Take it from those in the know: You can expect a solid, if not spectacular, business year in the marine canvas and fabrics industry in 2006.
And one of those who is paid to be in the know, Beth Hungiville, managing director of the marine fabricating division for the Industrial Fabrics Association International, based in the Twin Cities, is confident 2006 will be a fine year, indeed, when it comes to the marine fabrics world.
The IFAI is a non-profit trade agency with more than 2,000 members ranging from mom-and-pop shops to some of the biggest players in the marine fabrics industry such as North Carolina-based Glen Raven and Shuford Mills, to name two.
“As far as marine fabrics,” Hungiville said recently, “I think 2006 will be at least as good as 2005, if not better. Our estimation was a 6-percent growth rate in 2005, and we’re anticipating anywhere from a 6-to-8-percent growth rate for this year. That is mainly because everybody I’ve talked to in the business is as busy as they’ve ever been, and I’ve talked to many, many of them. Most of my fabricators are booked 60-to-90 days out already, especially in Florida.”
“What we have been hearing and reading about is that the market for new boats might be down slightly, less sales, or at least that’s what we’re reading,” Hungiville said. “That could affect some of our OEM suppliers such as the Glen Ravens of the world and Shuford Mills. But as far as our end-product manufacturers in fabrics and canvas are concerned, their work certainly should increase, too, for custom interiors and exteriors of other (aftermarket) boats.”
Both Glen Raven and Shuford introduced new niche products less than a year or so ago and claimed the launches of Sunbrella Supreme and Outdura Trio, respectively, were very successful and continue to be. But new products in 2006 aren’t likely to make much of a splash, so to speak, until at least this fall at the International Boatbuilders’ Exhibition & Conference, to be held Nov. 1-3 at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Glen Raven, for instance, likely will debut some new product at IBEX, according to Paige Mullis, marine specialist, and Derek Robinson, marine products manager for Sunbrella at Glen Raven.
“Sure, we’ve taken our new existing product, Sunbrella Supreme, and added some new colors to it, but what you’re going to see from us in the future is more introductions of niche products,” said Robinson. “We’re going to try to become more involved in the interior as well as the exterior marine fabrics business, perhaps at a faster rate than we have in the past.”
To that extent, Glen Raven participated in a full yacht makeover in late March at the Palm Beach Boat Show of a 110-foot yacht, according to Mullis.
“From an overall standpoint and from evolution of design,” Mullis explained, “we look outside the market to other resources that have a big impact on our designs and keep the freshest materials we can in the marketplace.”
Added Robinson, “We have things on the drawing board right now, but we’re not at liberty to announce anything yet. But it is safe to say we will be announcing new products at IBEX.”
Sunbrella Supreme uses a proprietary bonding process with an acrylic fabric on the face of the product to an acrylic flocking on the reverse side, also creating a waterproof barrier in the process. This method also provides the opportunity to offer contrasting colors on the outside and the inside of the Sunbrella Supreme product.
Explained Robinson, “You can have a dark, rich color on the outside and a lighter color, or brighter color, on the inside. They can be very attractive.”
Safety Components Fabric Technologies, based in Greenville, S.C., believes its product, WeatherMax, solves the problems associated with acrylics. The company says WeatherMax is 67 percent more water-resistant than acrylic, has twice the breaking and tear strength and six times more abrasion resistance based on comparative tests.
Another Successful Introduction
Jeff Jimison, director of sales for Shuford Mills, based in Hickory, N.C., said Outdura Trio continues to make inroads in the canvas and fabrics industry, too.
“We were very happy with the results we saw in ’05 and we expect considerable growth this year,” said Jimison. “We expect to grow that business because we still have a fairly new product and we expect to capture market share that already exists, not from increased usage from boat builders (OEMs) or after-market dealers, but perhaps from others in this industry. Basically, we expect to bring in customers who might be using other products, other fabrics, by getting them to try our Outdura and Outdura Trio products.”
Jimison said, although it is still early in the process, the feedback Shuford is getting from the eventual user, i.e. the boat-owners, regarding the Outdura Trio has been totally positive.
“We’re very excited about it,” Jimison said. “It’s having a lot of growth among custom fabricators because of its performance characteristics such as its breathable, waterproof nature. There is no sagging, no bagging. Pull it taut and it holds its tautness that you might not see on other boat enclosures and tops. The underside, the brush trecoat, the customers really like that look, it’s more of an automotive look, which gives the boat a very, very finished look.”
Jimison said Shuford already has two OEM contracts and the Outdura Trio line soon will be in two new boat models.
Glen Raven’s Robinson said early returns on customer satisfaction with the Sunbrella Supreme product release also have been positive. Much of this feedback comes from in-person visits with people at four major boat shows on which Glen Raven concentrates: Seattle, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Annapolis.
“It’s been almost 12 months since we first introduced Sunbrella Supreme,” Robinson said. “But it takes a while to get new product down to the actual boater, the eventual owner. But so far, we’ve been getting excellent feedback from boaters and we’ve only been distributing almost a year now.
“It was a new concept for us, but because we put the Sunbrella name to it, which has been around since 1960, we thoroughly tested it for three, almost four years, before actually launching it. We wanted to be certain, ensure that the product would be perfect, so we tested it in Florida, Trinidad and Australia for a good three or four years.
“I think that shows the dedication we’re putting into a new product launch before we bring a new canvas to the market. We’re very happy with the product, not only from the performance, but also with the sales side of it, too. It’s been very well received.”
Niche Business Trend
Looking ahead to the rest of this year, Robinson said he felt Sunbrella would continue to dominate the marine business.
“The Supreme line is a niche business and we’re doing more and more of that as we go forward,” Robinson said. “The trend in this business is to introduce more niche products rather than a product line per se. You’ll definitely see us do more niche business introductions in the future.”
By the same token, Sunbrella continues to market its Sunbrella Plus line that debuted almost nine years ago, according to Robinson.
“But the Supreme line will not replace the Plus line,” Robinson said. “We’ll continue to market the Plus line, too.”
To that extent, Robinson and Mullis said Glen Raven’s Sunbrella division expects a good, solid year in 2006.
Mullis, for instance, said, “For sales, you could break it down to two different avenues: topping fabric and decorative fabric, not only below deck but above deck as well. If you look at those two specific markets, we’ve added five new colors in the last year and we definitely see sales in that market going very well, but also from an interior standpoint, many of our major distributors are carrying the decorative product line now, too.
“From the standpoint of the Sunbrella brand, we have seen considerable sales growth and we still see considerable potential from growth in both markets as well this year.”
But, as Robinson added, perhaps somewhat cautiously, “We are basically dependent upon the whole boating industry. Last year, with all of the rain in the spring, we still met expectations. This year, we expect to exceed our expectations.”
And, as far as 2006 is concerned, you can take that from those in the know.