Russell Corporation, today one the world's largest manufacturers of athletic uniforms, activewear, and casualwear, was founded in 1902 in Alexander City, Tallapoosa County, by entrepreneur Benjamin C. Russell. From its beginnings as Russell Manufacturing Company, housed in a small wooden building, the company evolved over the next century into an international apparel concern with more than $1 billion in annual sales and in excess of 15,000 employees worldwide. After 20 years as a publically traded company, in 2006 Russell Corporation became a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, a multinational holding company chaired by billionaire Warren Buffet.
Founder Benjamin Russell was born on a small farm in Tallapoosa County in 1876 to Benjamin Francis Commander (B. F. C.) Russell, a decorated veteran who served under Confederate general James Longstreet, and Sarah Henderson Russell. In the early 1880s, the Russells moved to Alexander City from a nearby farm now covered by Lake Martin. Russell attended the University of Virginia, earning a law degree in 1899 and then marrying Roberta Bacon McDonald. He practiced law briefly in Birmingham before returning to Alexander City to run the family mercantile business after his father suffered a debilitating stroke in early 1900.
At the age of 24, Russell founded the Citizens Bank (now part of Alliant Bank) of Alexander City. After a fire gutted the city's business district in 1902, Russell rebuilt his bank and also set out in a new direction by founding Russell Manufacturing Company. The company began operations in a small wooden building with six knitting machines and 10 sewing machines operated by a dozen employees. In the first year of its operation, the company produced ladies' knitted undershirts at the rate of 150 garments a day. The building did not even have electricity until 1912, relying on steam for power until that time.
The outbreak of World War I brought increased demands for cloth and yarn, and Russell's company thrived. By 1925, the company had expanded its production to include long underwear, sweaters, athletic shirts, and ladies' bloomers. Russell continued to add to its line of products in the 1930s and established an athletics division named the Southern Manufacturing Company to manufacture team apparel. Providing football jerseys to a sporting goods distributor in New York was the company's first venture in this regard. It also began producing pants for football, baseball, and basketball teams. Although the company reportedly suffered losses during the Great Depression, Russell nevertheless decided to expand the business because in 1932 the company acquired full finishing operations; the expansion made the company one of the most fully in control of all stages of production in the world, according to one company historian. In 1938, Russell developed a screen-printing method that enabled it to print names, numbers, and designs on athletic uniforms.
During the 1940s, civilian textile manufacturing was curtailed to meet the company's obligations under massive government wartime contracts, causing sales losses and financial hardships. By the end of World War II, the company's machinery was in poor condition owing to shortages of replacement parts caused by the war. More damaging to the company during this decade was the death of Benjamin C. Russell on December 16, 1941. Russell's son, also named Benjamin, assumed the reins of the company until his death in 1945, and brother Thomas D. Russell took the helm. The company saw very little growth in the 1950s as the result of two economic recessions. The 1960s brought better times, and the company expanded and underwent other important changes. In 1962, its name changed to Russell Mills, Inc. and in 1963 it became a publicly traded company. The rising popularity of T-shirts sparked the construction of a new sewing plant in Montgomery in 1966.
Plant expansion continued during the 1970s under president Eugene C. Gwaltney, who took over upon Thomas Russell's retirement in 1968. The company enlarged its screen-printing facilities, obtained a yarn manufacturing plant in northeast Georgia, and opened a new distribution center in Alexander City. In 1973, it became known as Russell Corporation. In 1981, the company consolidated its knitting facilities into one plant and touted it as the most modern facility of its kind in the world. Dwight L. Carlisle became president in 1982, after Gwaltney was named chairman of the board, and the company expanded further with facilities in south Alabama and Florida.
In 1989, Russell Corporation expanded overseas with the purchase of Cloathbond Ltd. in Scotland. By 1990, the company operated 13 sewing plants outside Alexander City and employed 15,000 workers. Its sales had increased by 13 percent annually since 1976. Market analysts attributed much of the company's success to its modernization strategy in the late 1980s and the early 1990s and its development and introduction of NuBlend, an innovative fabric that resisted piling, into its Jerzees line of sportswear. In 1992, the company's success continued when it signed a five-year contract with Major League Baseball teams to be the exclusive provider of uniforms. In 1995, the company's sales reached $1 billion.
The late 1990s saw a decline in Russell's successes as a result of more competition from an increasing number of companies in an overcrowded market. Under CEO and president John "Jack" Ward, the company underwent a major three-year restructuring. The company also opened a second headquarters in Atlanta in 1999. By the time the reorganization was completed, Russell had cut more than 6,000 jobs and moved nearly all of its manufacturing operations to other countries, primarily Mexico and Honduras.
The twenty-first century saw numerous ups and downs in Russell's fortunes. In 2002, Russell celebrated its centennial by acquiring Moving Comfort, a manufacturer of women's activewear. The next year, the company acquired Jagged Edge, a manufacturer of mountaineering and outdoor equipment, Bike Athletic Company, and Spalding Sports Worldwide Inc. In 2005, rising costs and declining sales caused financial setbacks that were exacerbated by damage to transported goods from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The company underwent another restructuring that resulted in a loss of another 2,300 jobs and the shifting of even more of its manufacturing outside the United States.
In 2006, Russell Corporation was purchased in 2006 by multinational corporation Berkshire Hathaway Inc. for $600 million and was made a subsidiary of the company's Fruit of the Loom brand. Following the purchase, Russell became embroiled in controversy in 2008 and 2009, when a number of universities ended their licensing agreements with Russell in response to the company's decision to close a unionized factory in Honduras. The Workers Rights Consortium, which consists of colleges and universities, accused Russell of being anti-union, and Russell initially denied the allegation, asserting that the plant closure stemmed from the general downturn in the global economy. The company later acknowledged that it had violated the workers' rights to freedom of association and initiated efforts to improve its worker relations, including provisions for third-party inspections of its factories. In November 2009, Russell reached an agreement with a Honduran union that included the establishment of a unionized apparel factory in Honduras, the rehiring of employees from its closed facility, and a commitment to collective bargaining.
John Holland became the company's CEO after Russell's acquisition by Berkshire Hathaway in August 2006. In January 2009, Russell Corporation closed its headquarters in Atlanta but retained its headquarters in Alexander City, where it had been founded more than a century before.
Russell, Ben. "The History of Benjamin Russell and Russell Lands, Inc." July 2009. [See Related Links]
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published February 10, 2010
Last updated December 9, 2011