In his four-plus decades, Barry has seen Unifi transform from solely a fiber producer into a diverse provider of numerous high-tech, sustainable products – from fiber made from water bottles under its signature REPREVE® brand to other recycled byproducts such as chip or flake that can be used in anything from apparel to food containers to geotextile liners in road construction projects.
“We’ve dedicated ourselves to being an innovator,” he says. “We are out here every day trying to innovate new yarns, new end uses, new combinations and new products that would give our customers an advantage for the consumer.”
Like many in this rural county in Western N.C., Barry grew up on a farm. And, like so many others in the area, he saw the local textile company, founded in 1971 in Greensboro, N.C., as a terrific opportunity to make a good living and learn a trade.
His brother and several aunts and cousins were working at Unifi when Barry was in high school and joined the company as a full-time doffer, removing packages of yarn from machines after they are processed. After graduation, he stayed with the company and, at age 19, joined its management training program. He took his first manager’s job over a department at age 25.
“Unifi has been nothing but great to me,” says Barry, whose daughter recently joined the company in human resources “I’ve had a lot of opportunities here. It’s allowed me to put my three daughters through college. I don’t know if I could have done that working anywhere else besides here. So for me and my family, it has provided tremendous opportunities.”
With more than 1,000 people working at the Yadkinville location, Unifi is the second largest employer in the county behind the school system. “We’re a close-knit family group here,” he says. “We pull (people) mostly from Yadkin County and surrounding counties, so it seems like everybody knows everybody.”
In early March, Unifi was asked to help supply critical components for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help fight the spread of COVID-19, and the company was quick to join the effort. As a crucial product in the supply chain, the company’s fibers and yarns were needed to produce [fabrics] for hospital gowns, face masks and medical supplies such as wound dressing and bandages. The company joined a coalition producing gowns for a large FEMA program when the vast shortage for frontline workers became apparent.
“We make POY fiber that we in turn convert to DTY (Drawn Textured Yarn). We sold both into the medical programs,” Barry says.
“Coordinating everything was a challenge, but it became easier once the [fibers] and materials used in the gowns] was settled,” he says. “There was a tremendous amount of trial work going on [with] the yarns [used to create] the gowns because it had to meet a certain standard. So we made several different yarn varieties before we finally hit the ones that worked for… the fabric they were trying to make for the gown.”
Similarly, Unifi’s fibers used in polyester yarns are now being used in face masks – some with antibacterial or water-repellent properties that are produced by numerous partners. And having its own trucking fleet has enabled the company to deliver product in a timely fashion. The entire effort makes him proud, Barry notes.
“It is an exciting thing to be involved in, knowing that there is a need and we can play a part in satisfying that need,” he says. “The industry’s collaboration has been amazing. It’s nice to see a whole industry pull together and say, ‘we can do this, and quickly.’ But that’s part of what the country is all about in times of need – pulling yourself together and making things happen.”
It’s nice to see a whole industry pull together and say, “we can do this, and quickly.” But that’s part of what the country is all about in times of need – pulling yourself together and making things happen.
Not that any of this effort during these unprecedented times surprises Barry. Time and again, he has seen his company and his industry show flexibility, he says.
“We have a lot of capability and capacity, driven by our customers and consumers,” he says.
Having worked in production and now as a manager, Barry says he has a good grasp on the operation, adding that his “people skills” have helped him tremendously along the way.
“I’ve always considered my forte to be people,” he says. “I was once an employee working on the floor, and that gives me a good perspective of the way they see things and how they react to things day to day.”
Barry has seen the industry change in many ways throughout his career, transitioning from a labor-intensive manufacturing sector to a modern, advanced industry that has become much more efficient, technologically driven, with a focus on sustainability.
But for some reason, he adds, the industry has not always received the credit it deserves for the value it brings to families, communities and the nation at large.
“There was a lot of livelihoods made off the textile industry, and it has provided a lot of things for families,” he says. “You always hope that manufacturing jobs, which are what the country needs, would be recognized. Even though equipment has changed and processes have changed, it still involves people. It may require a higher skillset person, but it’s still all about people.”
Barry says the COVID-19 crisis has opened a lot of eyes to the importance of manufacturing, especially textiles, in this country.
“When I look at the more than 1,000 people here and all the families who started here, I’m always going to stress that manufacturing here in the United States is important,” he says. “There is still a group of people today that is making their livelihood in the textile industry. There’s no place I’d rather be, and I think a lot of people would tell you the same thing. So we don’t want to lose our manufacturing jobs, and textiles is something that we can definitely keep here. We fight imports all the time and probably will continue to do so. But we’re trying our best to innovate and create things that people can’t just go and copy.”