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Findlay Industries Inc. has purchased the door panel business of EMPE Autoteile GmbH of Geretsried, Germany, to give the interior trim supplier a major thrust into the European automotive market with six new plants.

The transaction, which has been completed for an undisclosed price, merges two companies that make similar soft-trim door components using natural fibers compounded with thermoplastic materials.

EMPE, a European automotive interior supplier, had been rumored for several months to be seeking a buyer for its door panel business.

With the transaction, Findlay, based in Findlay, Ohio, takes ownership of the central office and manufacturing plant of EMPE's door group in Geretsried, as well as plants in Ebersdorf, Wackersdorf and Nordhalben, Germany. The acquisition also includes EMPE's Espana SA plant in Zaragoza, Spain, and a plant in Barcelona, Spain. In addition, a future plant that EMPE planned to build in England is part of the package.

Neither Findlay nor EMPE sources were available to disclose plant size, processes or equipment. The door panels are compression molded at each EMPE plant, said a Findlay official who did not want to be identified.

Findlay Chairman Philip Gardner stated in a news release that the company decided to expand operations into Europe quickly to meet the demands of carmakers doing business there.

In March, Findlay opened a 70,000-square-foot plant in Tomaszów Mazowiecka, Poland, to make modular door and quarter-trim panels for Saab 900 hatchbacks and convertibles and a new Opel model sold in Europe by General Motors Corp. Both Saab Automobile AB and GM have plants in Poland.

One of EMPE's main customers is BMW, according to industry sources. The company also makes door trim panels for Audi, Peugeot-Citroën, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.

Both EMPE and Findlay use natural fibers that can be compounded with polypropylene to make lightweight, composite door panels. Findlay recently introduced a new natural-fiber substrate material called LoPreFin that can be bonded with a fabric cover skin in a single operation to create a door panel. The firm is using the material in its Polish plant.

With the acquisition, Findlay now operates 26 plants worldwide. The privately held company, which recorded 1996 sales of $500 million, also makes such automotive interior components as seats, headliners, parcel shelves and sleeper cabs.

According to published reports, EMPE recorded sales of about $360 million in 1994. No recent figures were available, nor were sales provided for the company's door panel subsidiary.