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Nonwovens / Technical Textiles

Changing With The Marketplace

147-year-old fabric company John Boyle & Co. Inc. keeps growing with customers like Google.

TW Special Report

  boylegoogle
White tents made from fabric manufactured by John Boyle & Co. direct air flow from overhead vents in Google's Santa Ana, Calif., offices.
G oogle's new offices in Santa Ana, Calif., feature work areas topped by white fabric tents that efficiently direct air flow from vents above. Conference room walls are covered with the soft textured white fabric, specially treated to be flame-retardant and filled with custom soundproofing material that works better than standard products.

The fabric innovations for this application come from John Boyle & Co. Inc. founded in New York City in 1860 to make sail cloth. Today, the company is headquartered in Statesville, N.C., and is one of the enduring success stories of the textile world, thanks to a passion for trying new things. The company's approximately 300 employees work in a dozen locations across North America, generating more than $100 million in annual sales.

"Lots of people think of us as a manufacturer of awnings and boat covers, our most widely known products," said chairman John Boyle Bell Jr., great-grandson of the founder. "But we also get excited about new challenges and have managed to create all sorts of fabric-based new products for our customers."

John Boyle knits fabric up to 20 feet wide for diverse business and industrial applications not clothing or home fashions. Within its manufacturing capability, it coats and laminates fabrics utilizing a broad range of coating chemistries and application processes.

J. Miller Canvas Inc. of Santa Ana, working with Clive Wilkinson Architects created the Google tents a playful, experimental environment suitable for Google's innovative culture. Of all the options presented to the architects by Jim Miller, they preferred the John Boyle fabric for its bright whiteness that works for both ceiling and wall coverings. The quilting pattern added by Miller's company adds a dimensional texture as well as additional sound-proofing and fire-retarding qualities.

Pacific Yurts Inc. uses John Boyle's sturdy treated fabric for its colorful yurts. Meanwhile, John Boyle's tent products often used for outdoor receptions to protect guests from the elements have gone upscale, with clear plastic windows and soaring ceilings. The company has been supplying material for big tents since it invented the legendary "Big Top" for Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1922.

Busch Stadium home of the 2006 World Series champions the St. Louis Cardinals covered the lower walls around the field with padding made with John Boyle fabric to protect players who slam into the pads chasing fly balls.

Ranger Boats turned to the company to develop a special soft underlayer for its boat covers that would not scratch fresh paint or shiny fixtures.

Industrial Fabrics Growing
"Lots of people think textiles is a dying industry in the United States," Bell said. "And its true, many garment and other fashion-related textile products are now made overseas. But industrial fabrics, the focus of our marketing, manufacturing and product development efforts, are experiencing healthy growth. New chemicals, treatments, fabrics, machinery and other innovations mean we are constantly developing exciting new products for the marketplace."

John Boyle owns two of the largest knitting machines in the world, capable of producing heavy polyester material as wide as 20 feet. It produces a very high-strength polymeric grid, which is designed to reinforce soil in much the same way that steel reinforces concrete. Designed and marketed by John Boyles Atlanta-based Strata Systems Inc. subsidiary, the material is used to hold back soil behind new types of tall retaining walls; for landslide repairs; and for the creation of stable, very steep slopes in commercial and industrial construction markets.

With branch distribution centers in 10 US cities plus Canada and Mexico, John Boyle provides just-in-time product delivery throughout most of North America.

"Some customers call us with each individual order," said Bill White, vice president of sales and marketing. "They'll call us twice in the morning, and twice again in the afternoon. This way they don't have to stock fabric or accessories that would tie up their capital. And they want each order packaged separately to make it easy for them to handle installation."

More than 8,000 small awning and marine canvas fabrication shops depend on John Boyle for their livelihoods. But the companys biggest customer is one it cant even talk about, other than to say the customer buys huge quantities of special fabric to provide camouflage for the armed forces.

Natural Problem-Solving Ability
John Bell Jr. went to work at the company's New York City offices in 1962 writing telephone orders. A customer walked into his office and said, "I want to put up some big tents at the Worlds Fair." So Bell came up with a solution that put his new Flametest® flame-retardant product on display covering some of the main exhibits at the New York Worlds Fair in 1964-65.

Bells natural problem-solving bent led him to make the company more vertically integrated. "We do our own coating, laminating, weft insertion; and used to do our own dyeing," he said. "I always tried to do something different. The me-too guy doesn't last long in this business."

"We want everybody here to innovate," he explained. "We encourage everybody to listen to the customers, to others, to share our thinking, to bring up new ideas. We share our goals throughout the company to make sure everybody's informed and in the loop."

Today, John Boyle makes only about 35 percent of what it sells. It is a multi-million-dollar distributor of Glen Raven, N.C.-based Glen Raven Inc.'s popular Sunbrella® fabrics for awnings, casual furniture and other weather-resistant uses. This close business alliance, stretching back more than 100 years, led the two companies recently to decide to merge, with Glen Raven announcing its intent to acquire John Boyle, as well as The Astrup Co., Cleveland, another major fabric distributor. However, little change in daily operations is foreseen by company leaders.

The challenge of innovation and vertical integration still gets Bell animated. "We may start making our own yarn were thinking about extrusion seriously," he said. "Were also looking at acquiring other companies. Strata Systems was a good fit because it engineers and markets our special wide-knitted grid products for innovative uses. We have to continue being progressive, changing with the marketplace, looking for the next exciting opportunity."

May/June 2007



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