By Barbara Thau
NEW YORK--Just as U.S. textiles vendors are clearing a passage to India, textiles suppliers there are spreading their American wings.
U.S. vendors are increasingly sourcing product from India, wooed by the nation's design acumen and better-quality goods that draw from a long tradition of craftsmanship.
At the same time, Indian textiles vendors are making a bold bid for the U.S. soft home market, generating more of the sheets, towels and branded programs at retailers from Wal-Mart to Macy's.
Although the nation is still struggling with infrastructure deficiencies--from poor roads to congested ports--India's burgeoning economy is fueling its home textiles business.
"The Indian economy has grown exponentially, and the home textiles industry has been a beneficiary of the investment dollars," said Herb Briggs, president of U.S. textiles supplier Dan River, which was acquired by Indian firm DHCL Limited in 2005. That investment has been poured into new factories, technology and better machinery, he said.
As a nation, "India is determined to be a dominant exporter to the U.S. market," Briggs said.
At the same time, India is one of the largest growers of cotton in the world.
"They are one of the only true democracies of the major trading areas, when you look at Pakistan and China [for example]," which gives it a competitive advantage, said Bob Hamilton, marketing director of home textiles resource Welspun USA, a division of Welspun India. "They have an entrepreneurial spirit" and are an English-speaking, Western-friendly nation, he said.
Welspun India was doing business with U.S. retailers and suppliers in the states, but got really serious about the U.S. market in 2000 when it formed Welspun USA.
It was one of the first Indian companies to make a direct play for the U.S. market and establish offices here, Hamilton said.
Hamilton, a textiles executive who worked at companies such as Pillowtex, was brought on in 2005 to tackle the U.S. market by building a branding and marketing strategy.
"Welspun had dialog with product development groups at Target and Wal-Mart--they just didn't have the ability to tell the story, market [the merchandise] and create brands around it," Hamilton said.
Welspun realized that to sustain growth in the United States, it had to build bona-fide brands. Being merely a contract maker or cheapest player "doesn't sustain growth," Hamilton said.
Since then, Hamilton has helped Welspun's U.S. arm build its owned brands and licensed brands, such as Nautica and Umbra.
Today, Welspun's retailer partners include all the major U.S. retailers, Hamilton said. And its business has expanded from towels to sheets and most recently, decorative bedding.
Indian supplier Alok Industries started growing its business with the U.S. market in 2002. It has since become one of the biggest Indian suppliers to the United States, sources said.
"For U.S. retailers, we offer a one-stop-shop for all bedding needs, quick turnarounds due to large capacities, and excellent research and development and designing skills," K.H. Gobal, Alok's president of corporate affairs, told HFN. Alok's U.S. partners are mass merchants, discounters and wholesalers.
About 60 percent of Bombay Dyeing's exports are U.S.-bound.
The Indian supplier, which sources rank among the biggest exporters of home textiles to the United States, sells its sateen, jacquard and high-thread-count sheets to retailers up and down the food chain: from upscale specialty stores to department stores and mass merchants, according to a company press release.
In the last fiscal year, Bombay Dyeing said it invested more than $50 million in its manufacturing facilities.
For non-Indian textiles firms, be it American or global suppliers, India offers an unrivaled taste level and craftsmanship that is woven into the culture, vendors said.
The process of dyeing and spinning yarn is like an art form in India, for example, Hamilton noted.
"The cultural aspects of India's heritage--the design, color, handwork--allow India to stand on top of the supply nations in the world," Frank Foley, president of U.S. textiles firm CHF Industries, told HFN.
And they are better at better goods, textiles sources said.
India is "more adept at the fashion aspect of home textiles," Keith Sorgeloos, president of U.S. home textiles supplier Home Source International, told HFN.
"They have a tendency to 'get it' more when it comes to better product. When I look at the countries in general, India is more like a department store, whereas China and Pakistan would be more like a mass merchant."
The Indian textiles suppliers have been particularly willing and nimble when it comes to customizing its business for its U.S. partners, said Steve Greenstein, executive vice president of production and sourcing for Homestead, a division of Li & Fung. He added that Homestead's business with India has taken off.
"In the home textiles sector, several large Indian companies have really taken the time to get to know the unique needs of American retailers and consumers," Greenstein said. They are "uniquely set up to handle the large volumes required by American retailers. They have very large, sophisticated manufacturing facilities with very strong middle and upper-level management."
But for all its product-development and manufacturing prowess, India's supply-chain infrastructure remains substandard.
Structural hurdles--from its poor roads to congested ports--give other emerging nations, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, a leg up, sources said. Most agreed that infrastructure is a challenge for India as it looks to handle its increasingly large flow of goods.
"The movement through the port onto a boat takes longer than any other country in the world," Foley said.
But that may be changing.
"They're adding infrastructure at a geometric rate to the tune of $50 million in roads," Hamilton said.