Documenting the American South Logo
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Innovation leads to personal and company success

Smith describes two key contributions he made to the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers. First, he computerized their statistics department. Then, with access to increased processing power, he used new data to convince Washington to relax its strictures against cotton dust, which saved the industry millions of dollars per year. This accomplishment earned him a promotion.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JM: Let me ask at that juncture, how big was the organization? What was the staffing level of the Association and so forth? What kind of group were you joining? SS: Well that was January, 1972. That was twenty-seven years ago now. The staff was approximately fifteen, sixteen people. Five of those were in the statistical department alone. They were doing everything statistically by hand: posting numbers, adding up columns of numbers, et cetera. The first thing that I did was to take those numbers and put them in a format that they could be computerized because this new wizard machine called a computer was now coming up. Most computer activities, unless you were a big corporation and could have a computer department, which took a room with a big machine standing in it--. Most of the businesses, the medium and small business, used an outsourcing service like a computer center. So what I did was I had found the right computer center and I computerized our statistics and cut those five people back to two, me and one other. That went over very well. To add to the statistics and do different things that none of them had ever done before really was kind of the beginning of, “Hey, maybe this guy will work out.” JM: What was the typical project? What would you have gone out to try to put some numbers together on? SS: Well, the typical project was to do how much was produced and shipped by all the mills each month and they would send in the reports. JM: On a monthly basis? SS: On a monthly basis. That's all they'd ever done. They would also do a wage survey twice a year. That's all they had done. What I did differently was on several occasions, I took the macroeconomic indicators published by the government and took them, our industry data, and compared it to bigger sectors of the industry and then the economy as a whole. So, [I] could give a reference of what was going on not just in our own little world, but how it matches up with what's going on on a macroeconomic area. So, that was one project. The other key thing that happened I think was that we had some issues crop up in Washington in the lobbying area. The Association had done typical association lobbying, but one of the big issues in 1972 was the cotton dust standard was implemented by OSHA. Controlling cotton dust, which causes byssinosis, is important. We should do that. But, like most government agencies when they react, they just throw out a big net and cover everybody whether it's practical or impractical, needed or not needed. So, the knitting industry with hosiery specifically, we started lobbying that one, we don't have a byssinosis problem in our industry. We don't have brown lung problems in our industry, therefore, why add millions of dollars to operating costs and therefore, costs to the end consumer in the product? We started lobbying on that [issue]. I had the facts. I could prove things in the presentations using numbers. Washington lobbying was changing about that time in that it was moving from the emotional to the factual. What I was able to do was to take the Hosiery Association's positions and arguments and present them in a factual kind of way rather than just going up there like most industries were doing, “Don’t do this to us.” Like basic textiles protectionism against imports: “Just don't do that.” But, that's it. It was an emotional argument. I began to move our presentations into the factual. I think that was another key element of why they then promoted me to vice president and said, “We want you to take over lobbying too.” This was working. We did get our exemption to cotton dust. It's probably saved hundreds of millions of dollars for hosiery industry since that time. So those are two kinds of project things that moved me and the Association kind of on down the track.