Hudson Valley BUSINESS JOURNAL
April 27, 1998 -- 15INTERNATIONAL TRADE SUPPLEMENT
By SANDRA LEVY
NEWBURGH--"When you drive by, you see a building that's been here a long time. It looks old and staid. But when you come inside, you see very modern equipment. All of the textile equipment is computer controlled. Beta gauges are bombarding the fabric with beta particles. Detectors measure the concentration that penetrates the fabric," said Ross West, director of marketing at AFFCO (American Felt & Filter Company), a firm here which specializes in manufacturing engineered industrial nonwoven fabrics.
Noting that the firm, which was founded in 1899 and employs 200 people, sells its products to a variety of industries, according to West. "Wovens are more expensive than nonwovens. With nonwovens you get a very different three-dimensional structure that makes it an absorption matrix," he explained.
One industry which relies on nonwovens is the diaper industry. "Diapers have a high absorbency, which is what nonwovens are famous for--their wicking action. The way the fibers are arranged also makes it an excellent filter," said West.
Indicating that most filters are nonwoven, West said nonwoven fabric filters are used for pollution control for coal fired furnaces, and those used for generating electricity and incinerators. "The market is big and it is expanding. The filters are economical and have been proven to work over time," he said. Maintaining that an increasing number of industrial plants such as electrical utilities are converting to fabric filters, West said. "The conversions are all driven by government standards-- the EPA here and regulatory agencies all over the world."
Crediting partnerships which AFFCO has fostered with clients over the years with helping the firm's international markets grow, West said, "We've dealt with many of our customers for decades. We've taken advantage of those relationships to grow with our customers. Our distributor, Loeffler, in Germany is a good example. They've expanded into the Asian market. We're growing with them. They are taking the products into the market. In the US we do direct selling. We rely on distributors for our international effort."
West explained that AFFCO tailors its media to meet each country's filter media expectations. "They have media standards for strength higher than ours. We've taken that requirement and made our media much stronger and offer it to U.S. customers also. That's a new growth area for us in the US."
When asked about the firm's entrance into the Asian market, West said, "The Asian market was very exciting for awhile. Many customers Loeffler sells to are experiencing difficulty due to the financial crisis there. Orders have slowed up. We think it's temporary. We're waiting for it to have an impact here. It hasn't occurred yet because we have such a long lead time since we supply the raw material to the people who manufacture the filter."
Noting that AFFCO's sales personnel are responsible for domestic and international, West said, "We find what we learn internationally can be applied domestically and vice versa."
Among the companies which use AFFCO's filter media are SAAB, Chrysler, Gore, Donaldson, American Air Filter, and Precisionaire.
The firm is also known for manufacturing media that is used in respiratory protective masks. "We have to meet all the requirements of NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health). This makes us a better filter media company. We have to meet stringent standards. Once you buy the equipment to ensure you are meeting NIOSH standards, the equipment is very useful for quality control in other applications. It makes you a better company. It's expensive to hire people to operate the equipment, who have the expertise to run the equipment, to understand the results and to maintain the equipment."
Emphasizing that the firm and its distributors' product lines have changed, enabling expansion, West said, "Our distributor was primarily buying our product to be used in filters they manufactured. Now they have a new marketing effort to sell the filter media to many other markets, including medical and environmental protection. We've expanded to new product areas and our distributor has also.
According to West, customers used to buy our media and make filters. "Now they are seeing what we're doing with the media to penetrate new markets," he said. "They started as a filter manufacturer and we used to make filters here, but we sold that filter manufacturing business one year ago. Now the focus is on selling the media."
AFFCO, which has manufacturing facilities in Newburgh, New Windsor and Westerly, Rhode Island has found the Internet valuable in expanding its business overseas. "It has been helpful to us. We're easy to find. We get lots of inquiries. Sometimes we can handle these on a direct basis or turn them over as leads to distributors." West added that the capability of faxing over the Internet has helped reduce the cost of the company's international calls. "We use comfax, an Internet fax service out of New York City, and we can do a fax broadcast to help support our distributor or drive our business," said West. "We can fax to customers in Germany and get responses and we can do literature fulfillment here and have distribution follow up on it."
"What helps us internationally is to step off from our strength--and that is our long term relationship with customers--and communicate with them. Instead of looking for a new distributor in a new market, we'll see if an existing distributor has any strength or desire to expand into these new markets," he explained. "The most important thing is relationships in our business. Instead of finding a new person for a new market, let's understand our current distributor and potential they have to branch off."
West said attending Envitec, a large trade show in Germany, with its distributor Loeffler, was very useful in helping the company learn more about the European market and its distributor. "It was a great bonding opportunity. And the competition and customers were there," said West. The firm is considering attending a fall trade show in Beijing.
The Hudson Valley Business Journal is a biweekly publication reporting on regional business activities. Mr. Edward Klein, editor. Pine Island, New York 10969 USA
Sandra Levy is a freelance writer residing in New City, New York 10956 USA