“Class of 2020, you’re graduating in one of the most challenging times in recent national history, but you’re also entering the economy in one of the most exciting times because the need for leadership is so great,” Anderson Warlick, ’79, told the graduates at the virtual commencement exercises for The Citadel Graduate College in May. “Attitude, opportunity, serving others—these are the things that will make you great. Courage, can-do spirit, determination will allow you to triumph. Together we’ll overcome all the challenges we face, including COVID-19, and emerge as a stronger nation, stronger communities.”
* * *
June 29 on Sullivan’s Island is hot and clear. There is no sign of the haze created by a Sahara Desert dust cloud two days earlier or, for that matter, the coronavirus and the racial unrest that led news headlines. The day after Carolina Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Sullivan’s Island when British forces in 1776 tried to invade the small barrier island near the entrance of the Charleston harbor, Jasper Boulevard is lined with flags in celebration of Independence Day. The island thoroughfare is named for Revolutionary War soldier Sgt. William Jasper. When the flag flying over Fort Moultrie was shot down by the British navy, Jasper fearlessly rescued it while under fire and held it aloft until a new flagstaff could be mounted.
Andy Warlick, ’79, lounges in a wicker rocking chair on the back porch of his Sullivan’s Island home. Inside the house, beyond tall mahogany French doors, a mural depicts Jasper’s heroic actions. The house is nestled between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic. A small sparrow flies over Warlick’s head to a nest she had built on an electrical box. Warlick shakes his head and apologizes. He does not have the heart to remove the nest—a seemingly trivial matter for the CEO of a textile manufacturer that generates $2 billion in sales a year to concern himself with, but Warlick has spent his career finding opportunities in situations most people overlook, and details matter. In March of this year, as the coronavirus descended on the United States and the White House needed solutions to a shortage of COVID supplies, it was Warlick, ever the public servant like his hero Jasper, who answered the call.
* * *
Warlick’s roots in public service have their beginnings in a textile manufacturing town outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. In January 1877, less than a year after the Chester and Lenoir Narrow Gauge Railroad built a line that intersected the Atlanta and Richmond Airline Railroad, the town of Gastonia was incorporated with 104 residents. That same year, the steam-powered Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company was established, and a mill town was born. By the 1920s, Gastonia, with more than 100 mills, had emerged as the country’s leader in combed cotton production. It was in this booming mill town of Gastonia in the 1960s that 9-year-old Warlick, the son of a real estate sales agent and a bank teller, was reading the sports section of the paper when he saw an announcement for the West Gastonia Boys Club team tryouts. So Warlick and his brother, Ted, who is older by 11 months, drove across town with their father to the west side, where the mill villages were.
There was only one league, and all the teams played in the old YMCA right in the center of town. Before the first game, some of Warlick’s boyish enthusiasm faded as the uniforms were handed out.
“They rolled out wool pants. Mine had green stripes down the side of them,” he says, “and my brother’s had a red stripe down his, and then we got t-shirts with no numbers. They just said Boys Club, and we each got a cap. We looked poor.”
Their opponents were Firestone Mill and Temple Baptist and others—teams with more money and snazzier uniforms than the Boys Club team from the west side of town. Warlick played for the team and even recruited kids from his neighborhood until he aged out of the league. But the memory of what it’s like to lack proper equipment stayed with him.
Warlick’s love of sports continued into middle and high school. At Gaston Day School, he was the football team quarterback; he also ran track and played basketball. When he asked Pam Kimbrell to go out after the last football game his senior year, he had no way of knowing that a broken collarbone would send him to the emergency room first. Undeterred by the sling on his arm, Warlick folded his 6’5 frame into his beloved butterscotch-colored MGB and kept the date. “She had to shift gears for me,” he says. “We’ve been together since then. It’s great when you end up marrying your best friend.”
* * *
In 1975, while most of his classmates headed to the University of North Carolina and Appalachian State, and Pam to Salem College, Warlick traded in his football cleats and pads for black saddle oxfords and brass buckles to study business 200 miles away at The Citadel. “I thought it would be good for me,” he says. “It would give me an advantage that I wouldn’t get at other schools, and what I found out, quite frankly, it was the best thing.”
His parents wanted him to stay in state and play sports, but Warlick, who had opportunities to play sports at The Citadel but chose to focus on academics, was determined not to be part of the status quo—a determination that would characterize his entire career.
Today, Warlick, the chairman and CEO of Parkdale Mills, is the image of success. With 5,000 employees in plants in eight states in the U.S. and six countries, Parkdale leads the world in the manufacture of spun yarns with automation, sustainable practices and new technology. But Warlick did not get to the top of the textile industry without first paying his dues.
“When I went to The Citadel, I had to be a knob,” says Warlick. “Well, you know what the equivalent of that is when you go to work out of college? A trainee—you’re a corporate trainee. You have no privileges. You’ve got to earn them. You don’t have any rank. Who are you reporting to? A supervisor. That’s a corporal—a sophomore. And then who are they reporting to? Oh, they’re reporting to a department manager. That’s a sergeant—a junior. Who are they reporting to? A plant manager. That’s a company commander—a senior.”
Warlick spent summers back home in Gastonia working in the mill, a 1970s version of today’s summer internships and a complete on-the-ground education—everything from scrubbing cotton build-up to working on the overhaul crew doing mechanical work. He worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., six days a week, making enough money to pay his college expenses.
After graduating from The Citadel, Warlick went back to work in the mill, this time for Milliken in Columbus, North Carolina. “I traded in one rule book, the blue book at The Citadel, for a corporate black book of rules and regulations and one chain of command for another. It’s exactly the same, so it turns out I had gotten four years of corporate experience that I didn’t even know I was getting at The Citadel.”
At Milliken, Warlick was a young man on the rise, with five promotions and three lateral moves in five years. Meanwhile, Parkdale Mills was watching. At the time, Parkdale was owned by the Henry family and Pam’s family, the Kimbrells. Duke Kimbrell tried unsuccessfully to recruit his son-in-law to the Gastonia mill, but Warlick was enjoying his own success and was determined to make his own way. When it became apparent to both the Henrys and the Kimbrells that it was either time to sell the company or convince Warlick to come on board, Kimbrell told Warlick to put away his pride and do what was right for the family and the company. Warlick made the move. By the time he was 32, he was president of his father-in-law’s company.
There were some differences of opinion along the way, but Kimbrell and Warlick had a mutual respect for one another and made a dynamic combination. And while other mills were shutting down, Parkdale was expanding, largely due to Warlick’s insistence on constant innovation. “We reinvested a lot back into the business.”
Kimbrell died in 2014, and in the years since his death, Warlick and Pam have steadily bought the remaining shares of the business owned by other family members. They are now the sole owners of Parkdale.
* * *
For well over two decades, Warlick has served on The Citadel Foundation board of directors. He has held every leadership position in the foundation and played a crucial role in its establishment. Bud Watts, ’83, has known Warlick for 30 years. Together they co-chaired the Foundation for Leadership capital campaign from 2012 to 2018 and helped the foundation raise $250 million, far exceeding its $175 million goal.
“They broke the mold when they made Andy. He’s a great leader. He hates mediocrity. He constantly questions the status quo and conventional wisdom,” says Watts, who also serves on the Parkdale board of directors. “He’s very patriotic and really focuses on what’s good for America, what’s good for his industry, and what’s good for Parkdale. And in his role as owner of Parkdale, he feels a great responsibility to his employees and to his community.”
Warlick’s sense of community—his drive to use his resources to help others—may just be his defining character trait. In 2013, Gastonia was a dispirited holdover from the previous century. Factories had shut down and the town was suffering from an identity crisis when an idea came to Warlick as he drove past the old swim club on his way to work—an idea that would help revitalize the town’s image and restore Gastonia to the thriving family mecca that it had been in his childhood. “One of the things Gastonia needed was a new Y,” says Warlick, referring to the old YMCA community center where he had played as a boy. “The one we had was going broke. Gastonia needed a source of pride.”
Gene Matthews and Warlick have been lifelong friends. They played football together at Gaston Day School. They attend the same church, and they go on camping and hunting trips together. Matthews and his family were partners in the Belk Company department stores, and his office is in walking distance of the Parkdale Mills corporate offices. And when Warlick called him about an idea to build a new YMCA, Matthews immediately headed to Warlick’s office. Along with Matthews, Warlick pulled in two other childhood friends, Richard Rankin and George Henry, whose family was partners with the Kimbrells in Parkdale. In a three-year period, the four friends raised $22 million. “Andy is all about being the best and leading a team to achieve greatness,” says Matthews.
When it was finished, the new YMCA that germinated from an idea Warlick had while driving down Robinwood Road was a gleaming state-of-the-art facility that breathed life back into Gastonia’s community and helped restore the city’s withering confidence. Recognizing Warlick’s dedication to the project, the facility was named the Warlick Family YMCA in his honor. “It is truly fitting that the new YMCA bears the name of the Warlick family,” says Matthews. “It is a tribute to Andy’s extraordinary leadership of the project. Without him, this would not have happened.”
* * *
In 1998, when the U.S. economy tanked and Warlick laid off his first employee, he made it a rule not to take a salary as long as he had an employee who was furloughed. This March, some 22 years later, Warlick stopped drawing a salary again when 40% of his textile operations had to shut down because the economy stalled as the pandemic hit. While the textile industry was taking a beating, the nation’s supply of personal protective equipment was facing a critical shortage. First responders were without proper equipment, a situation similar but with far more severe consequences than what Warlick experienced on the Little League Baseball team.
When White House trade advisor Peter Navarro called for help, Warlick quickly set a plan in motion. “Two and a half days later, we had called our customer base in the United States and some overseas, and we said yes to 600 million masks that we could make over a 90-day period.”
Warlick put together a coalition that included Hanesbrand, Fruit of the Loom and six other companies. In normal times, the companies are competitors, but now they were banding together to answer the nation’s call.
That was not all. When Navarro asked about swabs for testing, Warlick again offered to help. After all, a company he purchased in 2008, U.S. Cotton, manufactures 96 billion swabs a year. But then Warlick discovered that a swab is not a swab. Traditional swabs are made of cotton, which has its own DNA and can create false negatives in medical testing. Medical-grade swabs are manufactured with nylon, and it just so happens that Warlick had access to a lot of polyester. With some engineering, a little reconfiguring and relentless determination, Warlick’s Cleveland plant was soon producing swabs for COVID testing kits.
Warlick was content to have his employees working. Other businesses involved in the endeavor, however, were determined to make a profit. “I basically agreed to give them away for practically nothing, but then I found out that after we gave them to the packagers, they marked them up. The packagers sold them to the labs and then the labs sold the kits to the hospital for $130 a test,” said Warlick, who refused to profit from a national crisis. “Our attitude was, we’ll get you out of trouble. We’re here. You called us. We’re Americans.”
* * *
When Warlick was asked to make a corporate contribution to the West Gastonia Boys Club football uniforms six years ago, he remembered his own boyhood uniform disappointment there more than 50 years earlier, and he agreed to fund the uniforms under one condition. “I want to have the best uniforms in the league. I don’t care what it costs,” he remembers saying. “Good uniforms are good for morale.”
What Warlick did not realize when he made the commitment was that he was funding four teams, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10 and 11-12-year-olds. The cost—$132,000. But Warlick has the satisfaction of knowing that the Mean Green team, which sports the Parkdale corporate colors, is the best dressed and equipped team in the league. After a lifetime of hard work, Warlick has earned the luxury of being a generous benefactor. Yet he has a deeper satisfaction when he listens to the news of the pandemic, the heroic action of first responders and the appeals for people to wear masks. In the best tradition of the citizen soldier, Andy Warlick has seen the need and responded, keeping his employees working while answering the call of his country.