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An Executive Profile

Quite a Stretch

Keith Crisco proves farm boys can become
successful city slickers and stay true to their roots

By Kevin Brafford

Keith Crisco jokes that “we keep your underwear up and the sheets on your bed,” and it’s no stretch to say the same probably goes for your friends and relatives.

The “we” is Asheboro Elastics Corp., and when Crisco, the president, chairman and co-founder, says the word, it’s no stretch either. His wife of 37 years, the former Jane Sidbury, is the company’s financial manager. Sons John and Jeff are regional sales managers.

“It makes me feel good,” says the 58-year-old Crisco, “that they all want to be a part of the business. And it was their own calls.”

But Asheboro Elastics is not your typical family business. There are about 150 employees who work at three plants in Randolph County and at eight distribution centers, several of them offshore. Last year, its sales of knitted elastic for textile, furniture and other industries exceeded $20 million. This year, sales are up nearly 15 percent, amazing given the economy.

 “We’re shipping 10 to 11 million yards a week,” Crisco says. “People generally are surprised at just how much offshore business we do. We’ve been in the Dominican Republic for six years, Mexico for four. We go where the business is. Last year, we made enough elastic to go around the equator 27 times.”

It only takes a few minutes of conversation to gain a sense of Crisco’s intelligence and his vision. He doesn’t attempt to dazzle you with vocabulary words — though you sense he could — rather, he speaks in simple terms that are genuine to his rural North Carolina roots.

“He’s always been very deliberate about everything,” says Dr. J.Z. Little, a second cousin and childhood best friend, “but he always gets things done — and done right. He’s one of the most honest, forthright people you’ll ever meet.

“Keith’s proof that sometimes good guys do finish first.”

Roots on the Farm

He’s accustomed to being on top. Raised on a small dairy farm in Aquadale, a tiny Stanly County community eight miles south of Albemarle, he’s the oldest of Truett and Lula Crisco’s three sons.

“Real dairy farmers would laugh,” says Crisco, “but we did sell milk. My father worked at a lumberyard during the day and farmed the land at night. We had six dairy cows and small grains — typical of a lot of family farms back then.”

Automation was a term in only a few dictionaries in the late 1940s and early ’50s, so it wasn’t uncommon for the family — his mom helped as well — to work from dawn to dusk. Chores, they were called then.

“You were married to the farm,” says Crisco, “because you had to do everything. One of the things it did was establish a strong work ethic that’s always stayed with me.”

He credits an aunt with helping accelerate his early education, the benefits of which he shared with his cousin J.Z. when the two became best friends in fifth grade. “We lived about three miles from each other,” says Little, a retired surgeon who lives in Springfield, Ohio. “We had nothing but dirt roads between us. Once we got old enough, our daddies let us ride tractors back and forth between our houses.

“We hated to see summer vacation come — especially Keith, since he really liked to read and learn — because summer meant you had to go to work.”

They did occasionally find time for fun. One of Crisco’s fondest childhood memories is of he and J.Z. fishing in a pond near the Crisco home. “We’d be passing time fishing, water moccasins everywhere, memorizing our state capitals,” he says. “It’s funny the things you remember.”

Little remembers it too. “I had gotten some encyclopedias from the grocery store — when you read so many books you’d get an encyclopedia — and we memorized the states, the state capitals and all of the countries. And we fished, though we never caught a damn thing.”

The two cousins learned enough to skip the sixth grade and went on to graduate at age 17 from Aquadale High School. The Class of 1960, 24 strong, reunites every five years at a local fish camp. Classmates voted Keith Crisco “the most likely to succeed.”

The reasons why were plentiful. His spotless grades, his leadership, his serving as editor of the school’s first annual, and his state championships in 4-H competitions all spoke of a man going somewhere.

Still, there was an occasional disappointment. “I remember one summer being at a FFA (Future Farmers of America) camp and thinking I’d do really well,” Crisco says. “There was this guy from the East who wiped us all off the map. He was so polished — he had every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. His name was Jim Hunt.”

Getting an Education

Crisco was nominated for a Morehead Scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Just like the competition against the one-day four-term governor of the state, Crisco didn’t win this time — and now he’s glad.

“Looking back, it was probably a good thing because I would have been lost at a big school,” he says. “The path I took couldn’t have been better.”

The path wasn’t a long one, just to nearby Pfeiffer College (now Pfeiffer University). He accepted a Research Foundation scholarship to the Misenheimer school and has been loyal to it since. On July 1, in fact, he assumed duties as chair of its board of trustees for the next two years.

“I got an education and a wonderful wife, so it was a very productive four years,” he says. “It’s a great, great school — all three of three kids (a daughter, Julia, is a financial analyst in Summerville, N.J.) graduated from there as well.”

A year his senior, Jane caught her future husband’s eye in a math class his freshman year. “She sat about two rows over from me,” he says. “She was smart as a whip, and I remember using math as a vehicle to talk to her.”

“He likes to tell the story that I dropped my slide rule and he picked it up, but it’s just not the truth,” Jane says.

They were friends for about two years before they began dating. He graduated on May 27, 1964 (one year after Jane), with a degree in math and physics. Thirty days and two odd jobs later, they got married. Four days later, they moved to Baltimore, where he began his career.

Business had found its way into his blood, but the hunger to learn still hadn’t waned. He applied for admission to the Harvard Business School and made the trip to Boston hoping to meet the dean and better his odds.

“I’m a person who’s rarely late, but I got turned around and showed up for a 9:30 appointment at quarter-to-10,” Crisco says. “When I get to see Dean Fowler, he tells me that everything looks good, but that their admission folks hadn’t heard of Pfeiffer College. I don’t know why, but I shot back, ‘Frankly, Dean Fowler, Pfeiffer folks haven’t heard of Harvard.’

“Four days later, I got a wire saying that I’d been accepted. To this day, I think going up there on a whim and having that exchange helped get me in.”

Crisco was out in 1968, a masters in business administration degree in hand. He took a job with Burlington Industries, and during the next 10 years served in a variety of positions in New York, Chicago and Greensboro.

While with Burlington in 1970, he was selected from more than 1,500 applicants to be a White House Fellow. He served as an assistant to the secretary of commerce during the Nixon administration, a bit of irony that to this day brings a wry smile from Crisco, a staunch Democrat.

“Being a member of the White House Fellows program was a wonderful honor,” he says. “It’s such a prestigious program and to have been a part of that is something for which I’m very proud.”

He left Burlington in 1978 to become president of Stedman Elastics in Asheboro, a division of the textiles company owned by former NCCBI chairman David Stedman. When Stedman made overtures about selling his company in the mid-1980s (it was eventually bought by Sara Lee), Crisco looked to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“I had wanted to own my own company for a long time,” he says. “Given the uncertainty at that time, not knowing for sure if I’d have a job, we started this company.”

Asheboro Elastics began in 1986 with four working investors and a guaranteed loan from the Small Business Administration. Besides Crisco, one other original investor remains, vice president of sales Warren Knapp. The company’s growth has been steady, and in 1992 it was recognized by Inc. Magazine to be one of the fastest growing privately owned businesses in the nation.

“One reason that we’re able to compete so well is that we’ve never bought a piece of old equipment,” Crisco says. “When we started, we had machines that ran 900 RPMs. The ones we have now run 2,300 or 2,400 RPMs.

“There are markets where we are really big players. We do all of OshKosh, and we’re a major supplier to WestPoint Stevens, Dan River and Cannon. And we do a lot of private labels.”

Life Away from Work

Crisco’s dedication to Pfeiffer has fed a relationship with school president Charles Ambrose, who has seen Crisco work both a 5-iron and a room.

“If he asks you to play golf, you may want to check your appointment book twice,” says Ambrose. “But I can promise you’ll still have a good time.”

The two have had their share of such times during a relationship that’s barely three years old. “He doesn’t mind just getting in the car and going somewhere,” says Ambrose. “One time, David Olive (Pfeiffer’s vice president for advancement) and I went with him to Staunton, Va., just to visit a classmate of his. We got there, visited, turned around and came home, though we did stop at a lycro plant in Waynesboro on the way back.”

Crisco doesn’t look 58, and his eyes don’t twinkle when retirement is mentioned. The lights are usually on in his office by 7:15 a.m. and don’t go off until between 6:30 and 7 p.m. “Ten years ago, I worked a little different but no less,” he says. Six-and-a-half hours of sleep a night suffice, and early mornings feature time on the treadmill at the home they built in 1980 — “it gives me a chance to watch (ESPN’s) SportsCenter.”

He and Jane travel more than ever, something both of them enjoy. He enjoys working in the yard, still pores over baseball boxscores in the morning newspaper — he’s a baseball trivia nut — and loves to sail when the Criscoes take weekend excursions to the river town of Oriental in Pamlico County, where they own a second home. Ambrose says Crisco’s eyes light up when he talks about his grandchildren. Julia and her husband, Gifford Del Grande (also a Pfeiffer graduate), have a 1-year-old and oldest son John and his wife have a 7-year-old with a second due this month. “They are the apple of his eye,” says Ambrose.

Jane Crisco says she knew 37 years ago that she was marrying a kind and giving person. Beyond that, she was lucky. “Being in the generation that we are, there are a lot of men who want their women at their side doing what they tell them to do,” she says. “He’s never done that.”

He has  influenced many lives around him. “He’s got an uncanny ability to connect the dots,” says Ambrose. “It doesn’t matter if it’s his family, the business, the university, Asheboro and Randolph County, he brings them all together — all back around to a common good.”

J.Z. Little says that Crisco has carried those traits for more than 50 years. “We talk two or three times a year and see each other every two or three years,” he says, “and Keith’s the one who keeps that going. I still consider him to this day to be my best friend.”

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