Future Focused: Expertise & Equipment Keeps a 145 Year Old Firm on the Cutting Edge.
By Emily Walzer, Textile Insight
It's easy to be misled by the building and the capabilities inside Bixby International.
Located in a quiet industrial park on the edge of marshland adjacent to the New England town of Newburyport, with wild turkeys, owls, and deer milling around the property, this fifth generation family business is in fact building a multi-million dollar lab filled with high performance equipment and led by a world class R&D team. A current wave of investment in machinery and workforce — including young talent keen on the deluxe espresso machine destined for the new employee cafeteria — shows off a quick turn prototyping space and a Gravure laminating machine — a rare find in the U.S. A belt laminator is due to arrive soon. Three extrusion lines run around the clock five days a week. The renovation and aggressive growth plans will provide support for Bixby’s latest venture: an innovative collection of functional fabrications for active apparel.
“We think there is a niche to fill in an area where we have expertise and the equipment. That is what the performance apparel market is looking for and not finding in the U.S. currently,” explains Dan Rocconi, president & CEO, Bixby International.
Founded 145 years ago in nearby Haverhill, MA, Bixby specialized in making heel counters and toe supports for footwear. So popular were these components they were commonly known as “Bixbys.” The company departed Haverhill as the footwear industry left the U.S., settling in Newburyport 30 years ago. Rather than chasing the shoe business, Bixby execs made the decision to combine assets and knowledge base and forge ahead into new markets, including industrial conveyor belts, solar panels, orthopedics, and dental. These days, footwear remains steady at eight percent of corporate revenue, with brand partners focused on domestic production of high-end styles.
Now Bixby looks to leverage its roots in engineering and plastics with the launch of BixWear. “The development side is very important,” says Rocconi, who joined Bixby from DuPont, from the plastic packaging industrial polymer side of the business. “We understand the resins, the plastics, at a very high-level – and the converting of those. We understand multi-layer lamination and have a lot of experience. And now we are taking that expertise with the idea of driving customization in apparel.”
Tunable TPU to Enhance Function & Fashion
Apparel is not brand new to Bixby, but the approach to BIXWEAR is. The market-facing unit is project oriented to create and supply new construction concepts using films and lamination to advance function and fashion in the activewear arena. “We bring our broad depth of chemistry in polymers and material science within the supply chain to offer performance stretch and recovery products with aesthetic value that is cost effective compared to other sewn products,” states Dennis Lauzon, chief revenue officer. “We think this meets the consumer appetite for something new, that can be achieved with a shorter supply chain here in the U.S.”
Bixby brought in Phyllis Freedman as global industry manager to help the company define the marketplace and drive BIXWEAR business. “We’re developing applications to improve stretch and recovery in new ways. For example, it could be an insert on the leg of a yoga pant to prevent bagging in the knees or in any area of apparel where you want a recovery feature,” says Freedman, a veteran of both the textile and apparel industries. “We call it placement compression.” A new concept that is breathable is currently in development.
Marc Gagnon, chief development officer, describes the advancement as no-sew, tunable, elastic plastic solutions that enhance functionality. He says, “This is thermo plastic because we want to use its elasticity and ability to bond fabric together, and replace stitching.”
Bixby can adjust thickness and custom design the product to suit specific needs whether that is for yoga pants, athletic wear, sport bras, etc. And by developing a thinner, yet stronger material, Bixby can go to market with a high quality, yet cost competitive USA-made technical product.
Obstacles & Opportunities
Bixby is about nine months into a three-year plan to unveil its Lab of the Future, as well build a new employee cafeteria and other amenities within its 100,000 square-foot facility. A corporate core value of speed, along with production flexibility and an atmosphere that promotes teamwork are other key element to drive growth going forward.
“We didn’t pick speed as a core value because we wanted to be faster. But we took a step back and looked at our DNA and our development capability to turn prototypes around very quickly,” Rocconi explains. “We would rather get four to five prototypes into customers’ hands quickly and get feedback versus spending months to get one perfect sample. We can hold time on an extrusion line to scale up quickly and further reduce lead time.”
Rocconi admits that finding talent is harder than in the past, and he feels fortunate that Bixby has been able to bring in top-notch people. Bixby’s employee base has increased from 55 to 75 people in recent years, with revenues on a similar trajectory.
“We’ve identified apparel as a market we need to grow in the future. We don’t want to get into a war with a commodity seller in Asia. We recognize that we have our niche and believe we can expand by bringing value with the functionality and innovation we offer,” Rocconi concludes. “That’s how we will survive another 140 years by staying on that cutting edge.”