If the company sticks to its schedule, next year will mark industrial giant DuPont’s exit from the synthetic-fibers business, an industry it created when it introduced nylon at the 1939 World’s Fair and enlarged in the following decades with the invention of polyester and acrylic.

After years of paring back the fibers components of its various divisions, the 200-year-old DuPont said in February it had decided to merge all its fiber operations into one unit, DuPont Textiles & Interiors. The plan is to spin off DTI from its Wilmington, Del.-based parent next year through an initial public offering, if possible.

DuPont executives have taken great pains to emphasize that the timing of any IPO will be influenced by market conditions. The stock market as a whole is well off its highs, as a result of the slowdown in the economy and accounting scandals at several public companies. Those developments, combined with overall negative sentiment among investors on U.S. textile companies, makes the question of whether investors will be open to a textile IPO a tenuous one.

Still, executives within the $6.5 billion DTI unit have emphasized they believe their unit’s economies of scale, international scope and portfolio of brands, which includes Lycra, Coolmax and Teflon, will make their business solid as an independent entity.

Under the leadership of group vice president Steve McCracken, who previously headed the Lycra spandex unit, and Bill Ghitis, who serves as president for its apparel-related products, DTI has set itself up as a marketing company focused on identifying consumer needs and developing fiber technologies to meet them. That’s a switch from DuPont’s classic approach of developing technologies and then trying to find customers who are interested in them.

McCracken has described the old approach: "We’ve got a bunch of molecules here. How can we sell them?"

The DTI unit has been profitable this year. For the first nine months of 2002, it recorded an aftertax operating income of $28 million, which includes $153 million in one-time charges for restructuring, on sales of $4.73 billion. That compares with a $339 million operating loss on sales of $4.99 billion a year earlier.

DTI officials contend their greatest advantage as a standalone company will be focus. Since their sole business will be textiles, for apparel and the home, they won’t fall into the pattern of developing new markets and letting their textile investments languish, a danger at more diversified companies. Next year will put their confidence in that belief to the test.

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