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TAKING NOTHING FOR GRANTED - Freudenberg & Vilene Int'l Ltd(HKTDC , Vol 02,1999)


April 1999

Freudenberg & Vilene Int'l Ltd

Hong Kong Non-Woven Fabric Industrial Co Ltd

Freudenberg & Vilene Int'l Ltd

FREUDENBERG & Vilene has a proprietary sense about nonwovens, and understandably so: the company says it invented the process and celebrated the 50th anniversary last October. But don't think for one moment that it sits back on its laurels. Urs Heggli, managing director of Freudenberg & Vilene Int'l Ltd, based in Hong Kong and in charge of the Asia region, can point to a mountain of evidence to demonstrate how the company tries to keep ahead of the market.

"We are the first in our field to invest in [mainland] China," he says, referring to the firm's manufacturing plant in Suzhou. The factory, together with another in Taiwan, can produce a total of 240 million metres per year.

The 30 or so offices throughout the region, including south Asia, provide back-up support. These are not just sales offices, Heggli explains, but outposts, close to the client, that offer a complete service. If a customer in Vietnam has a technical problem, the company will send someone there to sort it out.

"Interlining plays such an important role," says Heggli. "It determines the look and properties of [especially] a garment." Although totally unseen, the interlining is so crucial that if it is the wrong kind, the overall garment will suffer.

Freudenberg's sizeable laboratory in Hong Kong tests products prior to manufacture, considerably reducing the likelihood of problems. "About 50% of buyers specify some sort of interlining and usually have to do so to manufac- turers in non-developed countries," Heggli says. By approaching Freudenberg & Vilene beforehand, the buyer can have the specified item tested. These tests "are like a guarantee", says Heggli. The laboratory carries out some 9,000 tests every month.

Where possible, the company suggests alternatives to the client. A superior product may offer superior performance, but another, although slightly lower in performance, may be more attractive in price.

Being part of a worldwide organisation matters, too. Buyers in North America, for example, can deal with local sales offices near them, yet be assured that the company is connected to the factory in Asia.

Freudenberg & Vilene now operates in both woven and knit products, although "nonwoven remains about three-quarters of our business", says Heggli. Price has become the dominant factor, "especially since the economic downturn". That makes it hard for them, he admits, but suggests that the situation has made things much more difficult, if not impossible, for the competition. "In a way, because we have already invested in Taiwan and [mainland] China, the situation may actually be an advantage to us."

A 50-year history and a large present-day operation are considerable advantages, but this is a market that is always changing. In response, the company aim is to forge alliances. "We have to be there in depth. We can't just take one interesting order . . . we have to be there [with the client] for the long term," Heggli says. He also sees a "very strong trend" towards concern for human rights and ecological issues. Clients are demanding things like proper workplaces and a stance against child labour, he says.

Again, that is not a problem. Indeed, he believes that this trend will benefit Freudenberg & Vilene enormously. "Size does matter," Heggli says. And so does a long-term commitment to Asia.

Hong Kong Non-Woven Fabric Industrial Co Ltd

NONWOVENS must classify as among the world's least-known products, yet those in the industry understand their worth. Employed correctly, nonwovens can make or break a manufactured product. The range of products is huge, their applications endless and, if they were not present, the difference would become instantly apparent. Nonwoven suppliers know just how important their role is, and how the end appearance and performance of their customers' goods matter as a result.

Peter Lee, executive director of Hong Kong Non-Woven Fabric Industrial Co Ltd, understands this all too well. "We work closely with customers," he says. Lee believes his company excels at offering tailor-made fibrefill products, and this is important when selecting the right nonwoven is crucial.

Hong Kong Non-Woven brings 30 years' experience to the market, beginning with a single production line in 1969. Ten years ago it started manufacturing in mainland China, with a factory in Shenzhen. "But our customers kept moving further north, so we opened a second plant in Tianjin," Lee explains.

Today the company operates seven production lines. "Each production line, working a three-shift day, is capable of cranking out about 20,000 metres per day," Lee estimates.

Since 1987 a fair proportion of business has come from the Du Pont licence the company holds. As Lee points out, Du Pont licenses a limited number of companies as recognised suppliers. He estimates that about one-third of Hong Kong Non-Woven's sales, in volume, is for the Du Pont fibrefill product; most of the rest comes from its own INFAB range. Hong Kong Non-Woven has created more than 100 fibrefill formulas, the bulk of which are sold under the INFAB brand.

The fibrefill itself is made of 100% polyester staple fibre and weighs 40-300g per square metre. It is durable, machine-washable and suitable for dry-cleaning, and is used primarily as thermal insulation for sleeping bags and outerwear, including footwear.

Hong Kong Non-Woven has an in-house product testing and inspection centre, and products are regularly submitted to independent laboratories, such as SGS. The firm regularly holds seminars in Hong Kong to introduce customers to new products, and periodically organises visits to the Shenzhen site. "It gives the customer confidence," Lee explains.

The company holds an Öko-Tex Standard 100 Certificate from TESTEX, attesting that its product range conforms to the required standard regarding the use of azo dyestuffs, essential for the German market. Furthermore, the Shenzhen plant is seeking certification for ISO 9002. The Tianjin site and Hong Kong head office will follow later.

Lee acknowledges that market conditions are difficult these days and that the mainland is no longer such a cheap manufacturing base, but he is looking to diversify. "In view of the intense competitive pressure on the mainland, we will be introducing more high-end and sophisticated nonwoven products with wider commercial applications, such as air filtration and moulded bra-cups."

Summing up what he believes sets Hong Kong Non-Woven apart, Lee is clear about its strengths: "Among all our competitors, we have a clear focus on quality and customers' needs. Our marketing set-up is the best."

Written by Alan M Abrahams


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