Today, diversification can be a double-edged sword. Spread yourself too thin,and it’s a slippery slope from jack of all trades to master of none. On theother hand, if you put all of your eggs in one basket, you inevitably leaveyourself vulnerable during cyclical market shifts. Recently, this has resultedin more and more companies paying close attention to a balance in their approach— reinforce and support your specialty, but never turn a deaf ear whenopportunity knocks.
When the W.E. Rawson Group was founded as a textile company in England backin 1865, few could have imagined the scope to which the company would expandover the following century. But by the mid-1970s opportunity had knocked, andthe company became a partner in the development of a brand new industry. Afterexplosive growth and dramatic change in the burgeoning cured-in-place pipe(CIPP) liner market, the Rawson Group eventually created a U.K.-based subsidiarynamed Applied Felts Ltd., ensuring it was in prime position to takeadvantage.
Drawing on the expertise of a parent company that helped create the CIPPprocess more than 25 years ago, Applied Felts has combined the latest technologywith customized, end-to-end manufacturing, superior engineering and extensivequality control processes to set the industry standard for felt liners. Sincethe company set up shop in the United States a little more than 10 years ago,Applied Felts Inc. has become one of the leading, independent felt linermanufacturers — with more than 40 million ft of liner installed across NorthAmerica.
W.E. Rawson started as afamily-owned textile company in Wakefield, England, tracing its roots back to1865. The company was properly incorporated in 1933 and after World War IIbecame increasingly concentrated on the manufacture of non-woven textiles. Butthe thrust of the company changed drastically after 1975, when the Rawson Groupwas approached to develop a fabric to be used in a developing process calledcured-in-place lining.
According to Alex Johnson, president of U.S. operations for Applied Felts andmanaging director in the United Kingdom, Insituform approached Rawson with theidea to develop a material that would allow the inversion of the liners into thepipe, rather than the original process of dragging the liners into place throughplastic bags. Rawson’s engineers developed the product and became virtually thesole supplier of fabric to make Insituform liners until 1988.
“What changed and resulted in the formation of Applied Felts, was that in1988, Insituform had grown massively in the U.S. and they eventually decided tostart their own felt manufacturing plant,” Johnson explains. “Seeing the writingon the wall, we started to explore our options and we were approached by severalcontractors who wanted to take advantage of the fact that Insituform’s patentswere, by that time, starting to run out in Europe.”
By late 1990, the RawsonGroup formed Applied Felts Ltd. in England, as a company to manufacture thefinished liners. Soon volume increased and the supply chain from England becametoo stretched, so in 1997 Applied Felts Inc. was formed in the United States.Initially the company shipped all the fabric from the United Kingdom and onlyassembled the liners at the U.S. plant, but the business grew so quickly that by1999, a U.S. fabric manufacturing facility was built.
Initially, the felt liners were a relatively small part of the business. Butnow, Applied Felts represents a significant portion of the Rawson Group’sbusiness — about 40 to 50 percent, compared to less than 10 percent in 1994.After recognizing a need for a proven lateral rehabilitation method, AppliedFelts partnered with RS Technik, the Swiss manufacturer of the Cityliner system,to form Maxliner in 1998. And in early 2005, Applied Felts established a brandnew coating plant at its Martinsville, Va.-facility, now making it entirelyself-sufficient in the United States.
Supported by aparent company practiced in every area of fiber manufacture, Applied Felts hastransformed its vast textile knowledgebase into the core of one of the primarymanufacturers of CIPP lining materials. With access to every different type offiber and polymer in the world, the Rawson Group supplies the company with atremendous amount of resources and assets, enabling it to develop a product tosuit nearly every conceivable application.
“We looked at what was happening during liner installations and effectivelyre-engineered and modified the product until we perfected it,” Johnson says. “Asmost of the alterations are in the specifications of the fabric, if you are onlyset up to buy the fabric, turn it into tubes and sell it, you might never getthere. But I think that was one of the key issues for us — having that manyyears of experience making the fabric itself. Many of our customers’ systems arenot identical; they do things in different ways and have different desires — andbecause of our background we are able to cater to that.”
And it’s that unique aspect of the company that seems to be a key to itscontinued success. As the only 100 percent, vertically integrated linermanufacturer in the industry, Applied Felts is able to control the production ofthe liner through the entire process. First, it purchases the raw fiber, thenturns it into felt, coats it and finally turns out the liners. Not only doesthis improve quality control, but it also gives customers access to a producttailor-made to their needs.
“I think that vertical integration is really what distinguishes us from thecompetition — those companies that will buy their felt from someone else, shipit off to get coated and then make the liner,” explains Dave Fletcher, nationalsales manager for Applied Felts Inc. “We are a pure manufacturer, which makesall the difference in the world. We can make subtle changes to the felt or thecoating or how we build the liner, because we have control over every stage [ofproduction].”
“All of this control in the manufacturing process allows us to take everybead of polymer and strand of fiber needed to make the felt, put those togetherand tweak the product to what our customers need,” adds Gil Carroll, AppliedFelts’ director of business development. “For the larger diameter mainlines,there is obviously one set of criteria, but when you talk about our customers,like the plumbers who are dealing with 4- and 6-in. pipe, you need a moreflexible tube. Those customers need something that can negotiate 45- and90-degree bends, and that is something we are able to supply to two verydifferent markets.”
As a result, Applied Felts now offers a wide selection of liners that haveimpermeable coatings and can be cured either by hot water or steam. The AmbiCureliner, for example, is a single-layer, coated felt liner installed with ambientcure and onsite impregnation. The AquaCure inversion tube is a water-inverted,multiple-layer felt liner that forms a permanent composite inside the host pipe.SteamCure is a hot-air inverted liner with an internally polyurethane-coatedfelt lining material, contained in outer PVC-coated felt. Another recentaddition is a highly flexible, PVC-coated Impreline tube that is able to linearound 45-degree bends.
And since Applied Felts’ manufacturing process is originated in-house, itinvolves a rigorous, 28-stage testing process at every phase of production.Using computerized weight control without recalibration, Applied Felts engineersare able to yield the most consistent felt in the length direction, while theaddition of computerized web profiling provides totally uniform felt in thecross direction.
“We’re always looking at ways to help the contractor out in the field, tomake our customers more profitable,” Carroll says. “Whether that’s ease ofinstallation or if it’s developing new products with reinforcement to lessen thethickness requirement for a liner. Those are the kinds of things we try to getahead of and be there to offer solutions to our customers to make them morecompetitive and help to expand the places that cured-in-place goes.”
Since the beginning, one ofthe most important factors for the success of Applied Felts was creatingpartnerships with its clients. The company provided its first customers with atremendous amount of technical support, taking the extra time to be presentonsite to help customers perform successful trial installations. This approachedhelped to give Applied Felts a lasting reputation as much more than just asupplier of textile tubing.
“Back when the whole CIPP market was first opening up, Applied Felts did agreat job partnering with groups of contractors who wanted to get intocured-in-place,” says Fletcher. “We are not just a company that sells liners; wereally partner with the customers. We help them develop systems and linersaround their specifications, then work closely with them to make sure that atevery phase of their growth in the business, we bring everything we can to thetable to help them improve.”
With long-time customers such as National Liner, CIPP Corp., Gelco, LanzoLining Systems, JWM (Premier Pipe) and many others, Applied Felts has been ableto legitimize many of its customers right out of the gate, because it was ableto help get them to market relatively quickly. The company now supplies about 40percent of the market in the United States., with roughly 100 installation crewsacross the United States.
And instead of going out and actively pursuing new contractors as customers,Applied Felts has focused its attention on helping to grow the business of itsexisting customers, which continue to add to their own installation crews. Thecompany established itself in a role to help its customers succeed and looked atthose businesses as more important than going out and setting up morecontractors, or convincing people that weren’t doing cured-in-placeto getinvolved.
“Our biggest strength is the relationship that we have with our customers,”notes Carroll. “[Such as] the way that we service them and work with them tohelp overcome any issues they have out in the field. You look at some of thebiggest customers we have and they are the ones that have been with us from thevery beginning. Alex [Johnson] would come over to the United States and hereally helped a lot of the bigger groups to get off the ground and get into thecured-in-place market.”
The Next Frontier
One of the commonmisconceptions in the business of CIPP lining is that there’s only one way itcan be done. But Applied Felts knows that isn’t the case — each customer has itsown unique set of blueprints and can approach the same job fundamentallydifferently. Since this creates a multitude of ways to achieve the same result,the company has run with the approach of treating every order from everycustomer as one distinct product.
“We really feel like Applied Felts, as well as our efforts with newprocesses, is helping cured-in-place get out through the whole industry,”Carroll says. “In the past, it was a pretty expensive endeavor and a bigcommitment for a lot of people to get into lining mainlines. But now CIPP isgetting out into other markets, such as Roto Rooter, with Maxliner andCityliner, where either it wasn’t available or wasn’t necessarily known about.And that, in our view, helps expand the whole trenchless industry.”
With its new coating facility, the potential for growth is even greater. Thecompany is now looking to meet new challenges involving larger diameter liners(from 54 to 105 in.) and increasing its focus on the flexibility of smalldiameter liners. Precise control of the coating process is already allowingsignificant progress in both areas, not to mention aiding the shift to air andsteam inversion methods — which of course puts even higher requirements on thefabrics.
“Our new coating system was built to be able to build the big liners quickerand more efficiently, plus the flexibility of our coating allows the [smalldiameter] liners to be very flexible and installed with less pressure,” saysFletcher. “A lot of the flexibility of a liner has to do with the coating. Sothe better you can control the thickness of the coating, the better you cancontrol the flexibility of the liner.”
Now, as CIPP technology continues to evolve and improve, the needs of thecustomer will undoubtedly change along with it. For many contractors, the nameof the game is productivity — so products are engineered to help achieve thatgoal. Others, however, simply have a technically difficult project in front ofthem and need a product that will allow it to be completed. So what sets onecompany apart from the rest will always be the same — how closely it comes togiving the customer exactly what they need. And for Applied Felts, the answerhas always been to create a partnership.
“Applied Felts is not just a company that sells liners, we really partnerwith the customers,” notes Fletcher. “We help them develop systems and linersaround their specifications, then we work very closely with them to make surethat at every phase of their growth in the business, we bring everything we canto the table to help them improve. We are a pure manufacturer — we’re not in thebusiness to just sell a system, resins or equipment. So our customer’s successis our success.”