Fruit of the Loom, the parent company to Russell Athletic & Activewear, announced Thursday it was getting out of the team uniform business.
In a statement from Senior Vice-President for Brand Management with Russell Athletic & Activewear Scott Greene the immediate discontinuation of team uniform production was confirmed.
“For over 115 years, Russell Athletic has provided quality apparel for athletes both on and off the field of play,” Greene said in a released statement. “We are proud of our heritage, but to build lasting relationships with a new generation of athletes, we will need to focus our efforts and play to our strengths.
“Today, we will begin to transition away from the team uniform business to allow greater emphasis on the consumer retail market. With this shift, we will continue to offer high quality athletic lifestyle and performance apparel for distribution through multiple retail and wholesale channels, including continued distribution of collegiate licensed products along with non-uniform apparel through the team dealer network.”
Russell Brands still employs about 500 people in Alexander City in its distribution center. While company officials declined comment on any potential loss of jobs as a result of the move, it is believed that the distribution center here will not take any hits. The bulk of what the center handles currently is the retail line of products.
Lake Martin Area Economic Development Director Don McClellan said the end of the team line is another blow to a brand that meant so much to Alexander City.
“I just hate to hear that,” McClellan said. “That brand had been a point of pride for the company and this area for a long, long time. I hate to see that brand die.
“I know they have to make business decisions, but it’s still a sad day for the brand and our area.”
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.
But five years later, the company began a tailspin. The company headquarters were moved to Atlanta in 1999 and about 6,000 jobs were eliminated by 2002 as many jobs were moved to Mexico and Honduras.
In 2006, Russell Corporation was purchased by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. for $600 million and was made a division of Fruit of the Loom.
It wasn’t long before nearly all but about 1,000 Russell jobs in Alexander City were lost.
Shoe companies like Nike and Adidas got into the team apparel market and the uniform line took a serious hit. Companies like Under Armour paid big money to colleges to make the switch to their brand, leaving Russell on the outside looking in with many programs. Russell even lost contracts with Alabama and Auburn right in the company’s back yard.
The brand was dealt a serious and possibly fatal blow earlier this summer when Georgia Tech, one of the final major college programs with deals with Russell, announced it would be ending its relationship and contract with the company.
Greene said the move will give the company the ability to better develop and market products for retail consumers.
“Our new business strategy focuses on the growing athletic and lifestyle apparel market and developing products that will open new doors for retail distribution of our iconic brand,” Greene said in his statement. “An example of this will be the introduction of a new heritage-inspired product line available in spring of 2018. The new line will feature carefully crafted fleece, tees and other apparel. We are confident you’ll be seeing Russell Athletic on more and more consumers soon.
“We are proud of what we have accomplished in the last 115 years and look forward to continuing to provide quality athleticwear to the market.”
But not seeing the red, white and blue “R” logo on teams on Friday nights or the chests of pro athletes on Saturdays and Sundays will be tough for many area residents who had their lives invested at Russell.
Barney Wachtel, who served as president of Russell Athletic from 1991 to 2001, was almost speechless when he learned the news Thursday when contacted by the Outlook.
“That is a shock – I just can’t believe it,” Wachtel said in a telephone interview. “I know the climate of the team uniform business has changed a lot since I was there. I understand things transition and trends force change, but this seems like a fatal blow. For all intents and purposes the uniform was Russell. This is just very sad news.”
Wachtel said the exit of Russell will be a big blow to small colleges and high school who relied on Russell for quality, affordable uniforms. Several local schools, including Benjamin Russell, sport the R on its uniforms.
Roger Holliday who headed the licensing division for Russell Athletic put the news in perspective.
“It’s just heart-breaking to us all,” Holliday said. “That’s a piece of Americana gone.”