Tide Turns at Decosit/TIP

Carole Sloan, Staff Staff, September 6, 2004

Although their ranks are shrinking slowly, year by year, American decorative fabrics companies attending Decosit and Textiles d'Interieur Premiere here this week will see the tide turning for American export business — albeit on a gradual basis.

The weaker dollar — especially in relation to the Euro — is playing a substantial role in what Americans see as a slight up-tick. Yet all concur, it is unlikely that the American export business in decorative fabrics will return to the almost unstoppable growth in the late '80s and through much of the '90s.

Within the ranks of the Americans exhibiting here, Craftex is moving into the arena in an attempt to begin again in export after a decade out of the picture. Richloom, on the other hand — a longtime exhibitor—is continuing its export efforts on a one-on-one basis rather than on exhibiting at shows.

And whether the renewed efforts vis-à-vis export business are coming about because of what many executives see as a lackluster domestic business is yet an unanswered question.

Domestic business, a number of fabrics executives reported, has been uneven — whether from a lack of orders relating to predictions from the April furniture market in High Point, N.C., or from the devaluation of fabric pricing because of the high percentage of fabrics coming from countries like China, India and Pakistan. Overall, most fabric suppliers agree that business has been harder to come by — no matter what the level of success.

At Covington Industries, Roger Gilmartin, executive vice president, is looking forward to a repeat of 2003, “when we had a great Decosit and a good year overall in export.”

Discussing the business the company writes at Decosit, Gilmartin said, “The orders stick.” Highlights of the firm's export efforts include increases overall in Scandinavia, and a return of jobbers and furniture business in France, Belgium and England is evident, he said.

At Rockland Mills, “Our export business is up more than 6 percent,” said Stan Fradin, president. “We have extremely strong repeat business to 92 countries.”

Passing the French FR tests for blackout linings is expected to be an added boost for the company's already strong business,” Fradin related. “No U.S. blackout lining has ever passed European FR tests. Our customers asked for it — and we've developed product.” Product has been submitted for the United Kingdom and Spanish tests, but results have not been certified yet, he said.

One way or another, “We should be up 30 to 40 percent in Europe and our Rockland Industries-Beijing operation —which is a marketing, not production, adjunct — should produce strong results.”

“We see an opportunity to grow our export business some,” said Rob Culp, chairman and CEO of Culp Inc.

Culp, he said, is particularly concerned by the ongoing devaluation of the fabric business. In fact, he believes, “The biggest impact of the lifting of quotas is the deflation of the selling price, rather than the amount of yardage sold.”

Culp's Chinese facility “is progressing nicely,” he noted, and in the firm's first-quarter report the company cited “aggressive expansion” of offshore sourcing capabilities that resulted in doubling of sourced upholstery goods in the period compared with the same period a year ago.

Bright Spot

Calling exports “one of the bright spots” in an otherwise uneven year, Dale Williams, president of Waverly, added, “We're paying more attention to the wants and needs of the European market. They like light and bright and more prints.”

Overall, Williams said, “Business is OK. It wasn't good in the second quarter, but we had a revival in May through July.” Decorative fabrics, he reported, “were flat, but there are bright pockets in our wovens and in the prints we introduced at July Showtime — fresh, comfortable and classic with a contemporary point of view.”

Mike Shelton, president of Valdese, emphasized, “We're not a fair weather U.S. mill when it comes to exports.” Noting the company has had 14 years of strong commitment to export, Shelton added “because of the value of the dollar, we see even more opportunity.”

One of the pluses for Valdese has been a revamping of its agency network and higher profit margins. “We have a distinctive handwriting and do one piece orders,” Shelton explained. Export is contributing to a 12 percent increase year-to-date, and more than that in profits — in all channels except home textiles, he said.

Decosit is the launch site for Weatherwize, a 27-pattern collection of a proprietary indoor-outdoor fabric collection by Weave. “It's been two years in development,” explained Roger Berkley, president, and is offered in traditional stripes to contemporary jacquards in light, bright yarns with eight warp colors, 60 weft colors.

Using what Berkley calls “an enhanced polyester fiber, Weatherwize has no limit on 1,000 hours sun resistance of washability; the size of the yarns and antifungal, and oil and water repellent characteristics — “and it can be flame-proofed.” The fabrics “will compete for many indoor uses.”

With Weatherwize as a major selling point, Berkley said, “Things may change with the Euro so weak. Overall, export is as it was — not terrific, but we're bringing silks and an open line of upholstery as well.”

With overall business “reasonably and surprisingly good,” Ron Kaufmann, president of P/Kaufmann, said, “We expected it to be harder. Export has held up and the weaker Euro is a help. We write enough business at Decosit to justify the expense.”

“We're starting from zero,” said Jack Eger, vice president of Craftex, which is showing at DecoContract as its return to the export arena. The company will spend this show developing agents for both residential and hospitality all over the world. “We're really behind the curve in this business.”

Export for Swavelle/Mill Creek and its sibling divisions “is holding its own compared with 2003,” said Richard Hanfling, corporate vice president. But he emphasized, “It's half what it was five years ago.” Overall, he related, “We're traveling smarter and are working as partners with the significant people in each country.”

New Ground

Also renewing export efforts, Irwin Gasner, president of Wearbest Sil-Tex, admitted, “We've never been exporters. We're taking a new stab at it with a tremendous marketing effort.”

“To date, export business is flat — but it hasn't been a priority. It will be this year,” Gasner added.

Export is being helped with the value of the dollar for J.B. Martin, according to Robert Lachow, director of sales. “Slowly but surely we're building it up.” As for this Decosit, Lachow is concerned by attendance. “We depend a lot on walk-ins.” For this Decosit, the company is putting the focus on new velvet — all-silk, all-mohair and all-linen constructions.

Calling the United Kingdom, the Middle East and Australia strong areas, Tom Muzekari, vice president of Quaker, noted, “The value of the dollar is helping, but it's been good globally.”

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