In 1865 Seth Milliken and his business partner William Deering became jobbers of dry goods and woolen textiles in Portland, Maine. The company was a success, but Deering left the partnership four years later and moved to Chicago. However, the company’s name remained Deering Milliken until 1976, when it was changed to Milliken & Company.
After only three years in Portland, Seth Milliken moved Deering Milliken’s headquarters to New York City. The company expanded rapidly in both size and scope. Deering Milliken came to South Carolina in 1884, when it built a plant in Pacolet. By the time of his death in 1920, Seth Milliken had bought interest in forty-two South Carolina textile mills.
With Seth’s son Gerrish leading the company, Deering Milliken in the 1920s was largely acting as a selling agent for southern textile mills. As the Great Depression arrived, Gerrish expanded the company by buying out heavily indebted or bankrupt mills, many of which were deeply indebted to Deering Milliken. Gerrish’s acquisitions also included Mercantile Stores Company, a sizable player in national retail markets.
The next change in leadership took place in 1947, when Gerrish died and left his son Roger in charge of the company. Roger Milliken further expanded Deering Milliken’s operations in South Carolina, and in 1954 he moved his family to Spartanburg, closer to the center of the company’s operations. The young CEO worked successfully to consolidate its possessions, bringing many separately incorporated mills into a single corporation and thus improving the company’s logistics and management.
Through the company’s Spartanburg-based Milliken Research Corporation, Milliken & Company has become internationally known as a technologically innovative textile company. This research and development center has produced more than fifteen hundred patents. Milliken has also gained praise for its logistically advanced management, especially in inventory control. By the start of the twenty-first century, Milliken & Company’s production line stretched from automotive fabrics to carpets, napery items, and fabrics for various types of apparel. Milliken also produced chemicals used in dyes, packaging, plastics, and consumer products.
Milliken & Company has been tight-lipped about its operations and, especially, sales figures. Its ownership is shared between family members and close confidants, thus enabling the company to control the information flow effectively. Milliken & Company’s sixty-five South Carolina factories, combined with additional operations in five states and twelve foreign countries, make it in many estimates the biggest textile company in the United States and one of the largest privately owned companies in the world.
Davenport, Jim. “In S.C., There’s Roger and US.” Columbia State, March 2, 1992, business sec., pp. 6–7, 16.
“How Roger Milliken Runs Textiles’ Premier Performer.” Business Week ( January 19, 1981): 62–65, 68, 73.
Lunan, Bert, and Robert A. Pierce. Legacy of Leadership. Columbia: South Carolina Business Hall of Fame, 1999.