The scene: A bedroom in Houma, Louisiana.
The time: 2:30 a.m.
The phone rings.
A low, tired voice is at the other end of the line. “I’ve done it.”
What sounds like part of a mystery is, in fact, just that. But it’s a scientific mystery. Mooresville inventor Bob Crosier finally discovered how to make graphite into a high strength yarn, something that had evaded other inventors.
“Pop, do you have any idea of the time?”
“No,” comes the pointed answer, as if to ask, “There are clocks?”
“It’s 2:30 in the morning!”
“Great, now let me tell you how I did it…”
At the time, Bob’s son, Ward Crosier, lived in south Louisiana, making a living as a sales manager for a New Orleans-based electro-hydraulic company. “My dad had set up shop in his Mooresville garage. He was trying to create a new and special kind of graphite yarn. I was doubtful that he could succeed where others had failed, especially when he should have been planning his retirement.”
Slade built a name on a simple substance: graphite, or more specifically, “flexible expanded graphite.” What began on a long distance call at that early morning hour in May 1988 is now a multi-national market leader with a reputation as a hard-working problem-solver with 13 U.S. and E.U. patents.
Slade is the worldwide company that has stayed home. All of its manufacturing is local. All of its materials are created internally – no fabrication is purchased as an outsourced supply. And that is where “local” stops because Slade puts Mooresville on the map for firms as diverse as Michelin Rubber in France, Formosa Plastics in China, and International Paper here in the U. S. It’s an irony. “We’re more recognized halfway around the world than we are 30 miles from home,” says Ward Crosier.
Playing to Your Strengths
What Slade does with graphite is the key to the firm’s success. For years chemists knew that graphite has unique qualities, among them:
· Reducing resistance between moving surfaces
· Conforming to uneven surfaces
· Tolerating high heat
· Being corrosion-resistant
These are ideal qualities for a material to be used as “packing” to seal the stems of valves, the shafts of pumps, and the flanges of industrial piping connections. Packing is beneficial in sealing molecules of fluids and gases from escaping into the atmosphere, known as “fugitive emissions.” Unfortunately, flexible graphite has no inherent strength. Alone, it is not a strong sealing material so these benefits were never truly captured in manufacturing operations.
That was the essence of Bob’s red-eyed breakthrough in developing a graphite yarn that maintains the best characteristics of flexible graphite but vastly increases its strength. The key was to improve its “tensile strength,” so the flexible graphite wouldn’t easily break when braided. Bob had found a way to take a 99.26 percent pure flexible graphite and extrude it around several thousand tiny strands of high tensile carbon filaments. The result: the best characteristics of graphite and the strength of carbon fiber. The yarn is then square-braided into a rope-like substance (for packing) or woven (for gasket sheet) to form a chemical and heat resistant material that can vastly improve the environmental performance of manufacturing facilities.
Hard science had provided one breakthrough for Slade; the courts provided another. Historically, packing and gaskets often contained asbestos. “Industry litigation forced people to look for new alternatives,” says Ward Crosier. “Graphite had been overlooked as an alternative sealing agent. With asbestos use being reduced, a competitive niche was waiting to be tapped.” The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that more than 29 million pounds of asbestos were used in product manufacturing just in the U.S. as recently as 2001. Bob Crosier developed the product to fill the asbestos-to-graphite void in sealing and packing.
Industry need for a non-asbestos sealing agent was just the first chapter in Slade’s evolution as a smart environmental story. Also important was creating the right product at the right time, especially for the Carolinas.
A 2004 North Carolina Department of Natural Resources Report pointed out the need for businesses and industry to take advantage of opportunities to improve water use efficiency, thereby reducing water costs and allowing companies stay more competitive in the world economy. Slade’s products hit that conservation target.
“Because flexible graphite conducts heat well and reduces resistance between moving surfaces, it reduces frictional heat, so less water is needed to cool or ‘flush’ rotating equipment,” explains Greg Raty, Slade vice president.
Preventing “The Great Escape”
Fugitive emissions contribute to environmental problems. “Particles of chemicals can escape from valves, pumps and piping connections,” says Ward Crosier. “Slade packing has in many cases reduced emissions by as much as 95 percent. That means fewer chemicals that escape into the air – less pollution – or less wastewater to recapture or replace to cool plant machinery.” Slade packing has achieved better than the EPA standards in emission tests performed by companies such as Exxon, DuPont and Shell Oil.
Oil and chemical operations aren’t the only plants Slade serves. The pulp and paper industry, as well as power generation plants – fossil fuel and nuclear – are major end-users of Slade’s sealing products. One mid-Atlantic power facility that switched to Slade products realized several operational improvements: the rate of seal replacements decreased, seal replacement costs decreased, and valve stems, shafts and sleeves showed less wear. The reliability benefits were even more impressive considering that the plant would suffer $12,000 per minute in lost revenues per generating unit if not producing power.
“The environmental benefits of our materials make us especially proud,” says Bob Crosier. “We started out with the intent of making a high-quality packing material. Now we are recognized for how effectively our products reduce fugitive emissions and aid in water conservation.”
“There’s been increasing discussion in recent years about ‘corporate social responsibility,’” says Ward Crosier. “Being part of an operation that can reduce air pollution makes everyone in the Slade family feel environmentally involved, proud that we can improve the quality of life where our products are used.”
The Road to Singapore
Corporate citizenship at Slade has yet another angle. The breakthrough made in the Mooresville garage now has an economic development impact for the region. Slade’s product exports – all produced locally – were 60 percent of sales in 2004. Those exports represent money coming into the U.S., more particularly, money coming to the Piedmont.
Slade is a successful exporter because of its balanced approach to markets outside the U.S. According to Greg Sizemore, director of the Charlotte Export Assistance Center, “There are five P’s to successful exporting: product, place (distribution), promotion, price and people. Slade excels at each of these, particularly ‘people.’ Slade finds the right people to help them increase sales in the global market. They get face-to-face with potential distributors, tell the Slade story, and prove their value proposition.”
Local government initiatives are a guiding force in Slade’s exporting success. Raty uses the Charlotte Export Assistance Center to guide global market selection. The Center in Charlotte works with its global network of offices to set up meetings between Slade and prospective non-U.S. distributors. Before Raty and his colleagues even board a plane, most of the leg work to select prospective distributors in those markets has been handled by the U.S. Commercial Service. Slade arrives in their target market knowing that meetings are arranged and potential distributors are pre-qualified. “We can get down to business,” says Raty.
Along with making the right contacts, it is also critical to understand how the potential customers in new markets think. This was a key lesson for Slade: Don’t be wed to preconceptions about a market; adapt quickly to information to tap a new market.
Bob Crosier points out market difference: “We thought the demand for a high-performing product with extraordinary environmental qualities would only have a market in the U.S. The opposite has been true. We find that firms in other countries will look at a change in manufacturing as a way to proactively protect the environment. It’s seen as a deliberate choice, an option. We encounter some U.S. companies that are more engrossed in adhering to an environmental regulation as their priority.”
Home Grown Business
When Ward was awakened so early in the morning in 1988, he didn’t realize that it was a brand new day in more ways than one. It was the beginning of a North Carolina company that would grow to have sales in 45 countries. He remembers thinking to himself, “It’s kind of late in his career for my dad to change horses and start a brand new company. He’s 55 (in 1988) and it typically takes years to build a successful business.”
But start it, Bob did, using a couple of Ward’s hydraulic customers as early Slade guinea pigs. Ward came on full-time with Slade in 1992, becoming president in 1997. Raty joined the firm in 1997, using his extensive communications background to develop foreign markets.
Slade has thrice outgrown their office and manufacturing facilities, and once again, they are looking for more space. “Presently, we are utilizing about 12,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space,” says Ward Crosier. “We plan to be in a new facility, tripling that space, by the end of the year.”
They need the space since all operations are in-house. “We control all the quality ourselves, from making the yarn to braiding the packing and weaving the gasket sheet,” says Raty. “Our reputation is built on our quality.”
After introducing 18 successful products, entering 12 new countries in the past two years, and having had seven consecutive years of financial growth, what obstacles were the toughest to overcome?
First, an internal issue. Says Bob Crosier, “Establishing stability within the company in the early years was a challenge. We had to simultaneously mesh the development of our product and its marketing, two very different business needs.”
Second, an external issue. Says Ward Crosier, “We recognized there is a critical focus and analysis required to successfully enter foreign markets. While we have certain common benefits we can tout in our product, each market has to be viewed as a unique situation. We have to listen and learn everywhere we go to reach our target client in a meaningful way.”
What key challenges are ahead? Balancing a full plate of opportunities. According to Raty, “Continuing our move into new markets while supporting our established distribution network will take careful coordination since we personally visit all our distributors and continue to train them ourselves. At the same time we will develop new products and continue to answer requests for sealing solutions we routinely receive from throughout the world. These are continual challenges, but ones that we enjoy and help us develop.”
“It’s a big world,” says Ward Crosier. “Slade intends to boost efficiency and improve environmental performance for manufacturers across the globe, including firms in the Piedmont.
That sentiment is echoed by Raty: “We are better known on the Champs D’Elysees than in uptown Charlotte, yet we have been a part of the manufacturing community here for more than ten years. We may travel around the world, but we come home to the Carolinas. We want to serve companies here with our high quality products that currently serve companies overseas. It’s a team effort. We need to support each other to maintain the economic development of our region.”