Location: Meulebeke, Belgium
Sales: $140 million
Description: Key Personnel
Filiep Libeert, main board of director of British vita PLC< Chairman of Vita Nonwovens; Luc Maes, managing director of Europe; Alan Ball, managing director of U.S., Luc De Meyere, financial controller; Manuel Brackevelt, chief engineer; Hugo Christiaen, purchasing
Belgium, France, Sweden, U.K., U.S.
Drylaid chemically bonded, drylaid thermally bonded stitch bonded, needlefelt, impregnation
Appearing as a complete entity for the first time in this survey is Vita Nonwovens, which is a division of British Vita PLC, located in Manchester, U.K. In the past, this company which includes Belgian roll goods manufacturer Libeltex Group, U.K.-based Vitafibres and U.S.-based Vita Nonwovens., has been ranked in this survey only on its Libeltex sales. British Vita has owned Libeltex since 1979 and recently streamlined all its nonwovens and textile businesses under the “Vita Nonwovens” division.
While the bulk of roll goods sales are achieved through Libeltex, the company has made significant investments throughout its nonwovens businesses during the past few years. In addition to its Libeltex sites—one in Belgium, three in France and one in Sweden—Vita Nonwovens operates two facilities in the U.K. and three in the U.S.
Total nonwovens sales in 2002 were $142 million. While most of the company’s sales are conducted in Europe, sales beyond Europe are increasing steadily, particularly in the U.S., but also South America, the Far East, the Middle East and Australia, according to executives.
Among the company’s strategies for growing its nonwovens business is focusing on higher valued added goods rather than traditional, commodity-style products. Among the value-added areas where success has been registered are hygiene, automotive, filtration, geotextiles and acoustics.
“We have been growing our marketshare in commodity products but have been focusing our new machinery investments on value-added technical products,” explained Filiep Libeert, of British Vita’s main board of directors. “In the commodity products, you have to compete on cost and we continue to put great efforts in staying the lowest cost producer. This and innovation have always been at the core of our success. More importantly, growth will come from more technical products and we have therefore invested substantially both in production lines and innovative products over the last few years.”
Currently about 30% of nonwovens output targets commodity markets such as bedding and furniture products and while these markets continue to growth in volume, the company’s true growth is coming from technical nonwovens.
To move into new markets Vita Nonwovens has been focusing on research and development across all of three of its divisions—Libeltex in mainland Europe, Vitafibres in the U.K. and Vita Nonwovens Inc. in the U.S. The result of this innovation has been the formation of proprietary technology featuring a drylaid/thermalbonding/needlepunch process that targets technical applications.
For instance, in Libeltex’s French plant, the company recently added technology to expand its capabilities in both industrial and technical markets. Entry into these markets is compensating for lagging demand, overcapacity, delocalization and shrinking markets in furniture and bedding, which was once Libeltex’s largest customer.
Also boosting Libeltex’s share in technical applications is the Texidel business, which was acquired in early 2000. It was through this purchase that Libeltex acquired its French needlepunching plants and also became a stitchbonded nonwovens producer. Furthermore the Texidel site’s proximity to the Belgian operations made it a perfect match for the company. Proximity is one of only several factors the company considers when acquiring new business or expanding its existing operations. Others include growth prospects, customer needs and technology development.
“We have been developing a market from a sales opportunity point of view,” Mr. Libeert explained. “Then we invest and install machinery to compete in that market. Sometimes that means installing the equipment near the existing export markets so we can grow within the surrounding markets.”
For instance, in North America, Libeltex acquired Prelude which was part of Cone Industries, and renamed renamed “Vita Nonwovens Inc.” Since acquiring this U.S. business, the company has made several investments. In addition to the five large lines in High Point, NC that came with the purchase, two old lines were replaced by two new lines in the last three years. Vita Nonwovens added a Greenfield facility in San Antonio, TX, in November 2002. Featuring the aforementioned drylaid technology, this facility has allowed Vita Nonwovens Inc. to be closer to its North America customers. The company has continued this process by opening a second North American Greenfield site in Fort Wayne, IN. These sites reflect the importance of North America to Vita’s growth strategy, according to executives.
“Our intention is to expand as we need it,” Mr. Libeert explained. “The customer is in charge now, though we have to listen carefully so we can grow with them. We only get sales as we innovate. This is the way to move forward.”
Sensing that there is enough room for growth within Europe and North America, other regions are of lower priority to Vita. While some business is conducted there, no immediate plans to expand production beyond Europe and North America are being examined.
Looking ahead, Mr. Libeert said the company’s growth will come from three sources—organic means, acquisitions and innovative manufacturing technologies.