Gore-Tex style Success: W. L. Gore & Associates uses a unique management method to keep its company and fabric-laminate business thriving.

April 20, 1997|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF

Bullets of water pelt down, gusts of wind whip and tear from all sides. This is a gale in the open ocean, a monsoon, a raging hurricane the likes of which are seen, well, several times a day.

This is the rain room at the W. L. Gore & Associates facility near Elkton in Cecil County, where Gore-Tex parkas and pants earn their labels and super-serious product testing meets marketing genius, head on.

"If it doesn't say Gore-Tex, it's not," the company's recent advertising campaign proclaims.

Behind that slogan are rigorous standards and years of product development, as well as the tacit acknowledgment that even as Gore commands 90 percent of the market for waterproof, breathable fabrics, competitors are appearing on the horizon.

"There are up-and-coming companies who are going to go head-to-head with Gore-Tex," says Amy Holmes, a merchandising manager for Hudson Trail Outfitters. "But the hardest thing will be getting the customer to understand that there is something else out there. People ask for the label and they don't even know what Gore-Tex is. They just know they want it."

The Gore-Tex label, affixed to high-end outdoor clothing from North Face, Timberland and L. L. Bean -- long-respected by serious sporting enthusiasts -- has become so hip on the streets of urban America as to rate mention in a rap song.

"It's one thing to be used in an Antarctic expedition, and it's another thing to be popular in the 'hood," says Arthur "Burt" Chase, a senior Gore associate. "There is a performance side to Gore-Tex and a fashion side, and both are great."

How polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, the same substance used to coat military bombs and frying pans, was transformed into a top-selling fabric laminate for pricey outdoor clothing is not just the story of the ingenuity and persistence of a former DuPont scientist and his family. It is also a study in marketing and merchandising genius and uncompromising product control.

The year was 1969 and the small, family-owned W. L. Gore & Associates was looking for ways to expand its business of making a Teflon-coated electrical wire.

Robert Gore, son of the company's founder and now president, was trying to stretch Teflon rods to create a thinner plumbers' tape to mold around pipe joints. Each time he pulled the material, however, it broke.

Frustrated, Gore donned mits, plunged his hands directly into an oven where the stuff was baking, grasped a piping-hot rod and gave it a mighty yank.

Eureka! It stretched, and in that instant, Gore-Tex was born.

Wide-ranging uses

From the effort to make an ordinary plumbing supply ultimately had come one of the glamour materials of modern time -- a waterproof, breathable film that is used in everything from space suits and parkas to vascular grafts and computer circuit boards.

The morning after Robert Gore discovered that PTFE would stretch, Sally Gore, his wife and a senior company associate, recalls, "everybody was reaching into the ovens and trying it for themselves."

Today, few of the company's associates are allowed to see Gore-Tex being made in the company's plants near Elkton.

"That's super- secret," says Lisa Wyre, a former 16-year associate who now represents the company with a public relations firm. "It's on a strictly need-to-know basis."

The Newark, Del.-based company is almost obsessively guarded, giving outsiders only brief glimpses of what by all accounts is a unique -- and apparently successful -- corporate culture. Robert Gore rarely talks to the press and was unavailable for an interview.

Despite annual revenues of more than $1 billion, the privately held W. L. Gore is off Wall Street's radar screens. Even investment analysts who follow E. I. Du Pont de Nemours, which discovered the PTFE on which Gore's business is built, seem unaware of the company. In Maryland, Gore is a major employer in Cecil County, where it operates 12 facilities (a 13th is soon to open) and provides at least 1,000 of the area's estimated 1,900 manufacturing jobs.

Gore-Tex and its newer fabric laminates, Activent and Windstopper, are the best-known of the company's products and the greatest revenue generators. However, the company also makes a variety of electrical, industrial and medical products, ranging from insulators for computer circuit boards to medical vascular grafts. A few years ago, Gore introduced Glide dental floss and recently began test-marketing guitar strings.

Private, forever

The company employs 6,000 at plants in the United States and abroad. Nevertheless, the company, owned by members of the Gore family and its employees or "associates," will never go public, senior associates say.

Gore has also maintained rigid control over the use of its products. That control, merchandisers and retailers say, has propelled Gore fabrics to best-selling status.

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