NEW YORK — With a new president — DuPont veteran Basil "Sonny" Walker — and a new strategy, Nylstar Inc. is trying to step up its presence in the U.S. market.

Nylstar is a joint venture between France’s Rhodia and Italy’s Snia that has grown over the past eight years to become a key nylon supplier in Europe. The company opened its first U.S. nylon factory 16 months ago in Martinsville, Va., and is setting itself aggressive growth plans. It sells under the Meryl brand name.

Walker, who signed on as president and chief operating officer in June, succeeding Giovanni Sarter, said the company’s U.S. sales this year are up 50 percent to $60 million. Next year, the company expects a 30 percent increase, he said.

More importantly, he said, "We are turning the corner on profitability." He expects next year will be the U.S. arm’s first profitable one.

Sarter came to the U.S. from Italy, while working for Nylstar, and has since returned home and left the company, Walker said. Sarter could not be reached for comment.

A key part of Nylstar’s strategy is stepping up its product development cycle, which Walker said will be key to prepare the firm and the textile industry in general to compete with an onslaught of Asian competition in 2005, when the 144 World Trade Organization nations lift quotas on textiles and apparel.

"We have to be differentiated," he said. "We won’t be able to compete on the same things as China."

The company has three new varieties of nylon it’s starting to push in the U.S. as part of its new-product focus.

The first is Skinlife, a nylon made with an additive that reduces the growth of bacteria on the fiber. Walker explained that antibacterial properties don’t come from a coating on the fiber. The advantage to that, he contended, is that the there is no coating to rub off onto the wearer. Certain antibacterial coatings can cause rashes or skin irritation in some people.

Walker said this variant will be targeted at the innerwear and activewear markets. For innerwear, he admitted, it’ll be a bit of a tricky sell: "You can’t start talking about bacteria and chemicals, because it scares people. What you talk about is all-day freshness."The company is ramping up its Martinsville plant, which employs 250 and has an annual capacity of 30 million to 40 million pounds of fiber — enough to produce about 500 million units of women’s panties — to produce Skinlife. It also produces the fiber in Europe.

The other two fibers are Nexten, a hollow-core nylon that is lighter in weight, and Nateo, which Walker said had distinct moisture-management properties. These are only the start of a planned flood of new variants of nylon, said Walker: "We’re going to have a continuous stream of new products in the pipeline."

Walker said the company has spent $100 million on its highly automated Martinsville plant to allow it to take advantage of the NAFTA and Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act trade programs. He acknowledged that the Caribbean business hasn’t taken off as quickly as he had expected since CBTPA went into effect in 2000, but contended that it represents the best opportunity for Western Hemisphere apparel product.

"If we do it right, we can create a loop that responds quickly," he said of U.S. and Latin American fiber companies, mills and apparel makers.

Still, Nylstar is hedging its bets. In addition to its U.S. facility and seven European plants, the company operates a fiber plant in Ying Long, China, about 40 miles outside of Shanghai, with annual capacity of 70 million to 80 million pounds.

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