Most companies, like people, resist change. But for Cranston, Rhode Island yarn manufacturer Metlon Corporation, change, and the company’s ability to adapt to shifting trends, has become something to embrace. Over the years, Melton has found ways to thrive in a sometimes turbulent industry, creating new opportunities for itself along the way.
“You’ve got to be willing to make changes and make changes quickly today in order to get new business and keep the business,” says Metlon’s Executive Vice President, Wayne Etchells.
Metlon has been adapting to the times since the company was founded in 1947. The custom slitting and reflective material manufacturer and distributor has been forced to think and rethink its offerings in order to survive in an ever-changing economy. In the days of disco, metallic yarnthrived in the textile markets, but its popularity has since waned. While still used in band and cheerleading outfits, American metallic yarn makers have been squeezed out of the business, primarily by China. Metlon still produces metallic yarns, but that only makes up about 5 percent of annual earnings.
To remain viable and grow, Metlon has refocused or “converted” to contract slitting. Now, as specialists in custom slitting to extremely narrow widths (down to .008") and to very close tolerances (Plus/Minus .001") - which is thinner than a human hair- Metlon has carved its niche. “We feel we are slitting as narrow as, or narrower than anyone else in the industry in the United States today, says Etchells. “We also have the ability to slit very accurately, and that’s what really gives us our edge.” The contract custom slitting makes up the majority of Metlon’s annual profits.
The fact that Metlon’s machinery is ultra customized sets them apart from others in this specialty market. From the beginning, Metlon has manufactured their equipment in-house, reducing costs and driving away would-be competitors.
In recent years, they have also found a growth opportunity in the safety apparel market. Currently, Metlon is one of only a few distributors and manufacturers of nighttime safety yarn in the country and even the world. “Only three U.S. companies can make reflective yarn the way we do, but two do not have the cutting technology that is up to our standards,” notes Etchells.
Metlon micro-slits 3M’s Scotchlite reflective transfer film to form narrow retro-reflective yarn the company calls Retroglo. Retroglo has 50,000 minute square beads to a square inch, reflecting light back to the source, an important consideration for the millions of nighttime safety workers. “A driver of a car will immediately see the wearer,” says Etchells.
Of course, reflective garments have been around for decades. But converting the materials into a thread is a process that has proven advantageous for several reasons. First, garments have a better daytime appearance, yet still maintain their safety qualities. “The procedure does not take away from corporate appearance, an important fact in our image-conscious world,” notes Etchells. “Retroglo appears silver by day but white by night, allowing for maximum brightness.” Garments also launder better when reflective materials are part of the fabric rather than applied to the surface.
The biggest advantage, however, has undoubtedly been to the company’s bottom line. Since being named a One Star Authorized Distributor of 3M Scotchlite Reflective Material, Metlon has seen the uniform side of its business take off. “The relationship has really helped us grow our uniform business, and it’s an area where we see enormous possibilities,” says Etchells. Current end uses for Retroglo include public safety professionals, airline technicians and highway workers -- any industry where visibility is important. Because of its aesthetic appeal, the yarn is also popular in sports and active wear, and is used by labels such as DKNY, L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer. Metlon also sees the lucrative children’s wear market as a potential opportunity.
Public perception, too, has influenced sales. “There is an increasing awareness out there surrounding the need for and importance, of, nighttime visibility, and this has certainly helped us,” says Etchells. So, too, has the growing acceptance of Ansi 107, the voluntary standard that provides consistent, authoritative guidelines for the selection and use of high-visibility apparel in the United States.
While the American uniform industry has struggled to tap global markets, Metlon, with 20 employees, has managed to become a big exporter of nighttime safety yarn to Europe, South America, and Asia, making it somewhat of an anomaly. “China does produce a similar product, but it is not as bright as ours, and therefore not as desirable,” says Etchells.
But times can quickly change, and Metlon knows that it may have to reinvent itself yet again. Based on its history, the company appears up to the task. “The ability to make changes to our equipment and address the needs of our customers has been what has kept us going all these years, and will keep us going for some time to come,“ notes Etchells.