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Local businessman Pannill dies at 87
William G. “Bill” Pannill is shown in the Pannill Knitting plant in 1986. Pannill, who headed Pannill Knitting from 1966 to 1988, died Tuesday at the age of 87. Associates hailed him as a fair competitor and funny friend.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer
William G. “Bill” Pannill, whose family name is synonymous with the Martinsville textile industry, died Tuesday at his home in Roaring Gap, N.C. He was 87.
He headed Pannill Knitting Inc. from 1966 until 1988, when it became part of Sara Lee Corp. In addition to his home in Roaring Gap, he also lived in Palm Beach, Fla., in recent years.
“He was a businessman, pure and simple,” said William F. Franck of Henry County, who headed Tultex Corp. when Pannill headed Pannill Knitting. Both companies made fleecewear.
“He was a good competitor but a friendly competitor,” said Franck, who also is Pannill’s brother-in-law. “I told him one time, ‘Do you realize we’re in competition,’ and he said, ‘That’s what worries me.’”
Franck said he admired Pannill as a firm yet fair man.
“Pannill was a very fine place to work. Everybody was happy about it,” Franck added.
Pannill’s father, William Letcher Pannill, founded Pannill Knitting in 1925. He also helped Samuel S. Walker start Virginia Underwear Corp. in 1928.
“They were the best of friends,” recalled L. Dudley Walker of Martinsville, referring to William Letcher Pannill and Samuel S. Walker.
Ultimately, the same could be said of their sons.
“Bill and I eventually took over as presidents of companies that our fathers had founded, Bassett-Walker (Knitting) and Pannill Knitting. Even though we were competitors, along with Bill Franck ... we were competitors but we remained to be best of friends,” Walker said.
That included helping each other out if a need arose, he said.
“We were quick to try and help each other in times of need in running our operations,” Walker said, such as if one ran out of something that the other company could provide.
Walker added that they never were cut-throat competitors. “We were both trying to run our business the best way we could,” he said.
Walker, like the others, fondly recalled Pannill’s outgoing personality. The two men and their wives traveled together worldwide with a group called the Chief Executives Organization, he said.
“Bill was always the center of attention at any gatherings on those trips. He was a naturally funny man. Whether it was informally or formal gatherings, people naturally enjoyed his company,” Walker said.
Pannill enjoyed playing the guitar and singing, Walker said. His favorite song was “The Gambler,” which goes, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,” Walker added.
Even though Pannill was living in Florida in recent years, he always came back to Martinsville for a party on Christmas night, Walker said, adding that the party has been held for 25 to 30 years.
“Bill was always at the party. We’ll miss him,” Walker added.
Pannill was the youngest of the six children of William Letcher Pannill, who founded the textile industry here, and his wife, the former Adele Dillard.
Pannill Knitting originally produced men’s long underwear and within two years, it expanded to produce women’s and children’s undergarments, sleepwear and inner-fleeced garments. Pannill began making fleece-lined sweatshirts, the product that led to Martinsville’s title of sweatshirt capital of the world.
Bill Pannill served in the Army during World War II, and after the war he remained with the Army of Occupation in Germany. After he returned to the United States, he resumed his studies at the University of Virginia.
He spent a year at the Textile School of North Carolina State College. When his uncle, Gordon Pannill, died, he returned to the family business in the fall of 1959.
Pannill became executive vice president of Pannill Knitting and was named its president in 1966. At that time, the company employed 1,000 people. In 1968, it had sales of more than $13.3 million.
In the 1970s, the fleeced sportswear industry grew significantly due to the heightened interest in physical fitness. By 1985, Pannill Knitting’s net sales were $192 million. Two years later, its sales had grown to $259 million, according to company figures.
In 1988, Bill Pannill resigned as chairman and chief executive officer. At that time, Pannill Knitting had 11 plants in Virginia and North Carolina and employed more than 5,200 people.
In 1990, Pannill Knitting became a wholly owned subsidiary of Sara Lee Corp.
“Bill had a delightful personality. ... He was compassionate for employees and the company,” said retired Martinsville banker Irving Groves.