Byline: David Grant Caplan / With contributions from Arnold J. Karr

NEW YORK — Cotton may be king, but its got a new synthetic set to challenge its reign.
At a glitzy luncheon and fashion show presentation in midtown Manhattan Tuesday, Wellman Inc. launched Sensura, a colorfast, shrink-resistant synthetic fiber that company officials hope will make a run at cotton’s preeminence.
At the same time, Wellman reported that robust sales growth helped move its bottom line back into the black in the third quarter, but the company warned that fourth-quarter earnings aren’t expected to be as strong.
As for the new fiber, Wellman claims that Sensura dries twice as quick as cotton and has a comparable drying time to techno-fibers. “Sensura fabrics move perspiration through the microclimate between skin and clothing…transporting moisture to the surface where it evaporates,” the company said.
Wellman chairman Tom Duff said: “You don’t wind up all wet, no matter what you do.”
Sensura is soft and easily drapeable — characteristics commonly attributed to cotton. It also requires lower heat for dyeing and finishing, so there is no stiffening of the fiber during the manufacturing process. The company said it was keeping the exact chemical makeup of the man-made fiber under wraps due to its proprietary nature.
Wellman teamed up with Gastonia, N.C.-based cotton spinner Parkdale Mills two years ago to create the new fiber, which is currently being tested by a handful of companies, including Nike, Pillowtex and Galey & Lord. Patagonia has already committed to use Sensura in its fall 2001 performance line.
“Sensura can deliver the aesthetic that customers have come to expect from cotton,” said Parkdale Mills president Andy Warlick.
Wellman’s Duff said he sought to develop a new fiber with Parkdale in response to the influx of inexpensive Asian fibers in the mid-Nineties.
“We were running into a problem as an industry+with cheap Asian imports that were really affecting our business,” he said. “We had a clear choice: either change our business to a commodity driven one with no research, development and promotion, or step up our efforts to continue value-added products.”
While Duff repeatedly commented on the similarities of Sensura to cotton, he was quick to add, “This is not polyester — it is a whole new fiber we have developed that promises to deliver style, performance and comfort.”
Dyersburg Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based knit-fabrics maker, signed on with Wellman earlier this year to use Sensura in fabrics from its Alamac Knits divisions such as piques, interlocks, jerseys and meshes.
“They lend themselves to great tailoring,” said Dyersburg president and chief operating officer M.L. “Chip” Fontenot. “We look forward to taking this to our customers.”
Karen E. Deniz, Dyersburg’s vice president of marketing communications, greeted attendees at the event wearing a black two-piece dress, with turtleneck top and sarong bottom made from Sensura.
“It is very luxurious and it is very soft,” she said. “It feels like cotton, but it also feels like rayon.”
On display at the event were Dyersburg’s assortment of Sensura-made items, including a jersey nightgown, a children’s Sensura-Lycra spandex blend rib top, a Sensura-Lycra two-piece dress, and men’s mesh performance shorts and matching shirt.
“We really feel that it is a fiber that can adapt its use,” said Deniz. “We have shown it to a couple of strategic customers, but after this event we will show it to a lot more.”
Meanwhile, for the quarter ended Sept. 30, the Shrewsbury, N.J.-based producer and marketer of fibers and resins reported net income of $8.1 million, or 26 cents a diluted share, versus a loss of $4.1 million, or 13 cents, in the 1999 period.
Wellman just missed consensus estimates of 27 cents for the 2000 quarter. The loss in last year’s quarter included charges of $6.2 million, or 20 cents a diluted share, related to plant outages caused by Hurricane Floyd, which severely hampered resin production. Sales in the period climbed 25 percent to $279 million.
“Earnings have continued to improve despite increased raw material and energy costs in 2000,” Duff said in a statement. “The company’s businesses are expected to experience reductions in profitability in the fourth quarter 2000 compared to the third quarter 2000. This is the result of continued high costs of the fibers operations and volumes reductions due to the holidays period.”
Although Duff expects continued margin improvements in Wellman’s resin business, he said: “We expect the U.S. domestic fibers’ business to continue to be impacted by very competitive market conditions and high rates of imports throughout the textile chain.”
In the quarter, improvements in resins and the European segment of the fiber business were partially offset by higher energy costs and the negative impact of euro conversions.
In the nine months, Wellman’s earnings hit $19.3 million, or 61 cents a diluted share, versus a loss of $14.6 million, or 47 cents, in the year-ago period. The loss last year reflected nonrecurring charges of $19 million for restructuring and $1.8 million for the cumulative effect of an accounting change.

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