Born just six miles from Parkdale Mills in Gastonia, NC, Kimbrell was named after Duke Power Co. because his father was proud of his longtime employment with the company that brought electricity and prosperity to the region. His mother was a public school teacher who made certain he got his education. With this support from home, Duke was encouraged to be independent and ambition was not squelched. At age 14, he began riding his bike to the mill to see whatever odd jobs were available for a youngster. Bill Robinson, the owner of Parkdale took a liking to Duke and gave him projects. No job was too small for this boy. When World War II came, Duke was promised a job when he returned. “Fighting in the war taught me that I would have to work hard for whatever I wanted in life, “” said Kimbrell, and what he wanted was to be the “head man” at Parkdale. True to their word, after the war, when Duke returned to Gastonia, the mill encouraged him to get a college degree. 1
Duke entered the School of Textiles at NC State in Raleigh along with thousands of other returning GIs. He graduated with a BS degree in 1949 and rejoined Parkdale. Even though he had better offers financially from other firms. Why Parkdale? “The deciding factor was that I saw an opportunity to rise to the top more quickly than anywhere else, recalled Kimbrell. “Plus, I loved the place.” Robert A. Barnhardt, Dean of the NC State University College of Textiles, from 19891999, said in support, “That’s the type of Horatio Alger story that many would like to achieve but few succeed.” Robinson was Kimbrell’s mentor until his death. “Bill Robinson was sick from about 1954 on – he couldn’t come out often.” Kimbrell remembered. “He lived only a couple of miles from the mill and I was single, so I’d go by there about every day, telling him how things were going in the mill.” said Kimbrell. 1
When Kimbrell took over Parkdale, There were 150 employees. Today (1991) the firm employs over 2, 900. The company has 18 plants, produces 250 million pounds of yarn and has annual sales over $400 million. 1
After Robinson died, the board agreed to let Kimbrell acquire and revamp the mills with the help of a silent partner. He also moonlighted for BVD, the large underwear manufacturer. “Stockholders can’t say too much about what you do on the side if you’re making them money,” Kimbrell laughed. He used these ventures to help acquire 5050 ownership with the George Henry family in 1982. 1
As an industry leader, Kimbrell is well known outside the cotton crowd and even beyond. One area where his dedication is most appreciated is education. In May 1991, the NCSU College of Textiles presented him with its Distinguished Alumnus Award. “Duke has been committed to the College of Textiles and the NC Textile Foundation under which, during his leadership, the corpus reached a value of $10 million, confirms Barnhardt. 1
He has been chair of the ATMI’s Cotton Committee, Executive Committee and the Budget, Finance, and Membership Committees; Vice president of the National Cotton Council of America; Director of Inman Mills, First Wachovia Corporation, Warp Spun Yarns, Vintage Yarns, and Unifi. Past services includes: AYSA, NCTMA, NCTF, This year ATMI awarded its highest recognition – the Samuel Slater Award – for a lifetime of contributions to the U.S. textile Industry. 1
Gastonia’s local paper, The Gazette, named him 1990 Person of the Year. When First Presbyterian Church needed to search for a new pastor, Duke told the Search Committee “Use our plane.” He also led the effort to build a new headquarters for the local Boy Scouts of America. He has touched a lot of lives.
When Duke Kimbrell was honored at North Carolina State University Commencement December 14, 2005:
Kimbrell is chairman of the board for Parkdale Mills, the world’s largest independent cotton yarn manufacturer. Prior to serving as board chair, Kimbrell was CEO of Parkdale Mills; during that time, Kimbrell helped transform the company from a 200employee, $11 million company into a 3,600employee firm with $934 million in sales.
A noted leader in his field, Kimbrell has received numerous accolades from Textile World magazine, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and Leader of the Year. He serves on the board of directors for the American Textile Manufacturers Institute and chairs the cotton committee. Kimbrell received NC State’s Watauga Medal, which honors those who have made significant contributions to the advancement of the university, in 1995. He will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
Duke Kimbrell established a $3 million endowed scholarship fund at N C State in September 2008.
- “Duke Kimbrell: U.S. Textile’s King of Cotton,” Textile World, Oct. 1991, p3749.
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