People - July 2005

Her group fashions ways to save soles
By Edward Martin

Maybe it’s fitting that Sally Kay hits an occasional snag as president of The Hosiery Association. Politics, for instance. Many domestic members want tariffs on imports from low-wage countries. But the international association includes members from those countries. They, of course, want no part of tariffs.

Then there’s Wal-Mart. Some members give the retailer heat for selling cheap imports. In reality, it and a few other discount stores now sell most of the hosiery — stockings, pantyhose, socks and tights — that association members make. There are fancy hose with antimicrobial agents that can kill bacteria and hose impregnated with substances to soothe the skin and tame cellulite. Kay probably could use a variety that offers protection from the hot seat she’s on. “My tightrope has dwindled to about the size of dental floss.”

Born on a farm in Chester, S.C., Kay, 39, graduated from Clemson University in 1988 with a bachelor’s in tour and event management and worked at several hospitality-industry jobs in Charlotte. In 1990, she took a job that involved planning meetings and maintaining chapter relations for what was then known as the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers.

Kay was promoted several times between then and 1999, when the association changed its name to reflect globalization of the industry and inclusion of suppliers and marketers as members. In 2001, she was elected the association’s first woman president, overseeing its staff of six. Its approximately 300 members make and distribute about 85% of the nation’s hosiery. About half of the mills are in North Carolina.

The pending Central American Free Trade Agreement — CAFTA — is another issue that divides the 100-year-old association. “I’ve got member companies with a lot invested down there that want it, and I’ve got companies with a lot invested that don’t. The things we can’t do are political issues.” Still, Kay says, ample issues remain for lobbying, including pressuring federal authorities to enforce trade agreements already on the books.

Despite her best efforts, the domestic industry is suffering a slide like that of textiles, though not as severe. The number of workers — about 70,000 nationwide — and hosiery plants are declining partly because of global competition but also because of automation. Fickle fashion is a factor, too. Casual dress has driven down demand, particularly for sheer pantyhose. “Frankly, there’s excess global capacity,” she says. “We’ll continue to see those numbers decline, but it’s my job to keep the industry visible.”

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