By  on June 17, 1994

DALLAS -- Pro-Line Corp., a 24-year-old manufacturer of ethnic hair care products based here, figures it has nearly maximized its business in the U.S.

So, the company is looking across the ocean for growth -- to Africa.

The company contracted a manufacturer in South Africa to begin producing its goods in July, opening a new distribution channel within the continent. Within three years, the African unit is expected to generate $40 million in sales, according to Comer Cottrell, founder and president of Pro-Line.

"The new market for us is global," Cottrell asserted, noting the firm already sells to seven countries in Africa, five in Europe, and other markets throughout the Caribbean and North America. "We still haven't touched the South American market, but we're talking about it."

Pro-Line did $6 million in sales to Africa last year, but business there has been stifled because import duties and shipping charges pushed prices into the luxury goods realm.

The hair relaxers, shampoos and styling aids that are sold in thousands of U.S. mass market outlets for $2.50 to $10.95 have been costing African consumers up to three times as much. When production starts in South Africa, prices there will drop to the same level as in the U.S.

"When we begin to manufacture in South Africa, we can produce at even lower costs than here," Cottrell pointed out. "Prices will be 60 percent lower than they are now in Africa. The market size will increase."

The company currently manufactures everything except aerosols at its factory here.

Pro-Line's 1993 volume was $40 million, mostly through its U.S. distribution to such chains as Wal-Mart, Eckerd Corp. drug stores, Sally Beauty Supply and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

Chief among its 40-plus products are Soft & Beautiful hair relaxers and conditioners, Just For Me children's hair-care products and the Perm Repair group, which is used by whites as well as blacks, Cottrell noted.

Domestic sales, however, have reached a plateau, he asserted.

"We could do much more sales in the U.S., but the incremental sales increases aren't that profitable because of the high costs," Cottrell reasoned.

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