BY GARY JAMES
New team includes industry veterans who are upgrading equipment, adding products
Recognizing that the bedding industry is in a challenging period of evolution with new players and business models disrupting long-established patterns of sales and distribution, Latexco Group, a global polyurethane and latex foam producer, bed fabricator and fulfillment provider, has taken steps in the past year to strengthen its competitive position in the key market of the United States.
The process started in November 2016, when Tielt, Belgium-based Latexco Group announced it had executed an agreement with Kalathi LLC, a Dalton, Georgia-based company owned by Beaulieu of America founder Carl Bouckaert, to purchase Kalathi’s equity ownership of Latexco U.S. Holdings LLC. Founded as a joint venture between Latexco and Kalathi, Latexco U.S. Holdings became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Latexco Group as a result of the deal.
At the same time, the Latexco Group announced it had hired Ben Ducatteeuw as chief executive officer of its U.S. operations, which include Latexco U.S. East, based at the company’s Lavonia, Georgia, manufacturing facility; and Latexco U.S. West, a conversion and distribution center in Santa Fe Springs, California. A 15-year veteran of the bedding industry, Ducatteeuw previously was with ticking supplier DesleeClama (now BekaertDeslee), where he was managing director of the DesleeClama Innovation Center in Zonnebeke, Belgium.
Along with Bob Carstens, a 25-year bedding veteran who has served as chief operating officer since 2016, Ducatteeuw is responsible for directing Latexco Group’s operations in the United States, which account for 25% of the company’s total sales worldwide.
After starting his new position with Latexco in January 2017, Ducatteeuw moved quickly to strengthen the management team. Within a month, he had named Jim Gutierrez general manager of Latexco U.S. West. Formerly president of Grun Komfort Sleep Products and vice president of sales for Boyd Specialty Sleep (now Boyd Sleep), Gutierrez reports to Ducatteeuw.
In September, Latexco U.S. Holdings made two other big hires: Brent Limer as chief sales officer and Andy Strickland as vice president of business development. Both are new positions for the company. Limer joined Latexco from Hickory Springs, where he served most recently as director of business development for the home furnishings division. Strickland joined Latexco from Carpenter Co., where he was national account sales manager.
Setting the stage for growth
“Our management team is totally new, but everyone who has joined us has a deep base of experience in bedding and foam,” Ducatteeuw says. “We are aiming to become much more customer focused. Customer service has been a shortcoming in the past, so we’re investing a lot of time and resources to make it even easier for our customers to do business with us.”
Since Ducatteeuw took the helm, Latexco U.S. also has made investments in production equipment and in its research-and-development process. On the production side, it has added automated machinery, including equipment for the fast-growing boxed-bed segment, to improve efficiencies and speed to market.
In R&D, Latexco has retained several key partners that are “helping our team with specific projects relating to the development of specialty PU foams,” Ducatteeuw says. “Our way of producing foam is so unique, with so much room for innovation, but we have never really used these capabilities fully in the past.”
In 2018, Latexco plans to begin producing a new latex line called Pulse at its Georgia facilities. Already available in Europe, Pulse latex is made using Latexco’s patented SonoCore process, in which the latex is endogenously vulcanized by using electromagnetic radio waves, resulting in what Ducatteeuw says are extremely durable products manufactured by using less energy.
“The SonoCore process gives Pulse latex a very homogenous cell structure,” Ducatteeuw says. “This technology, combined with a totally new latex formulation, results in a product with excellent ventilation, superb resilience, high tensile strength and even longer durability. It creates a unique, highly consistent feel for more restful, revitalizing sleep.”
Already, Latexco produces a wide range of polyurethane and Dunlop-process latex foams at its Georgia facilities. The products are divided into four main groups, based on material type and composition: Classic Latex, a blend of natural and synthetic latex; Natural Latex, made with genuine natural latex; Fom, a range of unique technical polyurethane foams; and Fusion, a line that combines latex and PU foams to create laminated materials and finished products for tailored comfort levels. Fusion includes complete mattresses and fulfillment.
For bedding manufacturers that want to personalize their mattresses, pillows or toppers through custom constructions, covers or other features, Latexco can produce foam to highly individualized specifications. “We have the equipment to be the most flexible supplier in the market,” Ducatteeuw says.
Founded in 1955 by Sylvain Maes, Latexco originally served both the furniture and bedding industries. In the 1980s, the company narrowed its focus to concentrate on manufacturing latex foam cores, pillows and toppers for bedding.
In 2011, Latexco developed the SonoCore process, introducing its Pulse latex in Belgium and other markets in Europe. Then, in 2013, it expanded its line to include polyurethane foams, establishing a U.S. production facility in Georgia followed by a similar unit in Tielt, Belgium, in 2016.
Latexco manufactures both TDI and MDI polyurethane foams, as well as closed foam formulas. In its production, the company uses a combination of gravity elimination and high-pressure injection technology to ensure that every inch of foam created has the same ﬂow and bounce. The resulting foam has a homogeneous cell structure and, consequently, uniform density throughout the block and over different production runs.
“We feed the chemicals through a top-down draping mechanism, letting gravity do most of the work,” Ducatteeuw says. “That way, the density of the material is uniform throughout, resulting in foam with more consistent release and recovery on every inch of the material.”
The process also allows a high level of adaptability and customization, which gives the company the ﬂexibility to create a wide range of foam types in small production runs. This nimbleness also enables Latexco to explore a multitude of comfort, support and breathability factors in its foams, including new additives. In addition to new applications of gel for cooling, Latexco is testing other materials, such as silver, which has anti-microbial properties; carbon, which has been shown to reduce static charge and absorb odors; and pumpkin seed oil, which is rich in tryptophan and is said to enhance sleep.
“Our unique production process provides an ideal platform for innovation and customization,” Limer says. “Pouring small batches of foam is no problem for us, so customers have the ability to try and test a wide variety of ideas before heading to market.”
Latexco encourages its customers to use its resources and expertise as a platform for innovation. “Our unique, made-to-order capabilities enable us to create specific programs for each of our partners,” Limer adds.
Creating a one-stop shop
In addition to its wide assortment of PU and latex foams, Latexco Group created a business unit in late 2017 called Latexco Springs that will produce and market a line of wrapped-coil cores in Europe. The venture is a partnership with Wolf Components Ltd. in Rotherham, England, a new company created by former executives of Steinhoff International Holdings and Leggett & Platt Inc. Wolf Components will market the pocketed coil products in England; Latexco Springs will market the line to the rest of Europe.
While there are no plans to introduce the springs in the United States, the project is a good example of how the Latexco Group is moving to position itself as a one-stop shop for its global customers, Ducatteeuw says.
“We are the only supplier that is producing both latex and PU foams for our customers,” he says. “This, combined with our fulfillment capabilities for boxed-bed products, creates the ideal platform for one-stop-shop service.”
And for U.S. customers who do business overseas, Latexco’s global production and distribution network provides additional advantages. “Customers can count on us to provide the same level of quality and service through our European, Asian and South American facilities,” Ducatteeuw says.
As for boxed beds, Ducatteeuw says this high-growth segment is quickly becoming a permanent niche in the industry. The emergence of dozens of new, nontraditional retailers has redefined the standards for delivery, time to market and even the product itself for much of the industry.
“We offer a full range of services for the boxed-bed market, from manufacturing complete mattresses to handling fulfillment of orders,” Limer says. “We even can ship products directly to consumers, if that’s what our customer wants.”
Ducatteeuw adds that Latexco has no intention of marketing its own line of boxed beds to consumers.
“Our goal is to make our customers’ lives easier by offering more of what they need from one central location,” Ducatteeuw says. “Latexco’s tagline, or mission, is ‘We Support Your Dreams,’ and that philosophy applies both to our customers, in terms of them being successful, and to their consumers, since we literally support their sleep.”
To make sure his entire U.S. team is on board with this mission, Ducatteeuw plans to introduce a training program this year called Latexco Academy.
“We’ve hired a lot of new talent, and we’re excited about our ability to deliver a higher level of customer value as a result,” he says. “Going forward, we’ll be identifying more ways to make it even easier for our partners to do business with us, and we’ll also be adopting new lean manufacturing methods in our quest for continuous improvement in all areas.”
Green inside and out: Latexco strives for sustainability
The Latexco Group, with global headquarters in Tielt, Belgium, long has been a leader in sustainable business practices. In 2000, for example, it established Latexco Solutions, a subsidiary charged with converting latex waste from the production process into new, useful products, such as pillows, sound absorption products, cow mats and packaging. Today, 4,000 tons of waste are reused each year.
The Latexco Group also has invested heavily in wastewater recycling technology, establishing a treatment facility at its plant in Tielt. Through an innovative technique, which has been recognized with several industry awards, all of the company’s wastewater is purified for reuse.
“Sustainability is one of the Latexco Group’s core values,” says Ben Ducatteeuw, chief executive officer of the company’s U.S. operations, Latexco U.S. Holdings. “In 2018, we’ll be undertaking a number of initiatives here at our U.S. facilities to reduce energy use and waste. We want to do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint, and we’ll also be looking for creative ways to help our customers be more sustainable, as well.”
To reduce its carbon footprint in terms of energy use, the company has invested in technologies like solar panels at its Belgium facilities. Remaining electricity that’s used but not generated internally is 100% certified green energy.
Latexco’s commitment to sustainability and green business practices extends to its products, many of which, like natural latex, are made with a sustainable natural material. Latexco’s latex products meet the euroLATEX ECO-Standard, which stipulates the maximum acceptable limits for harmful substances that can be found in latex mattress cores. The company also has been awarded the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 “free of harmful substances” label.