down the curtain on a tradition of family management that spans back more than a century, Charles D. Owen Jr., the passionately outgoing and cheerfully outspoken patriarch of the U.S. blanket industry, has retired from Charles D. Owen Mfg., the company he founded in 1972 and later sold to Springs Global.
In a surprise party long on strong emotion and tears, more than 40 long-time associates and friends saluted one of the last of the home fashion industry's larger-than-life figures who built up their companies as much through personal magnetism as business acumen.
Owen began his career at Beacon Mfg., a blanket producer founded by his family in 1905 and later sold. In 1970, bursting back into the business, he founded Charles D. Owen Mfg., a company he subsequently sold to Springs Industries, now Springs Global, in 2003. On his watch, the two companies combined produced in excess of 700 million blankets, providing jobs to 10,000 families in the Swananoa Valley, said David Hollowell, Owen director of marketing.
During his 54-year tenure in the blanket business, Owen developed and cultivated a reputation as a man of many opinions, all of them strongly held, a sometimes cranky, always voluble figure occasionally given to what close associates liked to call "enthusiasm" in expression, their polite way of acknowledging his occasional embellishments and exaggerations.
In recent years, notably after he sold the company to Springs, he spent much of his time hunting and fishing, letting his son, Charles D. Owen III, run the company on a day-to-day basis. The younger Owen resigned from Springs in August 2006, leaving his dad the last of the line still in the family business.
Before selling to Springs, Owen ran his company in a highly personal manner that has long gone out of style in American industry. Belying the prickly exterior that many knew, Owen prided himself on knowing every man on the plant floor and his personal history. Once a week during lunch time, he opened his door to any worker in need, providing no-interest, hand-shake loans that enabled them to buy cars, make a down payment, or get through a personal crisis.
Since selling to Springs, Owen has been a frequent visitor to the plant floor he built, but a ghostly presence at the New York market. After the Owen showroom at 261 Fifth Ave. was closed, and operations moved to the Springs building, Owen became a no-show, chafing under the strictures of a larger, more rigidly organized hierarchy. "I just don't belong there, and I don't feel comfortable there," he ruefully acknowledged. "I don't fit in with a big bureaucracy. Heck, I like to fly by the seat of my pants. We used to make a decision in two minutes. I'm used to making up my mind and then getting something done. Now it takes forever to get a decision. It just isn't fun anymore, and if you can't have fun at what you're doing, then the heck with it."
Though he later came to be known for his gruff feistiness, in his earliest years Owen was an apple-cheeked symbol of American innocence depicted in paintings by Norman Rockwell. When Rockwell was a struggling unknown from New England, long before the glory days of the Saturday Evening post covers, Owens' grandfather, an earlier Charles Owen, took a liking to the young artist. To help him financially, he commissioned original works, many to illustrate product for the annual Beacon Blanket catalogs, a number featuring a seraphic young Charlie: now-iconic images depicting a tow-haired youth in bed cuddling a dog, or wrapped in a Beacon blanket by a roaring fireplace.
Owen still has many of the paintings, and once joked, "Hey, if the textiles business ever goes to hell, I can live off the paintings."
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