Sri Lankans seek textile deals in N.C.

Nation needs access to machinery, materials to boost apparel industry


Staff Writer

Sri Lankan officials supplying the likes of Sears and Victoria's Secret are eager to do more business with U.S. textile companies.

They pitched the idea Monday in North Carolina -- the state with the largest concentration of textile industries.

At the invitation of Republican U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a delegation of business leaders from the Asian nation met with business and economic development officials in Gaston County at the N.C. Center for Applied Textile Technology in Belmont. Later, they were headed to Raleigh, and planned to visit Greensboro today.

Less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka's annual $1.2 billion textiles import trade is done with the United States, and country officials said they'd like to see it reach 25 percent to 30 percent by 2007.

Sri Lanka, an island in the Indian Ocean south of India formerly known as Ceylon, is about half the size of North Carolina with about twice the population. Its apparel industry grew 12 percent to 18 percent annually in recent years. Last year's growth was 16.7 percent, officials with the nation said. The country has gone from supplying mass-market retailers like Sears and Kmart to high-end customers including Victoria's Secret, Liz Claiborne and Abercrombie & Fitch.

But Sri Lanka lacks the machinery and materials such as thread, yarn and fabric to boost its output, officials said. That's where the U.S. textile industry, particularly in North Carolina, could play a crucial role.

"What we see in North Carolina is its strong textile infrastructure," said Mahesh Amalean, chairman of MAS Holdings in Sri Lanka, whose customers include GAP, Banana Republic and Nike. "The object is to see whether this is an opportunity for us to link up with American textile industries in the Carolinas."

Stephen Dobbins, president and CEO of Carolina Mills in Maiden, said his company already does business with Sri Lanka. "International selling is very, very important to us," he said. "These are the kinds of folks we'd like to work with."

Amalean said Sri Lanka's best-kept secret could be that it conforms to international trade practices and its currency is not devalued, unlike China's.

"One of the reasons the better brands and specialty stores and retailers are working with us is because we conform to international standards," Amalean said.

Despite the shrinking textile industry, North Carolina still employs 64,200 textile workers, about 27 percent of the 238,100 textile workers in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, North Carolina is losing textile jobs at a faster rate than the nation as a whole, which lost 40 percent of its jobs over the past five years, compared with 46 percent in the state.

At year's end, worldwide quotas will be lifted, and some industry observers have predicted it could spell the end for U.S. textiles, especially those that don't have a niche.

Jim Lemons, president of the Belmont textile center, said he sees opportunities for local companies and the Sri Lankans.

"The center can offer product development and testing to help move these things forward," Lemons said.

Sharon E. White: (704) 868-7746;