Foss Manufacturing: It Pays to Diversify

By Cynthia Bustinduy

Business New Hampshire Magazine, October 1989

1989 Top Private Companies

Foss's nonwoven fabrics, first used in the shoe industry, now are found in cars, boats and on bandages.

When Woody Foss developed a new nonwoven fabric in the 1950s, he used it in products for your feet. Today your kids probably sport Foss products on their fingers from time to time. Which just goes to show that it pays to diversify.

Founded in 1954, Foss Manufacturing (#10 on the Top 50) originally was a supplier of foundation material for the shoe industry — those manufactured pieces necessary for turning pliant leather into sturdy, long-wearing shoes. A napped, soft filled sheeting was traditionally used for the box toes and counters that Foss sold from its plant in Haverhill, Mass. But then the company came up with a new fabric, one that sidesteps the weaving process altogether, and Foss' future took a big step forward.

According to Bruce James, executive vice president of the $80 million company now headquartered in Hampton, nonwoven fabrics date back to the 1930s. But originally they were considered a "cheap" material suitable for such unglamorous products as horse blankets.

However, the fabric developed by George W. "Woody" Foss and his research people is a highly refined version of the nonwovens of the past. Instead of the conventional carding, spinning, and weaving process found in the production of most fabric, the nonwoven yardage is produced by a technique called "needle-punching." The result is a practical, water-repellent material used in everything from landau roofs to "ouchless" bandages.

Employing nearly 600 people, Foss Manufacturing is now headed up by Woody's son, Stephen, who moved the company to New Hampshire over a decade ago. In addition to manufacturing facilities in Haverhill and Hampton, Foss Manufacturing maintains sales offices in Australia and England and has representatives all over the world, particularly in Asia where so much of the world's manufacturing now takes place.

While the footwear market remains an important one for Foss, it's the auto industry that has accounted for more company sales in recent years. Foss fabric is found inside trucks, along the lower edge of passenger doors, even under vinyl roofs, where its water repellency comes in especially handy. If you look behind the back seat of your family car, you're likely to see a package tray covered in Foss nonwoven fabric.

Moving up fast in importance to the company is the marine market, which uses Foss fabric in carpeting and headliners for boats. The company also gains revenue from the manufacture of colored polyester fiber and craft felt used by hobbyists. Within the last ten years, myriad applications — including absorbent pads for the incontinent and "ouchless" bandages have developed in the medical market as well.

"Diversification is very important to us for the long-term survival of the company," says James.

In its 35 years of existence, Foss Manufacturing has seen the shoe industry move offshore and the automobile market shrink significantly. The company has succeeded by adapting to a changing business environment.

"The whole auto industry is consolidating and looking to fewer and fewer suppliers," says James, who feels his company will survive by delivering better products. "We're probably among the top three or four suppliers of nonwoven fabrics. There are many small ones, but we have to be one of the more diversified. And we like to think that we're on the leading edge of technology."