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New IFAI chairman Steve Ellington shares his vision for the Industrial Fabrics Association International

Features, Perspective | November 1, 2017 | By:

Photos by 2017 ©Mark Skalny Photography. All rights reserved.

With the geopolitical challenges and opportunities the specialty fabrics industry faces, we, as an association, need to make sure that we continue to educate our members and provide them with opportunities,” says Steve Ellington, president of Trivantage LLC, Glen Raven’s distribution and marketing services subsidiary in Glen Raven, N.C. “We need to make sure that we are that conduit of information. We need to remain relevant, and be sure we’re delivering value to our members.”

Ellington began working in the textile industry in 1980, after graduating from Elon University in Elon, N.C., with a degree in business and accounting. He joined Glen Raven in 1983 in industrial engineering, and while working there also earned his MBA from the Bryan School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has served as national sales manager and president of Glen Raven Custom Fabrics, Global, and in 2009 he was named to his current position as president of Trivantage.

From the early years of Ellington’s career through today, he has made connecting with manufacturers a priority, and he credits those manufacturers for providing him with a good foundation and understanding of the industry. “In the sales position in custom fabrics I took in 1986, I traveled around promoting Sunbrella®, calling on fabricators and manufacturers that used our product. So I spent a lot of time with end users in the marine and awning industry at the grassroots level, which is really at the core of IFAI membership,” he says. “I got to know companies ranging from small mom-and-pop companies to larger companies throughout the U.S. and internationally. It has given me a real appreciation for what it takes to get a product made.”

Ellington has served on IFAI’s board of directors since the late ’90s and now, as he becomes chair, he’s planning to continue the momentum toward growth and relevance that the board has worked so hard to gain. “There are a couple of main goals we have for the association,” he says. “First, we need to continue to grow and deliver value to the membership. And second, we need to continue to support our divisions in the work they do. When you look at the diversity of the companies we represent—awning, marine, geosynthetics, advanced textiles, equipment, fabric graphics, fabric structures, narrow fabrics, military, tarp, tent, and U.S. Industrial Fabrics, as well as IFAI Canada, IFAI Japan and IFAI New Zealand—we are a strong industry, with strong member companies. Our members are doing some great things, both for the industry and their communities.”

How do you think the current economy is affecting the industry?

I think we’re still in a very positive economic cycle. Growth may not be to the level people would like, but the unemployment rate remains low. While that’s good news for the economy, it brings challenges for manufacturers to find good, skilled employees. The Makers Division is working to build the sewing and manufacturing workforce through a partnership with the Makers Coalition Foundation. Members have the opportunity to shape training curricula in their regions and find trained, certified employees to build their businesses. The division provides a network to exchange information, solve common problems and develop mutually beneficial relationships. Each year, IFAI invests more than $8 million to advance the fabrics industry and support member companies.

In what ways are specialty fabrics industry members strengthening the industry and their communities?

We’re often asked as board members what our companies are doing to make a difference. How are we giving back to our communities? I think there are several ways: 1. Our member companies provide employment and contribute to local, national and global economies. 2. The products our companies produce enhance people’s lives in numerous ways, whether it’s for protection, erosion control or shade, for instance. 3. Our members work to be good stewards of the environment in the types of products they produce and the ways in which they produce them. 4. Many of our member companies contribute regularly to nonprofit efforts, both locally and globally. I think it’s important for the association to highlight the good work our member companies do. The back page of Specialty Fabrics Review now highlights one member company each month that’s doing something noteworthy to make a difference.

How is IFAI working toward remaining relevant to a changing industry and its new leaders?

In many of our companies the next generation is now taking leadership roles. We need to make sure we’re relevant in terms of staying up to date with the latest technology so we can proactively communicate with our technology-savvy members.

At Glen Raven, we hire interns every year. This year we had 19 interns from various universities around the country. Each is given a specific project to work on. I just sat in on their presentations, and what struck me was how well-spoken, confident, prepared and eager to make their mark they were.
I see this as a great opportunity for the industry.

How do you anticipate helping a membership that is diverse in terms of market segment, size, and globalization vs. reshoring efforts?

IFAI’s board is always made up of a balance of suppliers, manufacturers, small companies, large companies and different market segments. Having that kind of diversity on the board is critical because our member companies are diverse.

Whether a company operates regionally or globally is definitely not a one-size-fits-all type of situation. I think each company needs to look at where their strengths are and play to those. One strategy that has worked for us [Glen Raven] is that as much as possible, no matter where the markets are that we serve, we have our manufacturing and operations in proximity to those markets.

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to travel during my career. Glen Raven’s 1998 acquisition of the Dickson Group in France changed a lot of us at Glen Raven, both as a company and as individuals. It propelled us to be more globally attuned to what was going on beyond the U.S., and to be more culturally appreciative of different countries, people and their values and views. At the end of the day, regardless of the differences, people are essentially the same. After work, we all want to have free time to enjoy family and friends—and just enjoy life.

How do you stay connected to industry members on a personal level?

One thing I believe very strongly in is that no matter what a person’s work responsibilities are, it’s important to stay connected to the people working in the industry. If you live in your office you can become insulated, and that’s not a good thing. By being out in the field and out in the marketplace I’m able to enjoy those friendships I’ve made in the industry. I’ve heard so many IFAI members say that’s one of the great things about this association—the friendships are genuine and long-lasting. You just have to make an effort, and one way to do that is by being active in the association.

1. Become a member. Membership in a trade association adds credibility to one’s business.

2. Use it as a resource. A trade association provides an invaluable resource for education and personal development.

3. Show up. A trade association that provides an exposition or trade show offers an efficient, cost effective vehicle for a company to be exposed to both new and existing customers, suppliers, markets and products.

4. Network. A trade association presents a tremendous networking opportunity for customers and trade partners.

5. Innovate. A trade association is a great resource for new, innovative ideas.

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