NEW YORK — William B. Harris, the new fibers head at Hoechst AG, says his top challenge will be expanding the firm’s polyester business on a global basis in a mature market.
Although he won’t officially take over his new post for two months, Harris is developing some specific strategies — namely the building of niche markets for the firm’s stretch polyester and recycled polyester.
Building Hoechst’s worldwide acetate business, where Hoechst is the leader, is also on the agenda.
As reported, Harris, currently president of Hoechst Celanese Corp.’s textile fibers group, has been named head of the worldwide fibers business for its German parent Hoechst, based in Frankfurt, effective July 1.
He succeeds Alexander Dahmen, who is taking a new position as plant manager of Hoechst’s main production site in Frankfurt. Harris will absorb his current duties into his new post. The 47-year-old executive will continue to be based in the U.S., possibly at Hoechst’s U.S. headquarters in Somerville, N.J. He will also work out of Frankfurt.
Hoechst’s fibers business is part of a $4.4 billion film and fibers products group, which comprises textile fibers — including polyester staple, polyester filament and acetate — as well as technical fibers and polyester resins and film.
Hoechst Celanese, which represents the company’s North American business, contributed $3.1 billion to the total in 1993. Worldwide sales dropped from $4.5 billion in 1992, while North American sales declined from $3.2 billion. Harris isn’t taking over his new job at a bad time, though. After sluggish sales for polyester staple and filament in 1993, the company is sold-through on both at least through the third quarter of this year, and acetate — a strength in 1993 — will continue to be strong in 1994, particularly in the fashion markets.
“We expect a better performance this year, especially in polyester,” said Harris, in a telephone interview from Charlotte, N.C. “The economic situation in Europe has gotten better. The volatility has eased somewhat.
“People [worldwide] are buying more polyester, and that has been partly influenced by poor cotton crops globally.
“However, raw material prices are increasing, and we, like others, are raising our prices on polyester staple,” Harris said. “That’s a big challenge.”
As reported, Hoechst — which produces more than a billion pounds of polyester staple — has increased its prices on certain staple fibers between 5 and 7 percent, effective with shipments that started on Sunday. “The job ahead is formidable, but we have 15,000 employees in fibers worldwide that are going to help,” said Harris.
Meanwhile, he pointed out, the polyester market is being threatened with increased competition from the Far East, some of it lower priced. There are a growing number of producers there, and they are just starting to make inroads into North America, he said.
Harris sees the development of niche products as countering this kind of competition. Two such Hoechst products, ESP — a stretch polyester fiber — and Trevira II — a recycled fiber made from plastic soda bottles — are gaining.
The recycled product has gotten a lot of play in the activewear area. While still in its infancy, the fiber, made from post-consumer plastic soda bottles, has a big future, Harris said.
“Sales of recycled materials are making a believer out of me,” said Harris. “The products [made from the fiber] being sold in the market are first-rate. The consumers appreciate the esthetics, even though they may cost a little more.” Hoechst has formed several partnerships with mills for the use of the fiber. One of the biggest users is Malden Mills, Lawrence, Mass., which is spotlighting it in several Polartec fleece fabric applications.
To help promote the fiber, Hoechst and Malden sponsored a race in Central Park here last month — the Trevira Twosome — and outfitted the 3,000 runners in T-shirts made from Malden fabric using Trevira II.
Harris said another portion of Hoechst’s increased polyester business will come from expanding its ESP stretch polyester — a mainstay in jeans and activewear — into dresses and dressy sportswear.
Harris said polyester filament, a 300-million-pound-a-year business for Hoechst, continues to be strong.
“Polyester filament is an important product out there,” he added. “The key, again, remains what Asian producers do in terms of getting a toehold in the U.S. market. So far, the domestic producers are more than holding their own.”
As for Hoechst’s acetate business, Harris pointed out that the company’s five plants have been running at full capacity for five years, producing about 175 million pounds.
“We are planning to make some investments to modernize, which will help increase output,” he said, although he declined to say how large the expansion will be. As supply increases, more promotional activities will follow, he noted.
Hoechst makes about 40 percent of all acetate worldwide in five plants: Narrowsville, Va.; Rock Hill, S.C.; Drummondville, Canada; Ocotlan, Mexico, and one near Brussels.
The company markets its acetate under the Celebrate Acetate trade name.
“For acetate, the business has been and will continue to be in the fashion market,” said Harris. “Taken against polyester, it’s still a much smaller market, but one that, through sufficient technological advancements, could become a real tremendous fiber.”