Technical Fabrics: Endless Possibilities
Glen Raven Technical Fabrics President and COO Harold Hill discusses the direction his company is taking, as well as issues impacting its potential success.
Stephen M. Warner, Contributing Editor
Textile World: Glen Raven Technical Fabrics seems to be a diversified company whose broad general markets include outdoor, protective, military, automotive and industrial. What is the organizational structure within Technical Fabrics?
Hill: Glen Raven Inc. has three subsidiaries: Glen Raven Custom Fabrics LLC; Tri Vantage LLC; and Glen Raven Technical Fabrics LLC. The strength of Technical Fabrics is found in our diverse product line and the flexibility to draw from resources throughout Glen Raven Inc. when we focus on a specific market.
My senior management team consists of Steve Hundgren, vice president of sales and marketing; Patti Bates, vice president of operations; John Melson, CFO and manager of marketing and new business development; Chip Fuller, president of Strata Systems Inc.; Dan Cox, president and general manager of Glen Raven Logistics; and Skip McCall, director of human resources.
TW: Through the purchase of John Boyle Co. in 2007, you entered the mining ventilation and geosynthetics markets by inheriting Boyle subsidiaries R.J. Stern and Strata Systems Inc. Glen Raven did not have expertise in these markets prior to the purchase. How has the integration of these products’ markets gone for you?
Harold Hill, president/COO, Glen Raven Technical Fabrics
Hill: We have learned a lot and expanded Glen Raven’s capabilities through the Boyle purchase.
R.J. Stern was primarily a manufacturer of mining ventilation brattice cloth. The company needed new products. We found out the mining industry was a market that had potential for Glen Raven technology and material. We expanded Stern’s product line by bringing in Strata Systems’ geosynthetics technologies, building protective cribs for supporting the mine shafts, and creating other mining products like blast curtains. We turned the company around. R.J. Stern is profitable and now exporting product to Africa and India.
Strata Systems has been another value-added acquisition. We were fortunate to keep the top leadership, including Chip Fuller, who is well-known and respected in the geosynthetics community.
Strata was a leading U.S. producer and distributor of geosynthetics. In 2004, Chip was approached by Ashok Bhawnani of Omnitex, an Indian textile manufacturer, to develop a joint venture in India called Strata Systems (India) Pvt Ltd. Shortly after Glen Raven acquired Strata Systems, Allen Gant, president of Glen Raven Inc., and I visited India with Chip to learn more about the joint venture. We came away very impressed with the potential in India. The Indian government was building a massive national highway system. The project opened a tremendous market for those producing geosynthetics materials. With the backing of Glen Raven, Strata Systems (India) set up a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Daman, India, to produce the soil stabilizer Stratagrid®. Since then, the joint venture has grown into a full-fledged construction material supplier as well as providing engineering, design and installation of retaining walls and bridges. Today, the facility employs 175 people, and Stratagrid is the top-selling geogrid in the country. Strata Systems in the U.S. has also broadened its product line to include non-textile products like Sleeve-It ™, a fence-post anchoring system.
TW: Glen Raven has manufacturing facilities in India, China and France. How strong is Technical Fabrics’ market penetration and what are your key products in each region?
Hill: We’ve certainly seen a slowing in Europe as a result of the general economic condition there. However, we continue to pursue new markets. We’ve increased exports of Dickson Coatings products to North Africa, South America and Asia. In India, we have our robust geosynthetics presence. In China, the focus is manufacturing Sunbrella®, which is produced by Glen Raven Custom Fabrics. Technical Fabrics is not doing much in China outside of the automotive industry. Most market segments we’ve studied there are overproduced. We see South America as the next frontier. We are evaluating several market opportunities there which ultimately could lead to manufacturing.
TW: Glen Raven has long supplied fabrics for the military starting with parachute fabrics during World War II. How do you feel the recently announced military budget reductions will impact Technical Fabrics?
Hill: The military is an important market segment for Technical Fabrics. We supply fabrics that go into outerwear, ballistic vests, packs, boots, covers, camouflage and just about everything else that is involved in troop support. Our military market focus tends to be equipment for personnel. There will be reductions in ships, tanks and other weapon systems, but the need remains to supply the personnel. The criteria are becoming more demanding — more lightweight, abrasion- and blast-resistant, and such. Dependence on the military market does carry risk. There are a number of material suppliers who are narrowly focused and vulnerable to cutbacks. Fortunately, in addition to meeting the changing technical demands for the new military, Glen Raven is also diverse in markets served, and many of these same products can be used in non-military applications such as public services.
TW: What new end-product markets fit Technical Fabrics’ current product lines?
Hill: We are enthusiastic about the scope of markets that have opened up for us in geosynthetics and mining applications, as well as applications for our material in emerging technologies such as water and natural gas filtration.
In protective apparel, we are getting more traction for GlenGuard® and GlenGuard Hi-Vis. Companies are looking for added worker protection, especially in extreme operating conditions. GlenGuard Hi-Vis is an antistatic mesh fabric which incorporates a carbon-core fiber with a polyester sheath that meets the demands of high visibility, flame-resistance and static control for worker protection in applications such as natural gas facilities.
TW: What are the top three issues affecting Technical Fabrics’ potential success in the next five years?
Hill: First, the challenging global economy, mostly what’s happening in Europe, is a concern for us. Second, the cost of healthcare for U.S. employers must be controlled. And, third, we have to see the enforcement of fair trade practices. Particularly concerning for those of us manufacturing in the U.S. is the Chinese currency manipulation. It gives them an unfair competitive advantage. Most people think the cost of labor makes it impossible for domestic companies to compete outside the U.S. At Glen Raven, we have been successful in reducing the labor cost. It’s not as significant an issue as in the past. We have achieved it through efficiency and investment in almost every aspect of manufacturing, processes, services and technology implementation. The primary disadvantage U.S. manufacturers have in export is the lack of enforcement of fair trade practices.
TW: How about the immediate next year?
Hill: U.S. manufacturing in the last two to three years has seen a modest recovery thanks primarily to productivity gains. Next year, though, looks to be tough for manufacturing in general. We can’t continue to recover and grow only through productivity improvements.
TW: In 2005, TW interviewed you (See “ Beyond Niche Business,” June 2005). Technical Fabrics was basically just coming together, integrating specialized companies. In that article, you talked about Glen Raven’s intent to establish “a foothold in certain technical markets.” Do you feel you have accomplished those objectives?
Hill: Yes. Glen Raven’s vision is “Let Endless Possibilities Begin.” The creation of Glen Raven Technical Fabrics allowed expansion and focus for our company. Having “Technical Fabrics” in the company name has opened doors for us. Around the world, there has been increased interest in applications beyond traditional textile markets. We view ourselves as innovative problem solvers. Give us a need and we will develop the solution. We have unique capabilities because we can supply woven, warp-knitted or weft-inserted material as well as coated and laminated products.
In the end, I feel strongly that “Let Endless Possibilities Begin” illustrates Glen Raven’s commitment to growth possibilities and that we are prepared to handle what the world economy throws at us. Glen Raven remains entrepreneurial, innovative and built to act.
Stephen M. Warner is publisher of BeaverLake6 Report, beaverlake6.com, a Web-based newsletter reporting on trends, data and issues that he feels influence the technical textiles industry. He also is former president and CEO of Industrial Fabrics Association International.