Finishing Acts

“THIS ONE’S FOR BEVERLY HILLS… the Hamptons… Cape Cod… here’s the Hamptons again….” George Matouk Jr., third-generation leader of the luxury-linens manufacturer John Matouk & Company, pauses during a tour of his factory to page through the day’s shipping orders — tallies of bespoke 600-thread-count sheets, Egyptian-cotton towels, and embroidered tablecloths bound for some of the world’s toniest ZIP codes. The return address on every one? Fall River, Massachusetts.

It may be surprising that a small textile company in a no-frills industrial park is outfitting celebrity homes (Tom Hanks is a fan), foreign embassies, and five-star hotels alike.

The company was founded in 1929 by the Syrian-born son of a fine jeweler, and made its name by supplying Italian table linens to the American well-to-do (in 1933 the wife of a Ford family heir dropped the equivalent of $1.2 million on Matouk wares). By the late ’80s, however, Matouk’s exquisite custom creations had become overshadowed by its venture into mass-market goods.

“Our major customers at the time were Bed Bath & Beyond, JC Penney — places that weren’t interested in building brands, they were just looking for things to sell,” George Matouk recalls. “Worse, they were realizing they could simply source those products direct from Asia for lower costs.”

When he became president and CEO in 2002, George — armed with an M.B.A. from Columbia — set about building a more secure future for the business by dusting off its past: As a decades-old family company with strong ties to old-world artisans, he says, “we had a great story to tell, one that we felt the luxury consumer would really respond to.”

Along with refocusing on an upscale clientele, the company upgraded its main production facility — moving six years ago from a creaky factory in New Bedford to a more modern setup in Fall River. George recently expanded the space to 47,000 square feet — and made some key hires, including an operations director and a product-development director.

The result of all those efforts? Sales growth has quadrupled over the past decade, providing the business with enough momentum to power through the recession. This year it’s on track to make more than $15 million — a 25 percent improvement on last year’s sales. (Matouk has also been earning new levels of industry respect: It was recognized  this spring by the Smaller Business Association of New England as one of the region’s top innovators.)

For all that modern marketing savvy, though, Matouk’s success is dependent on the two cornerstones of linen making: The first is skilled laborers, and southeastern Massachusetts has been a hub for many such people, including Portuguese immigrants and their descendants, who are steeped in the local heritage of textile production. “They not only have the skills and the inclination, but they also find genuine value in doing this kind of work,” George Matouk says. “And that’s not the easiest thing to find in the U.S. anymore.”

The second is quality — as in, the kind that can justify paying $500 for a bed sheet. At Matouk, premium fabrics are sourced from Italy, Portugal, and India, then run through a canny mix of old and new technology at its Fall River factory (which makes or finishes two-thirds of Matouk’s products; the rest come from overseas). Walk through the workroom and you’ll see someone cutting a towel’s scalloped edges entirely by hand or using a 50-year-old sewing machine to gather a fitted sheet — but you’ll also spy state-of-the-art embroidery machines that can whip out 1,000 stitches a minute.

“Whether it’s traditional or high-tech,” George says, “whatever gets us the finest results, that’s what we’ll use.”