By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Nov 29, 2016
Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins, Colorado
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Dimensional graphics
Coming out of his family's Missouri-based hat manufacturer, Abrams saw a big hole in the apparel-decorating market in the late 1970s. "We just saw a big gap between embroidery -- which is expensive and slow -- and screenprinting -- which is fast but has low-perceived value," he says.
Abrams subsequently came up with Lextra, a three-dimensional graphic, to fill the void. "We shoot yarn-dyed fabric into fabric with high-voltage electricity," he explains. "It's really a homegrown technology."
After starting the company in St. Louis, Abrams moved the company to Fort Collins in 1992. "Ever since I was a ski bum in Vail in the '60s, I always wanted to live in Colorado, but didn't have the bucks." Than accounts with Disney and other big clients financed the move, which entailed 22 trailers making the trip west.
Location aside, FiberLok never stops evolving. Along with Lextra, its proprietary products now include durable TackleKnit and metallic ChromaFlex. "We make dimensional graphics that can be put on any surface on the planet," says Abrams. Customers include the FBI, all 32 teams in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, Adidas, Pepsi, Ferrari, and Ford. "I think we're breaking ground all the time."
The patent portfolio keeps growing. "We've got 12 active patents," says Abrams, noting that the innovation is driven by demand. "Most of our customers have constantly wanted the newest version of our products."
The latest iteration of Lextra is Lextra 4D, patented in 2014. "It really takes it into four dimensions of graphic design -- pretty compelling stuff," says Abrams.
Able to withstand 100 washes, TackleKnit customers include Ecuador's national police, pro soccer teams, and manufacturers of yoga mats who use it for tags. "It's really doing laser printing on fancy fabrics," says Abrams. "I developed TackleKnit myself, and ChromaFlex literally dropped in over the transom."
FiberLok also makes a novel consumer product in the MouseRug, a mousepad modeled after classic rugs in museum collections. The company has licensed designs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and the British Museum in London.
Sales and staff has dropped slightly in recent years, says Abrams, "and we went up in margins, which is the hardest thing to do." The keys were "production tricks and reducing costs” along with the implementation of Lean processes in 2010, say Abrams, adding, "If you don't have a good feel for cash flow, you'll be buried."
Part of the reason for the dip in sales has been an inward focus. "The last 10 years, our biggest priority has been product development," says Abrams. "We hit the pause button on sales and marketing."
That's all changing as of 2016. FiberLok recently signed with a new marketing agency. "We're going to come out of the hole in the ground and tell people what we can do," says Abrams.
Not that FiberLok is going to turn R&D off as it flips the sales switch on. Abrams describes a vision to combine Lextra and ChromaFlex. "We've made a few samples and they're just stunning," he says.
While dimensional graphics are the company's forte, Abrams highlights another strong suit: "People say, 'You're a specialized manufacturer. What's your specialty?' I say, 'It's survival.'"
Challenges: "Continuity and succession," says Abrams. "I would like to think there would be a retirement plan coming up for me somewhere."
The graphic design element offers another challenge, but he says he likes the variety of the business as well. "Things come in every week that are different," says Abrams. "If we were making nuts and bolts, I'd go crazy."
Opportunities: Abrams calls ChromaFlex "a game changer," and says it's especially good for logos and designs that include machinery, which embroidery has a tough time depicting. "It just doesn't work," he explains. Chromaflex, conversely, can capture everything from Boeing aircraft to Wells Fargo stagecoaches in a metallic medium. "For the first time, we have the ability to replicate these products realistically."
Needs: "We have very low turnover and we don't have any debt," says Abrams. "What we need it high-growth cruising mode."
A longer-term need: an interested buyer. "I need a young guy who's wealthy and looking for something to do for the next 30 years," says Abrams.