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June 2007
Designer Ink
By Ellison Clary

     Remember the fashion-forward shirt with the three-dimensional design you bought at SouthPark Mall? The ink for that Abercrombie & Fitch garment was likely made in Pineville.

     What about that silky-looking T-shirt you found at Hollister in Carolina Place Mall? Chances are the ink that produced the eveningwear look comes from the same Charlotte suburb.

     Both garments and millions more are produced with inks made by a division of Rutland Holdings, which operates from headquarters on Rodney Street in Pineville Industrial Park.

     Rutland Holdings owns Rutland Plastic Technologies, Inc., the Union Ink Company and the Union Ink Company, United Kingdom. The successor to Rutland Plastics, founded by Sam Rutland in 1962, the company makes products as diverse as metal coatings for playground equipment and components for automotive filters.

But its real forte is developing the more than 1,000 textile inks that embellish shirts, jackets and pants with myriad colors and textures for urban styles fashions from companies such as Reebok, Nike and others.

      Dennis Gunson, chief executive of Rutland Holdings, is part of an ownership group that bought Rutland Plastic Technologies in 2004. At that time, the company was creating unique printing techniques using textured inks and had invented a process for ink that produces special effects on textiles.

     Besides a 3-D design, Rutland’s inks can produce a blister look, a faux leather image, a tone-on-tone effect, a design that appears “distressed” or old, and a glittery look, something that masquerades as liquid metal or a luminescent design. That burned out look of a T-shirt, athletic jersey, or jeans? Thank Rutland inks for that, too.

     “What’s really neat about us,” Gunson smiles, “is that this little company in Pineville is helping create what is purchased from ‘hip’ stores across the nation and, possibly, is influencing design trends in the fashion industry at-large.”

     Rutland works with the big brands such as Reebok and their apparel designers, who rely on the techniques Rutland develops. Here’s how it works: Young adults, athletic types and teens, who search out the most fashion-forward looks, flock to garments with these special ink treatments. So makers such as Reebok and Nike specify that printers produce such effects on the fabrics they send them.

     The brands send their designs to printer’s agents around the globe. Each agent assigns jobs to one of a dozen or more printers it works with. The printer gets the necessary specialty ink, or if a small operation, the printer calls a regional distributor to get the necessary specialty ink. And more often, these printers and distributors are contacting Rutland.

 

When a Fad is Not a Fad

     “We actually sell the concept to the folks that are doing the designing,” Gunson says. “Our customer is the dealer, in terms of the financial transaction. But the real customer, the guy that drives what we do, is the big brand.”

     For fresh ideas, Rutland employees frequent artsy shops in cities such as Shanghai, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York to spot what these innovators are doing with one- or two-of-a-kind, handmade garments. They bring their finds back to the 85,000-square-foot Rutland facility in Pineville.

     Then, people under the leadership of Bill Dominick, executive vice president of technology, and Tony Chapman, director of technology service and support, develop the inks and the processes that make it possible to mass-produce a design that once was unique. Dominick, who has been with Rutland 29 years, was hired by its founder. With a wry grin, he remembers what Sam Rutland told him when he signed on. “This automotive business is solid and the industrial business is solid,” Sam Rutland said. “This ink thing is a fad. Who’s going to want a number or a name or a picture on a shirt? This thing’s got three to five years.”

     Much later, Dominick recalls, “Sam told me, ‘I guessed wrong.’”

Early in the process of developing textile inks, the Rutland ink business was doing a modest couple of million dollars in annual sales, mainly to mom-n-pop screen printers in North Carolina. Now, it makes up a large percentage of the nearly $75 million revenue the private company will realize in 2007.

     “A number of things have promoted that,” Dominick says. “Equipment has improved, screens have improved, artwork has improved, computers came in and drove the ability to separate colors and do exotic art work. It really did mushroom.”

Chapman is a 26-year veteran of Rutland. He remembers the early days in inks. ”We were printing block letters on T-shirts—and not doing a very good job of that,” he says.

 

Trashing Fashion

     As Rutland improved its ink capabilities, Chapman remembers when a representative of Ecko Unlimited—another producer of hip threads—visited the Pineville plant and asked to see what Rutland deemed mistakes. “‘I want to see what you throw in the trash,’ he told me.”

      The trash happened to hold some fabrics with multiple layers of ink. The Echo rep liked the look. “That was the beginning of textured inks,” Chapman says.

     For his part, Gunson, 51, hadn’t thought of working in an inks business, although “for laughs” he took a screen printing course during his senior year at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He was nearing his degree in Plastics Engineering.

      He fashioned a career with corporate giants Dow Chemical and BFGoodrich, presiding over lines of business that took him from Plaquemine, La., to Cleveland, Ohio, and placed him in offices in both Belgium and France. Along the way, he earned a certificate of special studies in advanced administration and management from Harvard University.

     Following that, he served as president and chief executive of Atlantic Extrusions, presiding over the Massachusetts-based netting and custom extrusions manufacturer. He eventually oversaw the sale of the business to a group of strategic buyers, and that’s when he and several board members got interested in Rutland Plastic Technologies.

Gunson and his crew enlisted help from “a very large financial institution” and bought the company in 2004 from Canterbury Partners, the last of a series of private equity firms which had owned Rutland.

     The Rutland family had sold the business to the Dexter Corporation in 1986, shortly after building the current facility in Pineville. Dexter sold Rutland to a private equity firm and it passed through several more buyers before Canterbury.

Gunson’s group soon adjusted ownership to include some Rutland executives and Gunson took over as chief executive and executive vice chairman in early 2006. He brought with him a series of changes.

     “The leaders before me teed this company up beautifully for the right guy to come in and leverage its technology and market position and really grow it, “ Gunson says “We’ve done several things to make that happen.

“I’m privileged to bring a bit of leadership, distribution savvy, marketing know-how and experience in positioning brands to drive growth,” he adds. “I know how to put a global footprint in place.”

     Early on, Gunson and the board decided Rutland needed a distribution arm, so in 2005 it completed the purchase of one of its larger distributors, IPT Technologies, based in a Miami suburb. Then Rutland opened a warehouse and distribution center in Columbus, Ohio, and another in Pineville. That put the company in the distribution business, selling ink, supplies and other consumables to the screen printing industry.

Next, Rutland looked for ways of complementing its product line, targeting several potential acquisition candidates, all competitors. In 2006, it bought the Union Ink    Company of Richfield, N.J., which brought with it a small manufacturing presence in Paddock Wood, England, and licensees in South Africa and Argentina. Rutland already had a token distribution center in Leicester, England.

     “So we’re now beginning to establish that global footprint,” Gunson says proudly.

Rutland Holdings was created as the umbrella organization for Rutland Plastic Technologies, Union Ink Company and Union Ink Company, United Kingdom. Currently, 111 of Rutland’s 180 employees work in its two Pineville facilities.

 

Future Inks Growth

     Gunson has a clear view of Rutland’s future but with a modest adage to planning, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans.”

Rutland now has a stable business platform, with its industrial coatings, automotive, distribution and inks businesses and it continues to look for expansion opportunities. Gunson believes the company’s organic growth will continue at a rate of 10 percent to 20 percent a year. More acquisitions are a distinct possibility–perhaps a joint venture in China and a licensee in Brazil.

     “We will have a global presence,” Gunson vows, “We will be the most well recognized brand of ink for the purposes of embellishing a garment at all the major brands worldwide.”

     “Our goal is to have designers all over the world exposed or trained on our technology and Union and Rutland inks, “ he continues. “They’ll be designing with many of the techniques in Rutland’s portfolio.

     Cheri Hancock and Scott Mon, global market managers for business specifications, will in large part be responsible for making that happen. Hancock and Mon spend huge chunks of time in travels to places such as China, Southeast Asia, India, Brazil and Peru. They help the big brands ensure that their contract printers are using the proper specifications with the Rutland inks.

     Hancock collaborates with big brand designers on what Rutland can make happen. “I tell the designers I work with, ‘Your imagination is your only limit,’” she says. Indeed, Rutland recently adopted the likeness of a big green chameleon to grace its logo. Mon calls that image appropriate. “Fashions change overnight,” he says. “And we can, too.” Closer to home, Gunson is emphatic that Rutland headquarters will remain in Pineville. He, wife Lois and daughter Paige, 15, enjoy living in southeast Charlotte.

     Periodically, Gunson and Paige shop together and she gives him advice on what garment designs are viable. “‘This is hot, and this is pretty good, and dad, don’t buy this one…ever,’ she tells me as we browse in stores,” Gunson says.

 

Keeping It Green

     Gunson and operations head Davis also put a premium on environmental issues and a Rutland environmental policy hangs prominently in the firm’s reception room.

     “We try to consume just about everything,” Davis says. “You’ll find no drains, no effluent on the floor. If we make ink and it doesn’t turn out to be the right ink, we may use it in another ink product or in one of our many industrial applications. If that doesn’t work, we may move it to an automotive application.” The small amount of waste that Rutland sends to a landfill is non-toxic, he adds.

     Rutland also encourages its employees to give back to the greater Charlotte community and leads by example as the company recently organized and sponsored a successful blood drive for the Community Blood Bank, including a couple dozen other companies located in Pineville Industrial Park.

     Rutland recently joined the Charlotte Chamber. “We’re trying to identify the areas in which we may be able to contribute to the business community,” Gunson says. “Helping leaders of young companies with international business expansion along with branding, strategic positioning, restructuring, and marketing may be one possibility.”

     Meanwhile, Gunson tries hard to nurture and build on the entrepreneurial spirit of           Rutland, even as it approaches $100 million in sales. In his office, there are two life-size mannequins sporting the newest print technique, design and trade magazines dog-eared and stacked, and Chemical Brothers and Citizen Cope playing in the background.

     “It’s pretty cool that a design concept out of our shop here in little Pineville, works its way over to Honduras, Turkey or China, and ends up as merchandise at SouthPark Mall,” Gunson muses.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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