Gildan celebrates warehouse opening

Gildan Activewear products hang on display at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday afternoon at the company's Clements Ferry Road facility, which it bought for $20 million in November.

From the outside, Gildan Activewear Inc.'s warehouse looks like any other industrial building along Clements Ferry Road.

But with more than 15 miles of conveyer belts that snake through the inside of the 850,000-square-foot structure -- sending cardboard boxes of socks whirring through the facility at lightning speed -- it shows how storage space also can be state-of-the-art.

Gildan's warehouse workers are still figuring out how to operate the complex conveyer belt system while officials in the adjoining offices figure out how the new distribution center can give it an edge on competitors such as Fruit of the Loom, Jerzees and Hanes -- all of which are vying for the opportunity to sell socks, shirts and underwear through big retailers such as Walmart, Dollar General and J.C. Penney.

The Canadian apparel distributor celebrated the opening of its new warehouse Monday. It purchased the facility for $20 million in November, and workers have begun loading boxes into the racks that stretch to its 65-foot-high ceiling.

Gildan's supply chain starts with cotton fields scattered throughout the Southeast. Gildan buys 1 million of the 13 million bales of cotton that are grown in the United States each year.

The company ships the cotton to sewing and dying factories in Central America before bringing the garments back through ports throughout the Southeast.

Most of those clothing items are shipped to screen printing and embroidery shops across the country, which customize them with logos for sports teams, businesses or special events such as marathons. The company sold more than 5 million shirts last year.

"If you go home and open up your drawers, you'll see that just about everyone owns a Gildan," said Glenn Chamandy, chief executive officer.

The Montreal-based company's Berkeley County warehouse is a key part of a new growth initiative, Chamandy said.

He noted that the company started seeking ways to expand sales once its wholesale business hit 65 percent.

"We were taking the same shirt and looking for someone else to buy it," he said.

It found a some takers in big retailers such as Dick's Sporting Goods and A.C. Moore, some of which began carrying Gildan-handled products last year. Gildan also bought two sock companies to start the venture.

The company had been using warehouses in Virginia and Alabama to operate the division. Those now are being consolidated into the Charleston facility.

When the building becomes fully operational, it will receive shipments that come from Honduras through the Port of Charleston and employ about 250 workers.

After two months of move-in time, the building is only one-third full, but Chamandy laid out ambitious expansion plans Monday. Gildan's retail sales, the name given the new division, now accounts for $30 million in annual sales. He said he hopes to push that figure beyond the $2 billion mark.

Once sales expand to $600 million, the company will outgrow the Berkeley County warehouse. Company officials on Monday already were pointing out to guests where they'd expand on the site.

How soon could that happen? The company's goal is to hit $1 billion in sales from the retail division in less than five years, Chamandy said.

Reach Katy Stech at 937-5549 or