Don't tell anyone at Flexsol Packaging Corp. that the film industry is stagnant or that there is too much capacity in North America to support growth.
A recent visit to Flexsol's Nashville plant - a specialty film operation where the company develops and produces many of its newer coextruded products - belied any downward industry trends. All 11 blown film lines were operating. The 11th, a five-layer line from Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corp., had been installed earlier in the year.
And the company was finishing the installation of Line 12, a three-layer machine set to start production by October. That line is costing Flexsol about $4 million.
Down the road in Statesville, N.C., Flexsol had just put the finishing touches on a 30,000-square-foot plant expansion and the addition of two high-end monolayer lines. The price tag for that expansion: another $3.5 million.
Times are heady at Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Flexsol Packaging, even though company officials were concerned about damage from the third of a recent spate of hurricanes hitting Florida.
But a hurricane could not blow away the company's taste for even more expansion. Chief Executive Officer Brian Stevenson said he is searching for another acquisition to take Flexsol to new regions in North America. A purchase of a plant near the West Coast will fill some holes in the company's geographic reach, he said.
``No question about it,'' he said on Sept. 9. ``We can take on a bigger chunk [of business] if it's the right fit. A good add-on would be in coextrusion or high-end or converter film. We're in a pretty good position to address an add-on.''
Meanwhile, if the acquisition feelers do not bear fruit, he also is talking about adding at least two more multilayer film lines in Nashville next year.
Few film companies currently carry the same, lofty ambitions. Even more surprising, Flexsol is a fairly new addition itself as a film producer. In 1999, Delta Plastics Corp. and Essex Plastics Inc. joined together to create Flexsol Holding Corp., which became Flexsol Packaging.
Essex already was based in Pompano Beach, where it was founded in 1969 to make bags and film. Delta belonged to film-extrusion giant Sigma Plastics Group of Lyndhurst, N.J. Sigma maintains a relationship with Flexsol and has an ownership share. Charlotte, N.C.-based Banc of America Capital Investors is the company's majority shareholder.
Stevenson is a former executive with Schaumburg, Ill.-based Pliant Corp., then called Huntsman Packaging Corp. He and his team, including other officials formerly with Huntsman, have taken an aggressive approach to growth.
In Nashville, that has included a total overhaul of a longtime facility that once was owned by Werthen Bags and then bought by Essex in 1992. After Flexsol started on Jan. 1, 2001, the company immediately added about 100,000 square feet to a small plant that had only made monolayer bags.
Now, the 129,500-square-foot plant has a mix of monolayer and coextrusion lines. It still has room for six to eight more lines.
The company has launched a number of value-added applications for polyethylene bags and film. Among them are custom food wraps, such as a multiwall bag that can hold cookies or crackers inside layers of nylon or other material that resists punctures and tears. The firm makes industrial film for dunnage, courier bags, meat and poultry bags, masking-tape films, and some agricultural films that use a proprietary process hidden in one corner of the plant.
``We're trying to do things a little differently there,'' said Chief Operating Officer Ed Stranberg, without revealing too much information about the agricultural application. ``We have a licensing agreement with a film extruder in Australia and have a joint venture on a proprietary process.''
Equipment includes trimless rolls that offer exacting tolerances, the latest in automated controls and laser core alignment, said Nashville plant manager Bobby Winterbottom.
The lasers can line up with the film evenly before it is cut. The older, monolayer equipment has special winders that allow the film to be converted easily by Flexsol's customers, Stranberg said.
``The equipment is as versatile as we can possibly get,'' he said.
The machines, from both Windmoeller & Hoelscher and Battenfeld Gloucester, have wide extruders that top out at 110 inches.
The Statesville plant was purchased last year from Eclipse Packaging Inc. The expansion there, completed earlier this year, nearly doubled the plant's size to 70,000 square feet, Stranberg said. The existing two lines were running at 50 percent capacity when Flexsol took over, he said.
The company added two more monolayer lines, and the plant is running at near capacity. The site has space to add at least four more machines, he said.
And at the company's headquarters plant in Pompano Beach, six new extrusion lines have been added in less than four years, according to Stevenson. That plant is primarily devoted to monolayer film, a core business for Flexsol that helps support the growth in the value-added lines, he said.
Altogether, the company has invested about $30 million in equipment and building expansions since its formation, Stevenson said.
This year, sales are expected to top $230 million, more than 16 percent above 2003 sales, he added.
But the company plans to grow much larger than that.
A film extruder must be of a certain stature to negotiate effectively on resin prices, Stevenson said.
With those prices continuing to rise, a small or medium-size player will have difficulty buying materials at an affordable rate, he said.
``There are a lot of reasons to be large,'' he said. ``You're dealing with big guys on both ends, with resin suppliers and customers. It's tough to survive as a small guy.''