BRISTOL, Va. — Labels on the initial runs of towels produced in the new American Merchant factory say, “Proudly made in Bristol, Virginia.”

Following a series of delays, American Merchant is now making towels and expects to expand hiring and production in 2020, company Chairman Robert Burton said Tuesday during a presentation to the Bristol Noon Rotary Club. About 50 people currently work at the towel production facility inside the former Ball Corp. plant on Old Abingdon Highway.

The business was first announced in December 2017. Updating the 50-year-old building to accommodate the installation of dozens of high-tech machines from makers in Japan, Germany and Italy took longer than anticipated, Burton said.

“In the past year, we’ve really spent a lot of energy and effort getting the facility up to date and getting the equipment installed,” Burton said. “Two years ago, we came to this community, said this is what we’re going to do, and someone said, ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say.’ We have done what we said we would do. Now it’s about making it successful.”

American Merchant is a subsidiary of Merchant House International Ltd., a Hong Kong-based textile maker that is investing about $20 million into the facility. The company also operates a boot manufacturing facility in Tennessee.

All of the factory’s many processes are operational, although some of the machines still aren’t hooked up, Burton said.

“We are making product. Our first order ships the end of this week,” he said. “We have orders through March of next year. … We brought samples to market, and we had a very strong response from the retail community. We’ve demonstrated you can make a high-quality bath towel here in the USA to compete with towels manufactured anywhere in the world.”

American Merchant is still training its workforce in anticipation of increasing production next year. When announced, the plant was forecast to employ about 400 once maximum production capacity is reached.

“Phase one of the investment is to get all of the capacity running across three shifts. We hope to achieve that by the middle of next year; that should put us at about 120 workers,” Burton said. “Once we get that going, we want to increase the investment, bring in more equipment. Phase two and phase three is basically adding more capacity. As we add more capacity, we add more workers.”

The plant, for example, currently has 24 computerized looms to weave the cotton yarn into towels and washcloths, but not all are operational yet. Plans call for installing 24 more machines as capacity warrants.

“We’re a manufacturing facility. To be a long-term, sustainable operation, you have to be profitable,” Burton said. “For us, it’s not necessarily how many workers we hire. It’s the quality of the workers, being able to give them the right skill sets so they can operate the equipment that we have.”

He acknowledged that finishing the plant, getting all the machinery operational, hiring and training workers to begin production lags behind the original timetable.

“It would be nice if we were six months ahead of schedule — and where we had originally anticipated — but that’s just not the case, so we live with what it is,” Burton said.

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