Separation of hygiene and industrial: Reshaping the nonwovens industry?

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | December 2, 2011

Fiberweb's announcement it was selling most of its hygiene business to FitesaFiberweb is the latest in a series of moves by nonwovens makers to narrow their focus on either hygiene or industrial applications instead doing business on both sides of the industry. After spending much of the 1990s and early 2000s purchasing all sorts of nonwovens technologies targeting far reaching markets, Fiberweb has spent the last couple of years narrowing its focus on its core strategic markets. Last month's announcement that it has sold its hygiene business shows without a doubt that hygiene is not one of these strategic markets.

Fiberweb is not the only company intent on streamlining its focus. Ahlstrom recently exited wipes because that business no longer fit with its strategic plan and Fibertex split its company in half, separating its personal care business from its industrial concerns.

In announcing these moves, companies like Fiberweb or Ahlstromhave chosen to use words like "strategic fit"â€and "growth areas"â€when explaining their decision but the fact of the matter is that it is extremely difficult to do business on both sides of the business from a reporting point of view. The businesses are simply too different.

During the great recession of 2008-2009, the hygiene market was largely unaffected, people still had to diaper their children so sales remained stable. There was a period of limited investment in spunmelt but that actually gave makers more leverage when it came to pricing. Meanwhile, industrial markets for nonwovens like construction and automotives, suffered and even continue to recover. However, as they recover, they offer opportunities for higher profits than the hygiene market although volumes here are significantly lower so it can be difficult to achieve the high sales levels found in the hygiene market.

Therefore, as some companies have chosen to exit disposables, there are still many intent on expanding their scope into it. Suominen is clearly taking a big bet on wipes through its acquisition of Ahlstrom's spunlace business in South and North America and in Europe and there are dozens of companies still bullish enough about hygiene to be investing millions of dollars in new capacity around the globe.

What these moves—and others like them—mean, is that both sides of the industry are thriving, just more separately than ever before. It will certainly be interesting to see what this separation will mean for research and development and new markets moving forward.

On an unrelated note, after 11 years, Iâ€am giving up my spot as the editor of Nonwovens Industry. Effective with our January issue, I will be handing over the reigns to our new editor Steve Katz, who has served as our managing editor since July and worked at one of our sister publications for the last three years. I will continue to be active on the NWI staff as a contributing editor.

Karen McIntyre

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