Wellman shifts focus from commodity fibers

Carole Sloan, February 11, 2002

Wellman is on a fast track to develop new differentiated fibers as part of a new strategy designed to take the company out of the commodity fibers business.

"We reviewed our business over the last two or three years, and we had become a high-quality producer of commodity fibers for our customers who then produced high-volume commodity yarns and fabrics," said John Hobson, group vp.

The results were not profitable, considering the head-to-head competition from Asia, "where they will sell fibers at a lower price even if it is not profitable because of support programs," Hobson explained.

In a move to differentiate itself and its fibers and offer its customers opportunities to differentiate their yarns and fabrics, "we have organized four teams to develop and market differentiated products — products we now don't produce," Hobson related. The 20- to 25-person group has been taken from their existing responsibilities with the sole objective of identifying new markets, developing new products and marketing them.

The program has been evolving over the last year, Hobson said. "And one of the lessons we've learned is that it takes too long," which now has become another challenge to the team — to speed up the process.

In home furnishings, the main focus is on the bed, with a lot of work being done in fiberfill and sheetings, Hobson said. The firm's Sensura fabric, introduced originally in apparel, now is offered in bedding at Guilford.

Home furnishings, including non-wovens, apparel, home fashions/fiberfill and new technology, are being developed within several groups among the four teams.

The Sensura program, he related, shows how the new process evolves. "We were able to develop derivatives like bedding, which comes out of the knit apparel product into knitted sheets. We also see a potential absorbency feature for home fashions in non-wovens."

As part of its new strategy, Wellman is closing its Fayetteville, NC, polyester filament plant, which produces 130 million pounds, and a staple plant in Marion, SC, which produces 25 million pounds.

Remaining in the United States is 750 million pounds of capacity, and in Ireland, 200 million pounds.

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