For almost a century, life in Alexander City, Alabama, revolved around Russell Corp. The athletic-wear maker was headquartered in the town of 15,000, and employed 7,200 people there.
“I became mayor in 1996, and all the mayor of Alex City had to do was please Russell, to be honest,” recalled Don McClellan when [the author] visited last Tuesday.
In 1998, Russell announced that it was cutting 4,000 jobs and shifting production abroad. The job cuts continued after that, the result partly of broader apparel industry trends but also of Russell’s struggles to compete with Nike, Adidas and upstart Under Armour. Russell moved its headquarters to Atlanta, then sold itself to Berkshire Hathaway in 2006. Its only remaining presence in Alex City is a warehouse and distribution center that employs 400.
When a community loses an old-line manufacturing mainstay like that, the two story lines we’ve learned to expect are that:
The town falls apart, or
- It reinvents itself for the post-industrial era, attracting tourists, immigrants, hipsters, call centers, maybe even startups.