How a small manufacturer is making a big splash at the PGA Championship

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How a small manufacturer is making a big splash at the PGA Championship

When nearly a quarter million people visit Quail Hollow Club next week for the PGA Championship, thousands will flock to the giant merchandise shop to buy golf towels that commemorate Charlotte's first-ever major.

What most people don't know, however, is that the polyester keepsakes -- the tournament's most popular gift-shop item -- are made by a small manufacturer about 30 miles away, and even hand-packed by a sprightly 79-year-old whom coworkers call "Grandma."

Except for the weaving of the towels themselves, which is now done at factories overseas, Devant Sports Towels handles the entire production process at its facility in Monroe, from designing and printing towels to punching grommets into the fabric for clips that allow the towels to hang onto golf bags.

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The company traces its roots back to 1976, when Jim Sheppard quit his job as a buyer for Belk to start printing golf towels made by the now-defunct local manufacturer Cannon Mills in the attic of his family home.

Devant later moved to an old bus station building close to downtown Monroe, then into a 10,000 square-foot warehouse on Walkup Avenue. Devant's parent company, golf-products maker Dynamic Brands, has expanded the facility over the years to 50,000 square feet to accommodate its other various brands that manufacture goods for the golf industry, including push carts and ball retrievers.

For those unfamiliar, the towels are hung on golf bags and used to wipe off clubs -- and have also become popular souvenirs.

Devant has now been printing towels for the PGA Tour for roughly two decades. Devant has done local events like the Wells Fargo Championship, also held at Quail Hollow. But this is the first time that an event of this magnitude is so close to Devant's backyard.

"Our employees, our community, we take pride in what we do. To be able to see it at a local major event is huge," said Jason Bonenberger, a brand manager at Devant.

For the 99th PGA Championship, Devant is printing about 23,000 towels in 12 different designs, Bonenberger said. They retail at $16-$22 and are available to fans starting Aug. 5.

The towels are expected to be the top-selling item at the PGA's merchandise shop, according to Michael Quirk, senior director of merchandising and licensing at the PGA of America, the tournament's organizer.

"(Devant is) reliable. They have a great product. They are able to replenish during the week. What you look for in a vendor in the event space they have," Quirk said.

Doris Deese, the employee known as "Grandma," handles the last step of adding hooks to, inspecting and hand-packing each order. Devant produces more than 1 million sports towels a year, and Deese touches nearly every one of them before they leave the facility, Bonenberger said.

Devant employs two dozen other employees, half of whom have been with the company for over a decade. Such long-term careers in manufacturing are increasingly rare, thanks to advancements in technology and firms looking to save money by outsourcing work.

Textile manufacturing in particular was once the economic lifeblood in the Carolinas. Sleek, more efficient new equipment has replaced clunky old machines over the years at the same time deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement opened up new options for cheap labor abroad. As a result, textile manufacturing employment in North Carolina has fallen by more than 82 percent since the mid-1990s, according to Federal Reserve data.

The company is aware that several processes at the facility manually done by workers like Deese could be replaced by machines, Bonenberger said.

Devant has, however, always thought of its products as "pieces of art" to which every employee contributes, Bonenberger added. That's helped Devant maintain its intimate feel, and its diversified product portfolio helps the company boost its reputation as a go-to supplier in the golf world.

"We could eliminate jobs. We could automate processes. But when you do that, you lose part of the integrity of your company. We're not willing to do that," Bonenberger said.

The PGA Championship runs Aug. 7-13 at Quail Hollow Club, 3700 Gleneagles Road, with tournament play taking place Aug. 10-13.

Staff writer Rick Rothacker contributed.

This article is written by Katherine Peralta from The Charlotte Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to