Local manufacturer weathers changes in textile industry over 75 years
The beginnings of Piedmont Chemical Industries were humble.
The High Point company that Fred Wilson Sr. and his family built into a large corporation with more than 300 employees started out in a small building on English Road during the Great Depression.
Wilson, then 30, had been a salesman for a chemical company before deciding to set out on his own. Despite the hard economic times, the textile industry was a mainstay in the region, and, in 1938, Wilson thought he had what it took to develop a customer base among the local mills, recalled his granddaugther, Cres Wilson Calabrese.
“I think he had one other employee at the beginning. It was the two of them mixing the chemicals at night and selling them during the day,” she said. “He traveled a lot selling them in those days. He would fly to some customers and sell the chemicals. He had his pilot’s license.”
Wilson’s industriousness and business acumen paid off.
Piedmont Chemical Industries thrived as High Point’s textile mills boomed during the 1950s and ‘60s. But the real genius of Wilson and the rest of his family lay in how they managed to carry the business on after the textile industry cratered, diversifying their way into a vibrant stalwart of the local economy.
The company is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month.
“We’re just so thankful to still be in business in this economy and to still be family-owned and operated,” Calabrese said. “You look in High Point and there were so many family-owned companies in this area and they’re either not in existence any more or they’ve been bought out.”
The company made a name for itself making specialty chemicals for textile plants that began using polyester and other synthetic fibers to make clothing, carpeting and other products.
Its chemicals still are used in the preparation, dyeing, finishing and processing of textiles, such as denim. The chemicals from its Burton Road plant are used to make other products as well, such as veterinary medicine, cosmetics and fire-exinguisher foam.
“We’ve had very wise leaders, and they’ve adapted with the times,” said Martha Bryant, a 48-year employee.
Calabrese said Piedmont Chemical’s employees — from the truck driver who hasn’t missed a day of work in 17 years to the workers she first met as a child being carried through the plant by her father who remain and “are like big brothers to me” — are also a critical part of its longevity.
“The whole company is a family. That’s a huge, huge part of the success,” she said.
She and her father, Fred Wilson Jr., along with her brother, Rick, remain the owners.
Bill Byrd, who has worked in maintenance for Piedmont Chemical for 27 years, said Wilson’s holiday speech to employees each year stresses themes of loyalty.
“He says, ‘If you’ll stick with me, I’ll stick with you,’” Byrd said.
The company has 77 employees in High Point and also operates two plants in South Carolina and two plants in Tennessee. Its total work force is about 320. Calabrese said her son, Will, and nephew, Reid, both of whom are in college, appear poised to carry on the family business.