Meet Bob Carswell


Bob Carswell | Material Return

Bob Carswell | Material Return

Coming from 15 years of working on the factory floor I have a lot of experience in a frontline worker setting. I feel like I’m doing something really special at Material Return. We’re creating the greenest line of textile products in the country. At the same time we’re educating frontline workers about the circular economy we’re building right in our own backyard.

I was hired at The Industrial Commons in January and was given the task of launching a new enterprise. Material Return consists of a sorting and aggregation site that collects textile waste in the region to turn it into new marketable products. We’ve got five companies already signed on. We’ve outgrown our first location and are moving into a new 10,000 sq. ft. space. We’ve hired one young man already and with our expected growth in 2020 want to provide more opportunities to young people in our community.

As an adjunct at our local community college (Western Piedmont Community College) I teach engineering students the skills needed to pursue opportunities in manufacturing. We have the knowledge and experience in our region to carry on this tradition of making. I want the next generation to have opportunities to grow in their careers and be proud of their hard work.

Growing up in rural Appalachia molded and inspired my love for making art and music. I have played in bluegrass, gospel, and punk rock bands, this is probably something only people from our region can say! My father has worked for his entire life in furniture and has handed down his work ethics and craftsmanship skills to me, and I am very happy to keep up this tradition of teaching for my son.

I have seen the professional craftsmanship that flourishes with good leadership and a chance for growth. Through The Industrial Commons I can make manufacturing “good for people and the planet”. By supporting models for worker voice and green models of manufacturing, my son can grow up in a cleaner state while being proud of the craftsmanship of his ancestors.

The Burke Meridian Worker Committee

Workplace development

Brandi Whisnant

Brandi Whisnant

Whisnant may be a strange last name to some, but Brandi says that in Valdese, North Carolina, it’s as common as Smith.

When she graduated with two degrees from UNC Asheville and started in a waitressing job she wasn’t putting her degrees to work. This didn’t look like her future.

She moved to be with her family in Valdese among the mountains and the cool air, and got a job at Meridian Specialty Yarn Group, Inc., where she could work alongside her dad, another Whisnant, in a company committed to manufacturing in America.

But something was missing. When you’re checking the fastness of dye and the packaging of yarn, you don’t have time to get to know your coworkers.

Debbie Sigmon has worked as a Human Resources professional for more than 30 years.

When she joined Meridian four years ago, she had her work cut out for her.  Employee morale was not where it should have been.

She knew that she needed to increase morale as well as to attract more applicants by telling the company’s story, so she got involved with community organizations, which led her to The Industrial Commons. They asked if she’d be willing to pilot a worker committee at Meridian. The committee would be focused on developing and implementing ideas from frontline workers that would improve both the company and their work-life.

“The first step was getting the buy-in from our VP of Manufacturing and our President,” Debbie said. “And both enthusiastically gave the okay to do it.” I think especially the top managers need to embrace the initiative. They have to be willing to let people spend time off the floor to attend meetings, and they also have to be open to suggestions.”

She knows that it’s a concern to a company to see that employees are spending time on something other than production. But what’s gained through open communication with workers makes up for it.

“You really can’t put a price tag on that,” she said. 

Debbie Sigmon

Debbie Sigmon

Management told workers that they may not be able to implement every suggestion, but they would seriously consider each one.

The Burke Meridian Worker Committee was born. By the time Brandi joined the group, the workers had generated 85 ideas, acted on nine, and had four improvement projects going.

“Everybody in our group has come together—we’ll meet on our own time sometimes just to get things done. And it’s a group effort.”

And they are getting things done. Like cleaning up Aisle F, where yarns are organized before they’re dyed and packaged. That project improved productivity, regaining an estimated 15 hours a week of work lost hunting for the right yarn.

The next big project that’s in the works is getting walkie talkies for employees on the floor, which is estimated to save $30,000 for the company by eliminating the need for a paging system in our new and existing buildings. Currently, workers must find a phone to page someone, and that’s not as efficient as directly radioing who you need.

The Meridian Worker Committee developed an inclusive process to survey their co-workers. In their first survey, they asked what employees would enjoy doing together for a company-wide event. The majority wanted to get together for a picnic, which is in the works. Until the survey was conducted, the Worker Committee thought a larger trip to Carowinds would be best. They discovered, through data, that employees preferred to have a networking event closer to home. Meridian embraces these informal surveys as a way to tap into the true thoughts and interests of the employee base.

Debbie has seen a marked improvement in morale, which is important as the company works to make every minute of production count. Brandi has felt that transformation, too.

“I know that it will all pay off,” she said. “And I know that there’s going to be some genuine enjoyment that will come from these decisions, some genuine time-savers, some aggravation that is assuaged by what we've done—by the things that we put in place. And that will only improve the longer that we’re here."

This is all happening against the backdrop of growth in the domestic textile industry. This segment of U.S. industry grew from 2016 to 2017 by $3.5 billion and has a workforce of more than half a million people, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations.

With this increased opportunity is the need for sustainability. Meridian has an older workforce—many are expected to retire in the next 10 to 15 years.

“We’ve got to recruit, engage, and retain that next generation of workers,” Debbie said. “So we’ve got to create an environment where communication is open, and I think we’ve done that. Now we’ve just got to enhance it and make it a place where people see themselves longterm.”

Debbie said the company can better compete for employees by demonstrating the respect it shows its employees, and the resulting speed it offers to customers increases the company’s competitiveness in the marketplace.

“So that’s why it’s even more important for us to create an environment where people want to be, and I’ve seen evidence of that since I’ve been here.”

The time Brandi has spent getting to know the other committee members has changed how she feels about work.

“You know, I’ve been in jobs where I had good friends and then they left and you just feel like there’s no reason to come in.”

Jobs at the end of the day are challenging. But Brandi has found her people—in the mountains of Valdese with the Whisnants and on the Worker Committee at Meridian.  

“A lot of what makes it all right is working with people that you care about—people you can just unwind with on your lunch break. When you work with friends, it makes all the difference.”

Worker Owned Enterprises

The best succession plan for retirement

As baby boomer business owners retire, our local business landscape is about to go through a dramatic shift.

Check out the new WNC study conducted by our partner organization, Project Equity. Engage with the interactive infographic to find out how your county is impacted by the potential loss of these businesses and learn how we can help.

Read The Study →


Check out our latest coverage in the media

Announcing the Communities Thrive Challenge Grantees

The Rockefeller Foundation

December, 2018

Today, we are thrilled to share the names of the 10 organizations that will each receive a $1 million grant as part of the Communities Thrive Challenge, a joint funding opportunity from The Rockefeller Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Each organization is not only making a tremendous impact in its community but also offering insight into how others might address some of the biggest challenges facing our country. Their work sheds light on crucial questions, such as:

  • How might places that have fallen on difficult economic times reinvent their economies and create more opportunity for all?

  • How might local investors use their dollars to not only generate returns but also spur good jobs for low-income workers?

  • How might state and local governments ensure that all of their residents who are eligible for public benefits actually receive them?

Launched in April of 2018, the Communities Thrive Challenge promised $1 million grants to organizations with high-impact, potentially scalable, and community-driven approaches to tackling systemic barriers to economic opportunity in the United States. The Challenge recognizes that, for every person who may be enjoying the benefits of a strong U.S. economy, there are as many who are locked out and struggling to just get by.

The grantees are working on issues from economic revitalization to financial security, and they draw on tools from policy to technology and employer partnerships. Here are just a handful of the reasons some of these organizations stood out to us:

The Industrial Commons is reimagining industrial jobs in Western North Carolina, a region that has seen its manufacturing sector decline significantly in recent years. By partnering with both workers and businesses to help workers take equity stakes in their companies or to introduce worker committees within manufacturing firms, the Industrial Commons is developing win-win solutions and offering a new model for how to collaboratively revitalize places that have fallen on challenging times.

Read More →

Also read our coverage on the Communities Thrive Challenge Grant in Inside Philanthropy, the Morganton News Herald and the Mountain Xpress.

Facing South: A voice for a changing South

Facing South Image.jpg

In North Carolina, co-ops are building a more democratic economy

Nestled at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, Morganton may seem like an unlikely place to find a large Mayan community. But since the 1980s, the Burke County city of almost 17,000 people, over 75 percent of them white and 12 percent black, is home to a growing Latino community, including Mayan immigrants from Guatemala.

Like other immigrants before them, the Maya came to Morganton in search of economic opportunity. Many found work at the local Case Farms chicken processing plant but grew dissatisfied over low wages, poor working conditions, and unsuccessful labor organizing efforts.

Searching for a better way to make a living, some have found it in cooperative economics. In 2008, Morganton native Molly Hemstreet organized Opportunity Threads to fill the need for ethical labor opportunities for the local community and to produce textiles for companies across North Carolina. Today, 20 of the co-op's 26 employees are Mayans. 

Read More →

Asheville Citizen Times

What will happen to Asheville's baby boomer businesses?

In the 15 counties of Western North Carolina, nearly 60,000 people work for baby boomers who are approaching retirement age, according to the study. 

The region has a big question to answer: What will happen to baby boomer businesses and their employees when the owners retire?

Read More →

Joe Scully, owner of Chestnut Photo courtesy of Maddy Jones /, article by Emily Patrick

Joe Scully, owner of Chestnut Photo courtesy of Maddy Jones /, article by Emily Patrick

Mountain Xpress

Passing the torch:

What happens when local business owners retire?

The imminent mass retirement of baby boomers has both economic advisers and worker advocates worried about the future of small businesses in Western North Carolina and beyond. Boomers, many of whom will retire within the next decade, own roughly half of all American businesses, census data shows.

 Read More →

Walter Vicente is a master stitcher, sample maker and worker-owner at the Valdese-based company Opportunity Threads. Photo courtesy of Opportunity Threads, article by Max Hunt.

Walter Vicente is a master stitcher, sample maker and worker-owner at the Valdese-based company Opportunity Threads. Photo courtesy of Opportunity Threads, article by Max Hunt.