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Cecile Corral

The Greening of Maples Rugs

Automation, Recycling Fuel Expansion

Accent and bath rug industry leader Maples Rugs will long remember 2008 as a period of challenges, but also one of rebounds and milestones, as this $270 million, family-owned-and-operated company seized new opportunities in sustainability and automation to advance its business going forward.

Wade Maples, founder and co-owner of this purely domestic manufacturer of tufted bath and accent rugs, told HTT that he predicts this year will result in better than originally expected sales — despite the estimated 10% decline by yearend — thanks to increased demand for opening price point goods in both its bath and accent categories, as well as several new initiatives propelling growth in other segments of business.

"We'll be down a bit because we had a slow first half," said Maples, who runs the day-to-day operations with his business partners and closest family members — his wife, Pat, and his son, John — by his side. "But that is better than we expected, and it's because our business has really picked up now in the fall. And it's picked up across the board" in various retail channels.

Tucked away in this unlikely small town outside Huntsville is the home of a rug industry giant — the country's second largest bath rug and fifth largest accent rug manufacturer, with sales of $120 million in bath and $150 million in accent for 2007.

Founded first in 1938 as a chenille rug and bedspread manufacturer, then sold in 1960 only to be reopened for business six years later, this longtime home textiles player has had a stronghold on the bath and accent rug industry for the past four decades.

"When we went into business, we had 400 customers, and at that time the biggest mass merchants were Kmart, Sears and JCPenney," Maples recalled. "Today, we have 15 customers."

Faced with one of the most difficult economic periods in its history, Maples thinks it has found a new recipe for resilience.

At the forefront of this effort are recently established sustainability initiatives. One is the company's new collection of bath rugs that employ Invista's new trademarked "Macro Bulk" technology. These goods employ bulked nylon to create lower-weight products which therefore require less oil and less energy to be manufactured.

Wade said that aside from the eco-friendliness of this product, the collection offers added durability and a softer hand by way of its altered production process. It launches this week at market. "Sustainability begins with products that last," Wade said.

Another endeavor is Maples' reduced use of water in paddle dying some of its products. The coloring team has found a new ways to decrease water use to dye certain rug types from 24 gallons to nine gallons.

Still another conscious daily effort is the collection of all post-industrial fiber waste; this amounts to only about 3% of the company's fibers, as Maples uses almost all of its fiber to make its rugs. But the unusable bulk is bundled and sold to a local recycling plant.

Automation is helping to streamline expenses and ramp up production time. The company is enhancing its finishing operation for both bath and accent rug production with the addition of 40 automated machines; the plant already has 20 of these working around the clock, and Wade said he plans to install the other half within the next two years.

Automation represents a $10 million investment for Maples. The inventor of these devices, Rob Trobaugh, works for the company at headquarters. He estimated that the machines result in a 25% increase in product output over laborers. That's not to say Maples plans to shed the staff that once did the job these machines now occupy. "If these workers no longer need to be binding and sealing the rugs by hand, I move them to another part of the plant to do other work," Trobaugh assured. "There is always work for them here."

Maples currently employs about 2,000 laborers — many of them second and third generation employees of the company.

Printing is another area where Maples is gaining ground. The company's specially ordered, custom-made Chromajet printer — installed at one of the plants earlier this year — is what Wade described as "the only one of its kind" and "the largest such printer in the world with the highest resolution," at one dot per millimeter, or 25 dots per inch, or 625 dots per square inch.

Maples prints about one third of its rugs on this massive machine, which can use up to 12 colors. The company keeps about 80 colors on hand to switch out in the printer and vary its products' palettes.

"We got this printer to be able to achieve looks we could not produce before," he said.

Maples, which makes all of its rugs in the United States at its own plants, focuses its product assortment around three types of fibers — cotton, which makes up 10%, olefin, which makes up 45% and nylon, which comprises the balance.

While the company purchases from another supplier all of the cotton it uses, it actually produces all of its own nylon and olefin.

"When people ask my why I don't start importing rugs, I tell them it's because I've got a major operation set up here," Wade said. "The name of the game is volume. We have to constantly increase our volume to reduce our costs."

Maples' operations comprise one million square feet of space across four plants here, including the offices. It also runs offices in New York City at 295 Fifth Ave., where it has its main showroom; in Minneapolis to service Target; and in Bentonville, Ark. to be close to Wal-Mart.

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