BY DOROTHY WHITCOMB
Innovation, investment in technology and a focus on the mattress industry help DesleeClama stay one step ahead.
Eleven years ago, the owners of DesleeClama Textiles Group made a commitment to transform their company from a traditionally structured family-owned business to one that is professionally managed but owned by a foundation comprised of family members. If the distinction seems subtle, the results have been anything but.
Since that time, the Belgium-based supplier of woven and knitted fabrics has gone from producing all of its product in one factory in Belgium to having a global footprint that includes nine factories in eight countries. Sales have soared and company executives feel that DesleeClama is now well-positioned for even more dramatic growth.
Maurice Deslee founded the company in 1928; today, his grandson, Jos Deslee, and Hans Dewaele, who came to the family through marriage, now jointly run DesleeClama as co-CEOs. Deslee’s responsibilities include all internal functions, including production and finance, while Dewaele oversees sales and marketing.
“We worked very hard to look at best practices in family businesses throughout the world and became convinced that professionally run businesses can miss important long-term decisions, while businesses that are run entirely by family can be too emotional,” explains Jos Deslee. “In a professionally run family business you have the best of both worlds.”
Restructuring DesleeClama, the co-CEOs say, set the stage for other key changes that then triggered a decade of growth. Clearly defined goals were set, a strategy for reaching those goals was established and a commitment was made to foster a culture that valued the contributions of all employees.
The overarching goal at DesleeClama, key executives agree, is to create a company that is the world’s strongest provider of textiles to the mattress industry.
“In the past, we sold to other industries, but they were less than 10% (of our total annual sales),” says Deslee. “We chose to grow the mattress industry as our single core business, because it has been proven that companies that focus on a single core are more successful and profitable.”
The company reduced the risk of a downturn in sales in one part of the world by establishing manufacturing facilities in South Africa, Romania, Estonia, Indonesia, China, Brazil and the United States, in addition to its factory in Belgium. These facilities also allow easy reach to populations “where we know interest in the quality of sleep is rising,” Deslee says.
DesleeClama North America, located in Inman, S.C., was launched in 2002 to service all of North America. Its initial efforts brought respectable growth, but little real headway in the competitive American market, company officials say. That changed when Craig Dunlop assumed the presidency in August 2012.
Prior to joining DesleeClama, Dunlop spent 22 years at Sealy, including stints as president of Sealy Canada and Europe and senior vice president of Specialty Stores. Heading up DesleeClama North America, he says, allows him to leverage his experience and connections in support of the corporation’s goal of being the world’s top textile supplier to the bedding industry.
If opportunity drew him to the company, it was DesleeClama’s culture that cinched the deal.
“It comes down to the values of the company and how they treat people,” says Dunlop. “It’s about mutual respect and giving people an opportunity to contribute without (having to navigate) a huge hierarchy. DesleeClama puts us in an environment where we can be successful and then puts resources in place that allow us to achieve. The bottom line is not the only focus.”
Vice President of Finance Connie Valenti, who has been with the U.S. subsidiary since the doors first opened, concurs.
“Everyone in this organization, even if they sweep the floor, has an opportunity to contribute and is encouraged to make a difference,” she says. “No one watches the clock, even in the warehouse.”
Even so, company officials say, there was a sense of unfulfilled promise prior to Dunlop’s arrival. It’s a fact he finds hard to dispute.
“The appetite to take risks was missing before,” says Dunlop. “You have to believe in where you’re going and be willing to take a certain amount of risk, not knowing whether things will pay off or not. An investment has to be made up front or you can’t deliver on the promise.”
The investment in strategic transformation at DesleeClama North America has been substantial. To date, the company has invested more than $3.5 million to expand its workforce and upgrade its manufacturing capacity.
“We almost doubled our headcount last year,” Dunlop says. “The sales force increased by 40%, we added people in human resources and quality control, and we now have four designers, where there were none a year ago.”
An investment in new technology has allowed the company to increase its double-knit capacity by 85%. New 38- and 48-inch-wide Terrot circular knitting machines “give double the output and have greater product selection capabilities,” Chris Yockel, vice president of operations, explains. The machines are proprietary to DesleeClama for the next year and a half.
A third of the company’s 75,000-square-foot facility is devoted to manufacturing. To accommodate the new technology, Yockel reconfigured space, which improved efficiency and reduced waste.
“The changes increased our flexibility, which improved our turn time for customer samples and production orders,” he explains.
At present, the Inman facility, which runs 24 hours a day for six or more days a week, is devoted to manufacturing knitted goods. Woven goods, manufactured at other DesleeClama facilities, are stocked on site. To supplement its own knitted panels and borders, the company also stocks some spacer fabrics from other manufacturers.
Adding another knitting facility in Mexico or in the southwest U.S. is under consideration.
“And, if the market demands it and we need to weave, we have plenty of room for expansion on our 28-acre campus,” Yockel says. A warehouse in Montreal services Canadian manufacturers.
DesleeClama executives believe that their global footprint provides an important strategic advantage.
“We globalize our methods and training,” says Yockel. “Our U.S. workers receive exactly the same training as workers in other facilities. That means that mattress manufacturers, who work globally, can be confident that they get the exact same fabric and service wherever they are in the world.”
A new lab and design studio have also boosted customer confidence. The lab allows incoming yarn and fabric to be tested for color, whiteness, strength, pilling, snagging, abrasion and flammability prior to knitting. Then testing the final finished fabric gives customers confidence that they are receiving exactly what they ordered, Yockel says.
A new design studio and showroom allow manufacturers to work collaboratively with designers on site. The designers also travel with DesleeClama’s seven North American sales reps, bringing their knowledge of trends and fashion to the discussion and presentation of the company’s product lines.
“We want to offer full solutions to our customers,” says Eric Delaby, vice president of sales. “We’re known as an innovation company with a wide range of finishes and performance yarns, but we also want to reposition ourselves as a design company. Our designers are able to use our new iPad app to create custom simulations based on customer wants or needs. It takes away the grey area and allows everyone to move forward with a very small investment.”
DesleeClama North America currently sells through
out the United States and Canada and also provides support and supply for the Brazilian subsidiary in Central America and Mexico. Dunlop says that 50% of his company’s sales come from major manufacturers, while the balance is distributed between small and medium-size mattress makers.
“We sell ticking one yard at a time and our mission is to treat every customer, large or small, as if it’s the only one that we have,” Dunlop says.
Dunlop keeps a close eye on his customers, trying to make sure that their current needs are met and their future ones anticipated.
“The main needs in the industry right now are extremely stretchable, hugging fabrics and fabrics that (facilitate) airflow,” he says. “There is a huge demand for these fabrics in the specialty sleep area.”
DesleeClama offers a wide range of standard and performance fabrics. Two of the company’s most recent innovations, Sound Absorbing and Smart Cover, won the Intelligent Material & Design award at Interzum last year. Its Bed of The Future, a futuristic concept piece featuring several of the company’s performance fabrics and a range of connectivity features, also drew crowds.
DesleeClama’s Belgium-based Innovation and Design Center works to respond quickly to trends and to incorporate new technologies into innovative fabrics.
“We’re a very innovative company and it’s important to us to bring new designs and products to the market,” Dewaele says.
The company gives equal strategic weight to productivity, quality and world-class manufacturing.
“Management literature says that you have to choose between being innovative and a cost leader,” adds Dewaele. “That’s not so. We’re proving that we can combine both worlds.”
The company’s sales figures would seem to prove his point. In 2013, DesleeClama grew almost 15% in worldwide sales. Thirty percent of that total came from sales made by DesleeClama North America, double the subsidiary’s contribution from the year before.
“Not only do we have significant opportunity in the North American market, but our strong global position provides a springboard for growth around the world, and that is very exciting,” says Dunlop.
“Our goal is to virtually double our business by 2017,” says Dewaele. “If that’s possible with our current infrastructure, that will be good. If it’s necessary to add another factory, we’ll do whatever it takes.”
The company is counting on innovation to help fuel that growth.
“Five years ago, innovative products contributed 20% to our total annual sales,” explains Dewaele. “Now it’s closer to 40%. There is a conservative perspective in the mattress industry, but that’s changing. More and more people understand that innovation is driving business. We now have customers asking for first right of refusal or asking to preview new fabrics before important trade shows.”
This dovetails closely with Dunlop’s plans for DesleeClama North America.
“Separating ourselves (from other textile suppliers) is the big-picture goal that’s driving everything and that gives us the best chance to gain market share,” says Dunlop. “There are a lot more performance features out there than many manufacturers are taking advantage of. Our challenge is to find features that fit into their cost base. I want to build an organization that is not just a textile supplier, but a well-respected, professional organization that provides solutions for anything that has to do with a mattress.”
Deslee, Dewaele and Dunlop know that their goals are ambitious and that they will meet significant challenges along the way. Dunlop describes his competitors as “formidable” and Deslee and Dewaele fear complacency.
“It’s quite easy to set a challenging goal, but you have to motivate people to fight for that goal,” explains Dewaele. “Relaxing is the risk of success.”
When DesleeClama was designated last year as a Hidden Champion by VOKA, the Flemish Employers Organization, it gave the company’s leadership reason to believe that they were, in fact, on the right track.
Hidden Champions, a concept first put forward by American economist Theodore Levitt, are small, highly successful companies that have the potential for leading the market in their product area. They also, Levitt said, have an “inner flame to become, and to remain, number one.”
Deslee and Dewaele seem to know all about that inner flame. They say: “Celebrate the successes and then move on. You have to keep the fire burning.”