Russell Corporation was the lifeblood of Alexander City.
Its operations once employed nearly 18,000 worldwide at its height, including 7,200 in Alexander City.
In July 1998, 96 years after its founding, new Russell Corp. CEO Jack Ward announced major changes for the area’s largest employer at the time. The changes included shifting much of the work offshore. Ward and others at the time were hopeful the changes at Russell would not be a setback to the community as it hoped to keep many of those jobs the company had in Tallapoosa County filled. But it had no known plans about the effects of moving much of the company’s production offshore.
“Everything is not finalized, and we have not made those specific decisions at this point,” Ward said in 1998.
The plan at the time included shuttering 25 of the 90 facilities Russell had worldwide. A quarter — 4,000 of its 17,600 jobs — worldwide would be lost over a three-year period.
At the time Ward said the job losses would be less severe in Alexander City.
Over the next decade almost all the jobs of the textile giant were gone. And in the last 15 years, the buildings that employed thousands have been torn down and, in some cases, recycled for flooring, siding and scrap.
In 2018, Russell closed its prized athletic division. At one time it supplied jerseys and apparel to sports teams across the world. Fall 2018 was the last time the Benjamin Russell Wildcats could purchase jerseys made by the company founded by the school’s namesake.
In 2006, Russell Corp. was purchased by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. for $600 million and was made a division of Fruit of the Loom.
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It wasn’t long before nearly all but about 1,000 Russell jobs in Alexander City were lost.
In January of 2019, Russell Brands LLC notified another 75 employees they would be laid off.
“It’s just sad for the employees and for Alexander City,” Alexander City Mayor Jim Nabors said in January. “For those of us who were part of Russell for so long, it’s just another tough pill to swallow.”
On March 3, 1902, Russell Athletic was founded by 26-year-old Benjamin Russell as the Russell Manufacturing Company in Alexander City. The tiny factory had 10 sewing machines and eight knitting machines. Russell Manufacturing Company’s first garment was a women and children’s knit shirt. Benjamin Russell’s passion for sports and his entrepreneurial spirit fueled civic pride creating jobs for his community, while later making uniforms for teams and apparel for athletes throughout the United States.
In 1926, Founder Ben Russell’s son, Benny, came to his dad with a new idea for an all-cotton practice football jersey replacing the itchy, chafing wool uniforms worn at that time. Knowing the comfort and durability of cotton, the iconic crew neck sweatshirt began production in the Russell Athletic mills in 1930. By the 1960s, Russell Manufacturing Company's athletic division had become the largest manufacturer of sports apparel and uniforms in the United States. In 1962, Russell Manufacturing Company changed its name to Russell Mills, Inc. and began using the American Eagle to represent its iconic brand image.
In 1973 Russell Mills, Inc. name was changed to Russell Corporation and expanded manufacturing across Southern USA as well as to Latin America and across the Atlantic to Scotland.
While Russell has been a trusted name in apparel for more than a century, it was the team uniform line production that fueled a meteoric rise from the 1970s through the mid-1990s.
Most industry followers say Russell Athletic was at its peak in 1992 when it signed a five-year contract with Major League Baseball teams to be the exclusive provider of uniforms. In 1995, Russell rode those team ties to reach a record $1.25 billion in sales. The company had 18,000 employees worldwide at that time.