Harold W Hill Jr, president of Glen Raven Technical Fabrics, describes parent company Glen Raven as a 130-year-old start-up. That is because Glen Raven is constantly reinventing itself. Besides being a textile manufacturer, executives want it to be a global company offering innovative solutions worldwide.

Glen Raven is known for inventing panty hose and, more recently, Sunbrella – one of the strongest fabrics used in patio awnings. Other product lines include marine, automobile and outdoor furniture applications.

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While the company’s primary footprint is in North America (it is headquartered in Glen Raven, North Carolina), other locations play an important role in its profile as it strives to achieve its global ambitions. The company already has a manufacturing presence in France, China and India, in addition to its North American operations.

Expansion activities

Glen Raven began its global expansion in 1998 when it acquired fabrics manufacturer Dickson of France, a move that resulted in tremendous overnight growth. “We suddenly had 1000 associates in France and our sales network grew to more than 120 countries,” recalls Allen E Gant Jr, president of Glen Raven.

Expanding further, in 2006, Glen Raven opened a wholly owned foreign enterprise in Suzhou, China, near Shanghai. While cheap labour was a plus, the primary factor for constructing the greenfield facility was to be closer to customers moving to China to supply the regional market for casual furniture. As a result, the facility became Glen Raven’s Asian business centre, charged not only with weaving and finishing Sunbrella fabrics, but also developing Asian sourcing strategies and expanding its share of the Asian market.

While the company’s primary footprint is in North America other locations play an important role in its profile as it strives to achieve its global ambitions

Up until this point, Glen Raven had been shipping fabric to China, to then see it come back as umbrellas and awnings. But by opening a factory in China, delivery time to customers there was reduced by about six weeks. Today the Suzhou operation, dubbed Glen Raven Asia, supports China and the Asian market by weaving residential fabrics for both outdoor and indoor furniture. In fact, one of its most important goals is to help accelerate the growth of domestic Asian markets through the ready availability of Sunbrella fabrics.

Satisfied customers

Many of Glen Raven Asia’s customers are North American-based companies with manufacturing operations in China, while several others are domestic companies serving Asia-Pacific as well as Europe and North America. Among them are Alma Contract (Singapore), an original equipment manufacturer that produces a range of outdoor furniture for the high-end market in Europe, and BVZ Asia, a pioneer in performance fabrics in Asia.

From its Suzhou location, Glen Raven is more able to provide Alma with better service, a quicker response and a stronger business partnership. Alma’s primary market is Europe, but the company is anticipating continued growth throughout Asia and North America. “We are in frequent communication, and when clients ask for small quantities for a project, we can get Sunbrella fabrics from Glen Raven Asia much more easily than we could from the US,” says Alma president Xiaohui Guan.

BVZ Asia holds the most extensive and strongest distribution network for Sunbrella fabrics as well as other speciality fabrics and accessories in Asia. Headquartered in Hong Kong, BVZ Asia has company-owned factories in China, Thailand and the Philippines, and is active throughout the Asia-Pacific region, notably in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. 

“Having Sunbrella available around the corner has reduced shipping costs and created a ‘green’ effect with less fuel consumption needed for distribution,” says Henk Stijweg, president of BVZ. “Speed is what clients need most of all because no one wants to wait.”

Solutions provider

As a result of Glen Raven Asia’s focus in China, executives no longer think of Glen Raven as a textiles or a manufacturing company. “We think of ourselves as a solutions provider,” says Mr Hill. In that vein, in May 2007 Glen Raven acquired two of its largest distribution partners – The Astrup Company and John Boyle & Company. The result was a new subsidiary named Tri Vantage, which increased supply-chain efficiencies through the consolidation of branch locations.

Looking to the future, Glen Raven has its eye on Brazil, given today’s competitive battles being played between China and India and other emerging nations. Each is attempting to undercut the other in terms of low-cost production

Another benefit of the acquisition was that Tri Vantage brought Glen Raven closer to customers and opened up innovative opportunities for further global expansion. For example, Strata Systems, a subsidiary of John Boyle & Company, had developed a niche of geogrid products used to stabilise steep slopes during commercial development and highway construction. “Up until then, we were exporting to India,” says Mr Hill.

Given Strata’s established distribution partners around the world, the company identified an opportunity in India when the government launched a 10,000-kilometre superhighway project. Strata’s geosynthetic products – durable materials used in civil engineering projects, for example, to control erosion or protect grass – are crucial to this new project. But rather than sell to Indian contractors, Glen Raven created Strata Geosystems (India) in Daman north of Mumbai that is now building the overpasses itself.

Strata Geosystems is a joint venture with Strata Systems USA, which is a subsidiary of the Glen Raven group of companies. In 2009, Strata set up its state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for producing knitted geogrids in Daman. Strata is a one-stop shop for geotechnical applications such as retaining soil walls, soil stabilisation, engineered landfills, weak soil solutions, railway and river embankments.

“We are now the largest builder of overpasses in [India] and we are training and developing other companies that can use our technology,” says Mr Hill. “The growth has been phenomenal. We have exceeded our capacity.”

Consequently, the subsidiary is in the process of building a second factory. But Glen Raven’s involvement in India is not limited to construction. Mr Hill says the company is looking at India’s automotive industry, whose potential should eventually exceed that of the US marketplace.  

To continue championing innovation, Glen Raven has also created its New Frontiers Department. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for the company’s operating subsidiaries, encouraging communications and collaboration across all Glen Raven subsidiaries. “One of the most important roles of the New Frontiers Department is to challenge the status quo,” says Mr Gant.

Looking to the future, Glen Raven has its eye on Brazil, given today’s competitive battles being played between China and India and other emerging nations. Each is attempting to undercut the other in terms of low-cost production.

“We are aggressively exploring locations to expand in Brazil,” says Mr Hill, however, no announcements have been made yet.