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Where Quality Counts

Celebrating 10 years at its Jefferson, Ga., location, Buhler Quality Yarns Corp. focuses on diversifying premium yarn offerings.

By Jim Borneman, Editor In Chief

T he 10th anniversary of Buhler Quality Yarns Corp. in Jefferson, Ga., is a celebration of quality — quality product, processes and people. Although 10 years is not an incredibly long time in an environment of textile companies often more than 100 years old, the anniversary of Buhler's opening in 1996, and its growth during the textile business turbulence of the last 10 years, is worth celebrating.

Buhler crafted its business plan from the global perspective that cotton, and the market for cotton yarn, was in the United States. Buhler would enter manufacturing in the United States bringing fine-count spinning expertise from Switzerland-based Hermann Buhler AG, its parent company.

In the early days, Buhler was off to a strong start. With its spinning operations set up to supply large weavers and because of a recent expansion, the company's prospects were good. However, by 1999, all bets were off. "We had just expanded and we were really positioned for big weaving, but in 1999 things went sour and the business went East, not South," said Werner Bieri, Buhler's president and CEO. "We needed to quickly change our plan."

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Shifting Quickly
Change Buhler did, swiftly refocusing on supplying fine-count yarn to knitters and developing an export business serving Central and South American companies. The building block was American Supima™ cotton — the company's complete supply of which continues to come from one source: the Pasadena, Calif.-based J. G. Boswell Co.


"J.G. Boswell is the largest Pima grower in California's San Joaquin Valley, with about 25 percent to 33 percent of all Pima cotton grown in the Valley," Bieri said. "What makes this cotton very valuable is the fact that Boswell controls the process from seed to selling the ginned and specially packed bales. Through controlling the whole process, they can supply a consistency in quality over 12 months which is hard to match by others."

Premium extra-long-staple Supima was, and continues to be, a successful platform for the company, but Bieri sees challenges ahead. "We need to diversify. Boswell supplies highly consistent and high-quality cotton. With the Engineered Fiber Selection (EFS®) system, supplied by Cotton Incorporated, we have not had a major complaint regarding quality or consistency in the two years the system has been in full swing," he said.

According to Cary, N.C., based Cotton Incorporated, "the EFS system is a high-tech computer-based cotton-management system that, through the use of high volume instrument (HVI) data, provides optimized cotton purchasing, warehouse management and laydown selection solution. The EFS solution assists management analyzing mill and end-product cotton requirements to improve inventory management, spinning quality and end product quality. It also provides electronic communication between and among mills and merchants."

"Supima cotton, however, is being exported to Asia and coming back as finished goods," Bieri said. "This will drive us to further diversify in order to compete. We just invested $1 million in a new opening line, and this allows us to develop and produce MicroModal® blends with Supima as well as 100-percent MicroModal yarns and other blends."

The Buhler Group worldwide is reportedly the largest consumer of Austria-based Lenzing AG's MicroModal fiber for apparel. Although the fiber has presented production challenges, it presents an opportunity for the retailer to offer another differentiated premium product to the consumer.

Lenzing — maker of Lenzing Modal®, MicroModal and Tencel® — has positioned MicroModal as a premium soft-touch fiber based on beechwood, a renewable resource. The fiber's properties — including its performance in dyeing and fastness — make it an excellent blending partner for premium long-staple cotton.

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Buhler uses a full complement of fiber preparation and spinning machinery from makers including Rieter, Trützschler, Zinser, Marzoli and Schlafhorst.

Retailers Key

The diversification brings opportunities — as well as pressure on sales and marketing to explain the Buhler advantage. "We can really help the retailer with critical programs where being more consistent and reliable pays off," said David Sasso, vice president, sales. "We are known for the fine counts, but we show the impact of yarn on the quality of the garment. We have a relationship focus, and we really need to explain the opportunity with premium products.” MicroModal broadens Buhler's offering while maintaining its premium focus.

"Right now, about 50 percent of the MicroModal goes into garment dyeing, so that shows you it is quick-turnaround — fashion," Bieri added. "It isn’t in the big-box retailer yet. It looks good and it feels good. That is probably why a primary market is ladies' tops.

"We need to convince the retailer that it is to his benefit. Why should he pay more? He needs to increase sales volume, he needs growth — we need to convince him that he can make a better margin, have fewer write-offs. We are going the extra mile, making product, doing trials. What happens when the product is washed and worn five times? Ours looks like the original and often even feels better. The other one is twisted, it's torqued, it's wide, it's short," Bieri added.

Victor Almeida recently joined Buhler as a textile engineer in customer support. His role allows Buhler to follow the yarn through the supply chain, solving problems and helping refine the manufacturing process. "Victor has helped us become not just someone who sells the yarn, but someone who provides the know-how in subsequent processing," Bieri said.

Regarding the addition of the MicroModal line, Almeida said: "It is luxurious but maintains the comfort factor. The absorbency makes it very, very comfortable on the skin."

"I broadcast to my customers that we could now supply MicroModal efficiently in this hemisphere and had a great response," Sasso said. "Some asked, 'How can Central America compete?' At Buhler, we know that MicroModal is a very limited fiber." Sasso went on to explain this scarcity helps Buhler-supplied retailers differentiate themselves from their competition.

"Over time we have proven ourselves, and we often get the more critical programs where the retailer can't risk a yarn choice just because it may be cheaper," Sasso continued. "We are working with an intimate apparel company on a program in Mexico. Hopefully, if that fabric turns out right, they will pull that program out of China and put it in Mexico."

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David Sasso (left), vice president, sales, and Victor Almeida, textile engineer, customer support, with bales of J.G. Boswell cotton

Lean And Efficient

Touring the Buhler facility, one gets a sense of a limited inventory of raw materials on hand. Virtually every machine is running at full speed. There is also very limited staged product on the floor and limited finished inventory. "We have very low carrying costs and turn our inventory 70 times a year," Bieri said. While other spinners may spin for inventory in counts that are big sellers, Buhler is a spin-to-order business.

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Buhler President and CEO Werner Bieri

The Future

"In 1991, I went to a show in Hong Kong for the first time," Bieri said. "I had yarn with me. In 1992, I didn't have yarn, I had fabric with me. And now, I was in California recently, and we have people who say 'Can you show us garments?' They don’t even want to see the fabric. 'Show me a finished garment.' And that is part of what we need to do.

"Everyone is pushing everything back. The retailer doesn't want inventory, but wants quick supply. The garment people don't want to keep fabric inventory, and the fabric supplier doesn't want to keep inventory of yarn,” Bieri said. And he sees other challenges. "The process needs to be controlled — the chemicals can't be changed to cut a corner — but changed to upgrade and to invest. That is a big challenge and a change in the mindset."

Have 10 short years changed Buhler? "I think we have learned to forget the business plan and to not just focus on one issue," Bieri said. "Keep your eyes open. Have a plan, but be willing to specialize — to invest. David [Sasso] is creative and working with the brands and retailers; Victor [Almeida] is technical and bringing in ideas and know-how," Bieri continued. "We cannot be everything to everybody. The products and processes need to fit. They need to be market-driven and fit within the economics of scale, which is different for every mill."

January/February 2007



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