Renfro Corp. is adding 442 jobs at a company location in Alabama, an expansion that was not considered for its home base of Surry County, according to the county’s chief industrial recruiter.
The new jobs are stemming from a recent deal between Renfro and Walmart, under which the sock producer will supply the retail giant as part of an effort by Walmart to invest more in U.S. manufacturing.
Although Renfro is headquartered in Mount Airy — which once was known as “Sock City” due to its heavy hosiery production — the expansion was not eyed for the local area, Surry Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker says.
“To the best of my knowledge, we were never contacted by Renfro with the thoughts of putting a plant here,” Tucker added Thursday.
He said this makes sense due to the fact Renfro now has a manufacturing presence in Fort Payne, Alabama, where the 442 jobs are targeted. That presence is lacking in Mount Airy, where sock-making occurred for decades and earned it the Sock City nickname — reflecting estimates that about 15 percent of the socks made in America in the 1990s originated here.
Bud Kilby, the CEO and president of Renfro who is based at its headquarters on Linville Road, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
But Tucker indicated that the fact Alabama rather than Surry is getting the large number of jobs should not be seen as any kind of slight, or a reflection on the local labor force which includes thousands of former textile workers.
“No, because they already had existing plants there,” Tucker said of Fort Payne, Alabama, where the agreement with Walmart will mean supplying it with athletic socks.
It would be quite costly to establish such a manufacturing division in Mount Airy, Tucker says, especially if new construction were required.
Renfro Corp. is now said to have 605 workers in Fort Payne and is the largest employer in the hosiery industry of that city with a population of about 14,000. The 400-plus new positions will push that over the 1,000 mark, which Tucker said is expected to involve existing facilities as opposed to a new plant.
In contrast, more than 200 people work at Renfro’s corporate office in Mount Airy and slightly more than 100 at its distribution warehouse in Westwood Industrial Park.
There still will be benefits locally from the new Renfro jobs several states away in Alabama, according to the economic-development official.
“It will strengthen their distribution warehouse and corporate headquarters,” Tucker said.
The recent initiative by Walmart which is leading to the new jobs in Alabama is part of plans by the retail chain to source materials from U.S.-based companies such as Renfro Corp. in an effort to invest in domestic manufacturing.
In addition, Walmart plans to partner with six universities across the nation to help increase sustainability in the production of textiles.
Earlier, in 2013, Walmart announced a commitment to buy an additional $250 billion in American-made, sourced and assembled products through 2023, a move expected to create about a million jobs.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.